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Hernando County commissioners spent about three hours Thursday evening grappling with their 2010 spending plan, finally settling on a tentative budget and tax rate, but leaving the door open to further cuts at the final hearing Sept. 24.

Commissioners set a tentative countywide tax rate of 6.3431 mills - the same as the past two years - a rate that amounts to $6.34 in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value for core county services. In a 4-1 vote, they approved a tentative budget of $356.2 million, which includes nearly $115 million in the general fund.

The vote was the culmination of months of debate on how to make up for a $10 million shortfall in the general fund.

Several residents sought a decrease in the tax rate, criticized various segments of county spending and suggested slashing county employee benefits to help the struggling local residents.

"The people of Hernando County are losing their jobs, losing their homes," said Linda Hayward, president of the Hernando County Taxpayers Alliance. "It's horrible. Horrible."

But it was the sheriff's budget that got the most attention during the debate Thursday. Sheriff Richard Nugent and county officials have gone back and forth for weeks on Nugent's proposed $33 million budget.

At one point Thursday, there was a sharp exchange between Nugent and Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who was pushing the sheriff to agree to a budget figure equal to the current year. Board Chairman David Russell had to break in and tell them he wouldn't permit the discussion to continue.

Ultimately, the sheriff and the commission compromised, giving Nugent $350,000 more than he spent this year.

Stabins ended up being the only commissioner voting against the tentative budget. He was unsuccessful in persuading any of the other four to take additional savings approved during Thursday's discussion and avoid planned employee furloughs and layoffs.

At the end of the hearing, Commissioner James Adkins urged the commission to hunt for several million dollars in additional cuts over the next two weeks so the 2010 tax rate could be reduced by a quarter-mill.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at