Over the past five years, the Hernando County Commission has allowed falling property values to shrink tax revenues.
Commissioners have managed to balance their budget each year using attrition, layoffs, community takeovers of public facilities, fees, consolidation and service reductions.
On Tuesday, three of the county's five constitutional officers warned of dire consequences if commissioners don't do something to reverse that trend.
Budget manager George Zoettlein explained to commissioners that, after county departments and constitutional officers pay for services they are mandated to provide, the commission will have to cut $6.3 million of the $7.5 million that remains in the 2012-13 budget for discretionary spending.
Those discretionary dollars pay for parks, recreation and libraries, the county functions Zoettlein referred to as "culture and recreation."
"We're at bare bones,'' he told them, "and some of the bones have been cut into already.''
The constitutional officers stepped to the podium and urged the commission to raise the tax rate and "show some leadership,'' as Juanita Sikes, the retiring tax collector, put it.
Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai echoed the sentiment. As the county's chief financial officer and auditor, Nicolai said the cuts that have taken place have caused problems because many employees are now wearing multiple hats.
She said her office is "busier than ever" on issues related to the county's shrinking staff. Her audit department is currently wrapping up an extensive inquiry regarding alleged wrongdoing at Animal Services. Nicolai, who is also retiring, said there have also been issues of fraud to investigate. The cuts, she said, "are to the point of real detriment to the county.''
She also expressed her ongoing concern that the county's bond rating has declined because the government has been unwilling to raise the tax rate to stabilize revenue levels.
Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek, who tried to persuade the commission to set a higher tax rate last year, had new ammunition on Tuesday.
He outlined for commissioners a batch of tax-cutting amendments voters will consider on the November ballot, predicting they will likely pass since they are designed to cut taxes. If those measures are approved - and if tax reductions from sinkhole claims continue and property values continue to fall, as he predicts they will - the county could be starting its planning for the 2013-14 budget year already $3.2 million in the hole, he said.
"You must increase the millage because you have got to take care of this county and the people in this county,'' Mazourek said.
Sikes complained that the county has been so busy trying to hold the line while everything else was going up in cost that it lost sight of the loss to county services.
"This is the time to take a stand and do what's right, not what's politically correct,'' Sikes said, referring to the fact that three seats on the commission are on the ballot in November and two commissioners face challengers in their re-election bids.
The county's two other constitutional officers - Sheriff Al Nienhuis and Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams - were present at Tuesday's meeting, but did not speak.
Zoettlein told commissioners that if they approve what is known as the "rollback rate," they could raise the same amount of property tax revenue as last year and that most people would still not see an increase in their tax bill because property values are falling.
Even if the commission approved that rate, the county would still have to find another $3.09 million in cuts, he said. To make up the entire $6.3 million shortfall, the commission would have to increase the tax rate by approximately nine-tenths of a mill, he said.
That millage rate would amount to 90 cents in tax for every $1,000 of appraised taxable property value. The owner of a $150,000 house with a full $50,000 homestead exemption would pay an additional $90 if the home's value did not change.
Commissioners were not ready to talk about any type of increase in the property tax rate Tuesday, instead asking for a special budget meeting next Tuesday to consider their options.
They requested additional financial information from the county staff, including details about how the two county utility facilities in Brooksville could be consolidated, a list of county properties available to sell, and a detailed update regarding several other cost-cutting measures the county has been exploring.
Commissioner Dave Russell said that, whatever the county does, it must use recurring funds to pay for operating expenses and not dip into the county's reserves any further. But he also said he was concerned about Mazourek's predictions about next year and the county's limited options.
"This board has a lot of soul searching to do between now and next week,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.
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In other business
The Hernando County Commission on Tuesday:
- Approved a $282,346 task order for Cardno TBE, the county's consultant on the cleanup at the old Department of Public Works and fleet site in south Brooksville. The firm will design the specifications and coordinate the long-awaited cleanup of the contaminated site. The work includes testing the water and soil, using chemical agents to treat pollutants, capping the site and hauling off dirt and replacing it with clean fill. Work is expected to conclude in 2015, after final tests are taken.
- Heard Russell Wetherington, the county's chief procurement officer, report that the county staff is continuing to look into the idea of privatizing Animal Services. Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes had suggested the idea recently after Sheriff Al Nienhuis offered to take over the county's animal officers. Wetherington said there were some legal and union issues to work through and then he would decide how the county might solicit proposals from private interests. "It's just fact-finding,'' Dukes said. The commission hasn't decided what to do yet, he said.