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  1. Hernando

Hernando County budget solutions may include tax increases and pay freezes

County commissioners get a head start on budget talks in light of $10 million shortfall.
The Hernando County Government Center in downtown Brooksville.
Published Feb. 19

BROOKSVILLE — Facing a $10 million budget hole and the possibility of having to borrow money this year, Hernando County commissioners floated cost-saving and money-making ideas at last week's meeting, getting an early start on their 2020 spending plan.

Tax increases are on the table, however tentatively.

It might be time to ask residents again to raise the sales tax for specific county projects, Commissioner John Allocco said. After several tries, it worked for the school district. And if that doesn't fly, he said, commissioners should consider a property tax increase.

The .1 mill property tax break commissioners approved two years ago might need to be repealed, said commission Chairman Jeff Holcomb. That small decrease — 10 cents in savings per $1,000 in appraised taxable property value — was offset the same year by a .5 mill property tax increase for fire fees.

Holcomb also suggested the county consider selling 27 vacant properties that it owns. Several larger sites are designated park areas in Spring Hill that the county never developed. Turning those over for home building "probably could be turned into good money,'' Holcomb said.

County attorney Garth Coller cautioned that some properties might have restrictions that don't allow such development.

One of the multi-million-dollar costs the county faces is the need for more office space. Hernando County judges are pushing for more courtrooms, courthouse security and work spaces.

The county had planned to create non-judicial county offices at the Pinebrook Medical Center location it owns on State Road 50, west of the Suncoast Parkway. However, commissioners learned recently that traffic and other construction concerns make that location less desirable than first thought.

Previous coverage: Judge's letter warns Hernando County it must add judicial space now

Commissioner Steve Champion, who said there is no public appetite for a tax increase, suggested relocating the utilities department and using its building, also on SR 50, to house constitutional officers. That might satisfy the county's needs without spending as much as $15 million at Pinebrook.

The utilities building isn't large enough to accommodate everyone, according to acting county administrator Jeff Rogers, but it might help to solve a portion of the problem.

Champion also said that the county's fire and rescue department should pay back more quickly its 2015 loan from the general fund it took to meet expenses after the commission refused to raise fire fees. Rogers said that is under discussion.

"In the end, nobody likes the 't'-word,'' Allocco said. "Taxes are taxes.''

But the community cannot become an attractive place for young professionals and families if it cuts desirable county services such as parks and effective law enforcement, he said. And many county expenses are mandatory.

"It doesn't matter how conservative you are,'' Allocco said. "you have to pay for it.''

Previous coverage: Higher property taxes not on the table in Hernando County. Cuts and consolidations are

Champion balked at raising taxes, but Allocco said that this commission must do what is necessary.

"In the end,'' he said, "we're responsible for the time we have here.''

Rogers said he talked with the Teamsters Union that represents county workers about suspending previously-approved pay raises, but the union has not responsed. And he plans to freeze pay for county managers not represented by employee unions.

Rogers also talked with Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis about freezing his spending at this year's level, he said, but reached no agreement.

The county must consider other expense reductions, Rogers said, and must prioritize services. The county rolled $21.2 million forward to operate county functions at the start of this budget year, he said, but that number will be more like $12 million for the coming year because money is so tight.

Commissioners are expected to discuss budget options at their meeting on Tuesday.

They also expect to talk about an unsolicited bid submitted last month to build the county a new government center and about options for permanently filling the job of county administrator.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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