Talk of increasing the sales tax, cutting parks, libraries and other Hernando County services fill commission discussion

Hernando County Courthouse in Brooksville. JUSTIN TROMBLY | Times
Hernando County Courthouse in Brooksville. JUSTIN TROMBLY | Times
Published March 5

BROOKSVILLE — Get ready, county taxpayers. Hernando County commissioners may be coming for you.

Facing an $11.4 million budget shortfall and tens of millions in expected capital costs without a dedicated funding source, commissioners met this week to brainstorm. During the nearly five-hour session, they discussed ways to pay for new government office space and a first-responder radio system, keeping parks and libraries open, and determining how the community should develop in the coming years. By the end, acting county administrator Jeff Rogers had a lengthy "to-do" list.

It included potentially helping commissioners ask voters for a half-cent sales tax next year for public safety and judicial purposes.

Rogers said the county's outdated radio system, which connects law enforcement, fire and rescue and other emergency services, needs to be replaced at a cost of about $14 million.

And county court officials are demanding more space in the courthouse, which threatens to oust other county services. Several options are under consideration, including an unsolicited bid by a private entity to build a new county government center, which commissioners will discuss next week.

Previous coverage: Hernando County budget solutions may include tax increases and pay freezes

Commissioner John Mitten, who co-chaired a committee that helped the Hernando County School District renew a half-cent sales tax, said the commission must present its case in simple terms so voters know what they are deciding.

The commission can reduce property taxes if a sales tax is approved, Commissioner Steve Champion said. But the current board cannot bind future board members' actions, county officials said.

The commission also discussed rebranding libraries so people understand that they offer more than books these days, and exploring ways to make parks pay for themselves and to improve them.

The county needs a venue for large events, from conventions to weddings, Commissioner John Allocco said. Rogers agreed to talk to the Tourist Development Council about paying for such a facility through a portion of the county's tourist tax.

Other workshop topics included converting residential septic systems to sewers, economic development incentives and establishing a formal set of goals for county workers.

Tuesday's exercise was largely theoretical, but a session last week dug into budget details.

Much of the conversation was about how to curtail the county’s deficit spending. The general fund budget has grown by about 4 or 5 percent a year, Rogers said, and "that kind of growth has got to stop.''

In spite of that, commissioners approved a $500,000 expenditure to renovate west-side county offices, primarily to accommodate Tax Collector Sally Daniel. She told commissioners she needs more staff and more space.

Approving the expense emptied the county’s general reserve fund, county budget director George Zoettlein told commissioners. Spending money out of special reserves will require a super-majority vote, or four of five commissioners, he said.

Zoettlein also updated commissioners on what likely will happen as the budget year winds down in late summer and early fall. He estimates the county will have to borrow $15-20 million to make it through the first two months of the next budget year. He anticipates borrowing from internal funds, like the county's utilities department.

County officials are trying to work out an agreement with Sheriff Al Nienhuis on his spending plan for next year. His budget accounts for nearly half the general fund expense.

Champion called Sheriff's Office spending "the elephant in the room'' that needs a serious look.

Rogers and Zoettlein talked about other possible cuts, including closing the West Side Library while opening the Main Library in Brooksville and the East Side Library only a few days a week each. Other possibilities include ending Government Broadcasting, closing or selling the Little Rock Cannery, and ending support to Chinesegut, the Cooperative Extension Services, Aquatic Services and Sensitive Lands.

Commissioners were not eager to cut services they believe the community wants to keep. As Mitten said, no commissioner could go home and face his family after cutting such departments and services.

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

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