BROOKSVILLE — Last month, Hernando County government's top financial experts — departing clerk Don Barbee and budget manager George Zoettlein — painted a grim financial picture for the coming year.
In response, the County Commission notified its largest employee union, Teamsters Local 79, that the crisis is so bad it needs to revisit approved salaries and cut promised pay raises.
The union soundly rejected the idea last week, saying the crisis "is a self-inflicted county problem.'' The union said commissioners cared "more about reelection to office than their fiscal responsibility to the citizens of Hernando County.''
For years, the county has spent more than it brings in, even as property values have been climbing. Financial problems were compounded in the fall, when the sitting commission decided not to cut expenses and not to raise taxes, forcing it to borrow from reserves.
"Please be advised that Hernando County will be unable to fund the economic terms of the existing 2017-2020 collective bargaining agreements with your organization during calendar year 2019,'' county administrator Len Sossamon wrote to the Teamsters on December 19. "This inability to continue to fund the collective bargaining agreements is the result of a projected budget shortfall of approximately $12,373,726.''
During a tense commission meeting last month, commissioners chided Zoettlein, asking repeatedly why he hadn't told them they were approving a budget that would continue the deficit spending.
Zoettlein was brought out of retirement when a $14 million shortfall under the previous budget manager resulted in her ouster. He told commissioners he had been clear.
He had suggested they raise the tax rate to make up the difference. He offered expense-cutting options, including closing parks and libraries. And when they said no, Zoettlein told them their only option was to take money from reserves, violating the county's own reserve policy.
He even told them they likely would have to borrow money to make it through the start of the fiscal year, before property taxes revenues begin to flow into county coffers.
So Sossamon suggested sending the letter to the Teamsters, which represents 470 county workers, saying that the county had "financial urgency'' — the term used in state law — and that it must renegotiate pay scales.
That did not sit well with John Sholtes, business agent for the Teamsters.
"It is not the bargaining unit members' fault that the five elected county commissioners refuse to raise the millage rate and recklessly under-charge impact fees for new development,'' he wrote to Sossamon.
"In 2017, the Teamsters Union Negotiating Team bargained in good faith for wages, benefits and conditions of employment,'' he wrote. "Now, because of the county commissioners' failure to be fiscally responsible, you expect to balance the budget on the backs of the county workers?"
While the law requires the union to meet with county administrators when there is a significant economic downturn, he said, "the county's reckless fiscal mismanagement does not qualify the county for relief.''
The union is not willing to consider suspending its pay agreement, he said. And if the county wants to press the issue, it should provide the union an audit showing the financial urgency.
The discussion comes just before the Hernando County Professional Firefighters, Local 3760, expects to open bargaining for the county's 240 firefighters. Union president Sean Moulton said he agrees with the assessment by Sholtes.
"It's a revenue issue,'' he said. "It's not an expenditure issue.''
In April, the county tried to get the firefighters to come back to the table over salaries because of the tight financial situation. He also sent a letter, declining.
Moulton watched the commission discussion and came away frustrated that budget questions seem to arise every year.
"It's embarrassing,'' he said. "I don't know where all of this is coming from. It's puzzling to me.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.