BROOKSVILLE — The decision didn’t sit well with many residents and two of its own members, but the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday approved a 2019-2020 spending plan that comes with a 14 percent increase in the general fund property tax rate, the largest hike in three decades.
The increase, officials said, was to support public safety and add to the county’s reserves. After repeated years of spending more than they received in revenue, commissioners were facing a $10 million budget hole in their general fund.
Discord among commissioners started at the regular commission meeting Tuesday, hours before the evening budget hearing. Commissioner Steve Champion raised the issue of the dozens of open positions Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis has in his current budget. By law, Nienhuis must return what he doesn’t spend to the county.
When questioned about the matter earlier this month, Nienhuis told the Tampa Bay Times that he spent the money intended for deputies and other positions on part-time and temporary workers, buying down unused employee leave and capital projects the County Commission didn’t fund.
“Why can’t the sheriff save us millions of dollars'' by returning the money he didn’t spend on those open jobs? Champion asked.
”I didn’t get the memo'' that it was Champion’s job to attack the sheriff’s spending, said Commissioner Jeff Holcomb, who supported the sheriff’s request for a $2.6 million increase in his budget request from the general fund. The general fund includes approximately $60 million for public safety, about half the total.
"I’m sick of the garbage,'' Holcomb said, adding that commissioners "should support (law enforcement) instead of trying to stab them in the back.''
Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he supports law enforcement, but added, "that doesn’t hold him harmless'' for his spending plan.
"They’re the biggest part of the budget, and we can’t do it without them stepping up and helping,'' Dukes said. The county administrator cut more than $1 million in expenses from other departments.
But the board majority of Holcomb and commissioners John Allocco and John Mitten didn’t challenge the sheriff’s budget. Before Mitten called for the budget vote, he asked if Nienhuis had signed the sworn statement in his budget saying that he needed the requested funding. He had.
Additionally, Allocco pointed out, the commission changed its rules this year to avoid another $10 million shortfall. Instead of allowing leftover money to roll into the next budget year, extra funds must go into the county’s depleted reserves. In prior years, the commission has allowed the Sheriff to put his unspent money back into his budget for the new year.
Why would elected officers return funds if they were just going to go into the reserves? Allocco asked.
Several county residents spoke Tuesday about the budget. Some said they didn’t see the tax increase as burdensome or spoke in support of parks, libraries and the county Extension Office. None of those were cut significantly.
County resident Mike Fulford opposed the tax increase.
"You can only tax people so much before they get up and leave,'' he said.
The county has been using monies collected for other reasons to pay for general fund expenses, said Hernando Beach resident Charles Greenwell. "That’s why we’re in the hole now.''
The new budget increases the general fund tax rate by 1 mill, from 6.8912 to 7.8912 mills. That means a $75 dollar increase in the county tax bill for the owner of a house with a taxable value of $75,000.
The county’s overall budget rises to $528.1 million from last year’s $448.1 million. The general fund budget totals $123.2 million, compared to last year’s $110.8 million.
The higher tax rate will allow the county to build back its reserves, but commissioners still voted Tuesday to suspend their budget reserve policy for a second year. The policy requires them to keep 18.5 percent of the general fund in reserve. The increased revenue will bring the reserve up to approximately 16.62 percent.
Commissioners Champion and Dukes voted against suspending the reserve policy as part of their protests about the budget and tax rate increases.
The reserve allows the county to pay its bills for the first several months of a new budget year before the majority of property tax payments are received. Commissioners also previously agreed to borrow money from their utilities department if they need to.
To help handle the shortfall, county Administrator Jeff Rogers moved information technology services to the Clerk of the Circuit Court, allowing him to cut positions in that department, along with other jobs. In his budget letter to commissioners, Rogers said the county’s general fund should recover under the new tax rate if county expenses grow no more than 3.5 percent a year.
Rogers is keeping that growth rate in mind as he continues contract talks with county firefighters and enters talks next year with other county workers represented by Teamsters Local 79.
He told commissioners he was cautiously optimistic the county wouldn’t have to borrow utilities funds to make ends meet.
The new fiscal year begins on Tuesday.