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Hernando budget crisis eases, and a library attendant makes $68,000 a year

Two months into the fiscal year — with the fruits of a 14 percent tax rate hike —Hernando County is making financial progress.

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County likely won’t have to borrow money from its utilities department to make ends meet this year, as county officials had predicted at budget time. Two months into the new fiscal year, property tax revenues are flowing in, along with higher reimbursements from Hernando County Fire Rescue and the Sheriff’s Office.

At the same time, it’s unclear how much the county saved from a round of staff cuts meant to cut the budget. What is clear is that a couple of county employees ended up with fat paychecks for lesser jobs.

For weeks before the 2019-20 budget approval in September, county officials predicted that general fund coffers could be so depleted as the new fiscal year started on Oct. 1 that the county would need a loan.

After years of spending down reserves to balance the general fund budget, a divided county commission had voted in a 14 percent property tax rate increase, the highest in 30 years.

County Administrator Jeff Rogers told commissioners last month that they wouldn’t need the loan. Hernando County Fire Rescue, which borrowed from the county’s general fund several years ago, doubled its payment this year, he said. And the Sheriff’s Office helped out the cash flow crunch by agreeing to take staggered payments at the start of the year.

When tax bills came out in November, property owners who wanted to take advantage of a small discount began sending in their payments. By Nov. 15, the county had collected just over $2 million.

"Cash flow is reviewed daily, and at this time, we are forecasting that the county will not have to borrow any money from utilities or elsewhere,'' Stephanie Russ, the county’s budget director, told the Tampa Bay Times.

The general fund reserve as of Nov. 20 was $15.5 million, or 16.25 percent of the total. The county policy requires an 18.5 percent reserve, which commissioners voted to suspend when they approved the budget in September.

Since the fiscal year started, Sheriff Al Nienhuis has returned $382,334 to the general fund of unspent funds from the last fiscal year, Russ reported. That compares to the previous year’s return of $228,752, according to the county.

The Sheriff’s Office also noted that in the last fiscal year, it returned $569,018 in earned revenue, money it receives for housing federal inmates and Pasco County inmates. In the previous year, that number was $359,544.

The total of returned money and inmate revenue is more in 2019 than 2018, but the Sheriff’s overall impact on the general fund budget is higher this year.

The line-item for sheriff’s operations increased from $30.3 million last fiscal year to $41.9 million this fiscal year. The sheriff’s total, including costs for running the jail, increased from $50.2 million to $56.6 million.

The Sheriff’s budget accounts for half of the county’s general fund spending.

In recent months, unfilled positions in the Sheriff’s Office have been in the spotlight. Sheriff Al Nienhuis told the Times that he used funds intended to fill those positions for other expenses, including capital needs.

The most recent reports from the Sheriff’s Office indicate that his trend continues. In late September, the department had 34 vacancies; in late October, there were 31.

With the fiscal year ended, the county could provide details on position cuts and layoffs that were part of the budget cost-cutting measures. The largest cuts came in the information technology department, which commissioners transferred from their budget to the Clerk of the Circuit Court Doug Chorvat.

To offset the cost, the county increased its general fund contribution to the clerk by $2.55 million, according to the line-item budget.

County records show that 17 employees were laid off or transferred. Eleven employees got cash payouts when they left, which cost the county a total of $91,515. A retiring information technology manager received the biggest check — for more than $32,000.

By contract, some senior county employees could bump lower-seniority employees from their jobs. A county chart shows that a number of information technology employees bumped employees in other departments and wound up with higher pay for lesser positions.

One network administrator bumped into a library services assistant job and saw a salary increase from $66,539 to $68,000.

The network administrator job paid $26.01 to $42.14 per hour and required a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree and six years experience, according to the job description. The library job pays $10.52 to $17.04 per hour and requires a high school or equivalency diploma. This employee now makes $32.69 per hour for providing customer service in a library, according to the county record.

In another case, a network support analyst who made a $54,059 is now a facility attendant at the Hernando County landfill with a salary of $48,651.

The network job paid $19.41 to $31.44 per hour and required a bachelor’s degree and two years of experience or an associate’s degree and three years of experience. The landfill job pays $13.43 to $21.76 per hour and requires a high school or equivalency diploma. The employee now earns $23.39 to operate machinery and provide customer service at the landfill.

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