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Budget shortfall costs Hernando County budget manager her job

Pam Lee, Hernando County's former budget manager
Pam Lee, Hernando County's former budget manager
Published Apr. 15, 2018

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County has fired its budget manager, Pam Lee, after a review of the county's finances revealed an unexpected shortfall of nearly $6 million that has left commissioners scrambling to recover.

During a meeting Tuesday, county commissioners heard the detailed annual report from finance director Amy Gillis, who warned that the county fund balance, or reserve fund, was lower than it needs to be. She responded to commissioner questions about tax revenues, but gave no indication of the unexpected shortfall.

Hours later, at the end of the day-long meeting, commission Chairman Steve Champion said he had concerns about the county's budget leadership. The comment prompted an unusual discussion among commissioners, who put county administrator Len Sossamon on notice that a majority of the board had lost faith in Lee.

Commissioner Nick Nicholson said it was the county's job to watch income and expenses "and they didn't do that. They just didn't do that ... somebody is just not watching the ball.''

For Commissioner Jeff Holcomb, the idea of voting for the next budget before making a change in the system was unpalatable. This money crunch, he said, means the county is "going to have to jump through all sorts of hoops.''

"I'm very disappointed that we're in this position,'' said Commissioner John Allocco.

On Thursday, Sossamon notified Lee of her termination by letter.

"For the budget manager to be effective, the Board must have confidence in his or her ability to present it with all the relevant information that is reasonably available on the different budgetary options, assess the advantages and disadvantages of each option, explain the professional reasoning and analysis that leads him or her to a recommendation and base that reasoning on established professional, technical, ethical or legal principles,'' he wrote.

"On April 10, 2018, the Board expressed that it no longer has confidence in your ability to perform those duties.''

Commissioners learned of the shortfall earlier this month from Clerk of the Circuit Court Don Barbee and Gillis, Nicholson said.

"We had over-estimated revenue and under-projected expenses,'' Nicholson said. "Now we're tracking it on a monthly basis.''

A portion of the problem was caught months ago, and Lee served a five-day suspension for it in December. According to the disciplinary action form, "Mrs. Lee is responsible to provide a balanced budget to the county administrator each year. Mrs. Lee significantly overstated the balance forward cash for the fiscal year 2017-18 budget.''

Balance forward cash is the money not spent in one fiscal year that is transferred into the next fiscal year's budget. Hernando County's 2018 general fund budget is nearly $120 million.

After discovering the most recent problem, county officials reached out to their two unions, one representing county firefighters and the other representing the county's general workers. Neither group wanted to reduce pay or benefits to help mitigate the monetary shortfall, officials said.

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Lee has been the county budget manager for two years and earned a salary of $81,390.40. She has worked for Hernando County since November 2005. She stepped in when long-time budget manager George Zoettlein retired. Sossamon has asked Zoettlein to return temporarily, Nicholson said, but has not yet met with him to discuss it.

The County Commission has its first budget workshop on May 1.

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

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