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Sheriff's spending plan likely to be focal point during county's first 2015-16 budget hearing

BROOKSVILLE — All eyes will likely be on Sheriff Al Nienhuis on Sept. 3, when the Hernando County Commission holds the first of two public hearings on the county's 2015-16 budget.

Several weeks ago, the commission set its property tax rates for the new spending plan, freezing all of the rates except for a small tentative increase for emergency medical services. That action in essence cut $4.18 million in spending from the wish lists of the departments controlled by the commission, the sheriff and the supervisor of elections.

Since then, county officials have been reshuffling priorities, keeping some of the new items they had hoped to fund, finding new financial resources to pay for others and eliminating some altogether.

Nienhuis has been talking to county commissioners about his needs for the coming year. Last year, the sheriff's approved budget was $41.3 million. This year, he asked for an additional $1.64 million, but commissioners said no when they froze the property tax rate.

He said he hopes to return about the same amount from this year's budget to the county as he did last year —about $700,000. He expects he will get that back to help pay for some of his added costs. Small pay increases to remain competitive and mandatory increases in retirement and other expenses account for his budget increase.

Nienhuis noted that he hopes property value increases, which will bring more revenue into county coffers in the new fiscal year, will more than offset his budgetary needs.

In the same circumstance, Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson's approved budget last year was $955,412. This year, she asked for $1.5 million. She was also turned down.

The wish list for the commission-controlled departments is only being partially funded, and in some cases by alternative funds. Commissioners this week decided to spend $100,000 in reserve funds to improve soccer fields at Anderson Snow Park, and county officials have shifted the burden of a $50,000 allocation for the Florida Blueberry Festival and $30,000 for the Hernando County Fair Association from the general fund to tourist development funds that come from the recently increased bed tax.

Plans to spend $471,000 for an aquatic services division were scaled back to a single employee and a $130,000 allocation, while funds for the division's capital plans were eliminated, Zoettlein said.

Facilities maintenance, which had asked for $580,000 in improvements, has been cut to just $100,000 for an overlay of the parking lot at the government center in downtown Brooksville, and an additional $249,640 for the Parks and Recreation Department was cut entirely.

A new code enforcement officer to help with enforcement of a more stringent noxious plant ordinance survived the cuts, but library services, which was seeking an additional $312,316, will instead get $90,000.

The budget the commission will consider will include the recently approved 3-cent increase in the gas tax for various transportation purposes and a 3 percent increase in fire fees. While fire Chief Scott Hechler asked for more, he was directed to use his department's reserve, which would be reduced from $3.9 million in the current year to $1.28 million in the new year. That could mean revisiting the fire fee issue again next year, Zoettlein said.

Commissioners have also voted to suspend the program that allows county employees to buy back up to two weeks of untaken leave time, allowing the county to bring more cash into the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

During the Sept. 3 budget hearing, which begins at 5 p.m. in the County Commission chambers, the board will consider a total budget of $387.8 million, but that figure doesn't take into account purchase orders that will carry over into the new fiscal year. Those are largely the county's bigger capital projects, which take several years to complete.

The 2014-15 total approved budget was $423.5 million.

The proposed general fund budget is $99 million, compared the $99.6 million approved for 2014-15.

The budgets are partially funded with a general fund tax rate of 6.9912 mills, which amounts to $6.99 in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value. The small increase in the EMS tax rate, which would amount to an additional $11.70 for the owner of a home with a $100,000 taxable value, is intended to offset the rising costs of medications used on ambulances.

Commissioners could still rearrange priorities and reduce the tax rate during the hearings. They cannot raise the rate.

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

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