Budget wish lists are light on requests
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
BROOKSVILLE -- County department heads appear to have heard the message that the 2002-03 budget will be tight.
Their budget wish lists for the coming fiscal year arrived last week with few wishes attached.
"We asked them to try and hold the line," budget director George Zoettlein said. "It looks like they've done that, for the most part."
Only a handful of departments requested new employees, and several actually asked for less money for next year than this year.
That news cheered county commissioners, who say they have no plans to increase the property tax rate, which this year is $8.3204 per every $1,000 of assessed property value.
"You live within your budget, and you prioritize," commission Chairwoman Nancy Robinson said.
"We need to stay lean and mean," Commissioner Diane Rowden said.
Zoettlein painted the bleak picture of a "$5-million problem" at the heart of the county's budget during a meeting in February. His staff projected that the general fund, which is supported by property taxes, will receive an estimated $65.6-million in revenue next year, and include about $70.6-million in expenses after pay raises and new spending for storm water management, road maintenance and a couple of other areas.
The situation might improve if commissioners approve a separate municipal services taxing unit for the county fire-rescue district, or if the transportation trust fund can foot more of the residential road repaving bill than in past years, Zoettlein said. Results from a still incomplete salary survey also loom large in the picture of next year's spending, he added.
So every dollar departments did not ask for only will help the balancing effort, he said.
The Parks and Facilities Department requested the most new staff members -- two for parks maintenance and one for building maintenance. Director Pat Fagan proposed an overall budget increase of 3 percent.
He defended the addition of staff as a necessity, because the county is building new parks and expanding existing ones. By fall, the county expects to open 16 acres of soccer fields at Anderson Snow Park, a new baseball field at Ridge Manor Park, a skateboard park and a Hill 'n Dale park.
"If you're going to be building new parks, you've got to have additional staff to be able to maintain them," Fagan said. "The needs are there, and the public has asked for those facilities to be built."
The Planning, Mosquito Control, Engineering, Technology Services, Library and Tourist Development departments each asked for one more employee. The request from Tourist Development caught analysts' attention, because it was for a film coordinator.
By contrast, the Budget and Social Services departments removed positions and cut their spending plans from the current fiscal year.
Code Enforcement and Animal Services, which jointly added five people this year, are not seek anything more for the coming year.
"We didn't feel it was necessary," director Frank McDowell III said. "We're going to work another year to see if it's going to work out (with the new staff). I don't like to put people on if it's not necessary."
Also of note, the Legal Department requested $663,000 for next year, down from $830,000 this year. County Attorney Garth Coller attributed the reduction to less dependence on outside help for litigation.
"I expect that trend will continue for the next couple of budgets," Coller said.
New programs are few in the budget proposals. And Zoettlein expected few of them to make the final spending plan.
Among them, the Engineering Department has asked for close to $100,000 for new technology and software; Technology Services requested $250,000 to replace some existing phone systems; and Mosquito Control sought $50,000 to do aerial spraying. Mosquito Control also proposed a 33 percent increase in spending for pesticides.
Zoettlein said it was premature to say where cuts might come.
He noted that the county has yet to receive about $12-million from Regional Healthcare Inc., which is to turn over its assets to the county after completing its legal responsibilities. The company used to operate Brooksville Regional and Spring Hill Regional hospitals, until it declared bankruptcy in the mid-1990s.
Commissioners said the Legal Department is working out details before the county will accept the money. How they decide to use the money could make a difference in the final budget picture, as the money is not included in the projections, Zoettlein said.
Also still outstanding are proposals from the constitutional officers, such as the sheriff and clerk of court, who do not have to submit budgets until June 1. The Sheriff's Office budget makes up the largest part of the general fund.
The budget staff is scheduled to review each proposal with department heads in early May, and County Administrator Richard Radacky is to further scrutinize the budget in early June. Commissioners are to get the tentative budget on July 15, with workshops planned for July 22 to 26.
The commission must have two public hearings, tentatively set for Sept. 1 and Sept. 16, before adopting the final budget and tax rate. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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