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Budget calls for cuts, tax increase

Officials propose a 4 percent increase in the property tax rate and massive cuts to stave off a shortfall.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- Hernando County budget officials are recommending a 4 percent tax rate increase and massive program cuts to fend off serious financial problems in the coming fiscal year.

Estimates prepared June 1 and provided to commissioners Thursday show that the general fund, which comes from property taxes, faces an $8.42-million shortfall if spending continues as it has in past years.

That's after figuring in added revenue coming from increased property values and new construction, and also 5 percent raises plus more costly benefits for employees.

"The picture is not good," Commissioner Diane Rowden said.

To make ends meet, the staff has proposed raising the tax rate by 36.29 cents per $1,000, to $8.6833. In fiscal 1998, the tax rate was $8.8578 per $1,000. Commissioners cut the rate by 53.74 cents over the next three years, creating a net loss of income to the county of $11.44-million, according to the budget department.

The proposed increase would cost the owner of a $100,000 home with a homestead exemption $27 more in annual property taxes. Overall, the rate would generate an additional $1.7-million.

The staff also has suggested ending all general fund contributions to the residential road paving program, which by ordinance can reach $2-million; eliminating contributions of $100,000 each to the Enrichment Center, Fine Arts Council and United Way agencies; scaling back the county's new hazardous materials response program; and killing several stormwater management projects to save $498,280.

Also on the chopping block are improvements for the government center, Hill 'n Dale park, Anderson Snow Park and Ridge Manor Park ($605,000); reserve funds for legal cases, the county fairgrounds and contingencies ($1.13-million); and additions to the library book collection ($82,000).

Budget requests by the constitutional officers also would take a hit in this effort to hack $8.42-million. The property appraiser, tax collector, clerk of the circuit court and supervisor of elections would lose a combined $116,046 from their requests.

The Sheriff's Office request would be cut $881,639, getting a 4.5 percent increase instead of its requested 9.1 percent.

In the end, the general fund would be decreased 7.94 percent from the current fiscal year, with all the reductions coming from regular government departments. Each of the constitutional offices would get more money next year than this year.

Sheriff Richard Nugent lamented the proposal, contending his department needs 6.5 percent merely to provide the same level of services in Hernando County with rising insurance and workers compensation costs.

"We would wind up having to lay people off," he said. "That's my first-blush reaction."

He said he already has stripped his budget of capital improvements such as upgraded computer systems. Employees stand to receive a 3 percent cost-of-living increase, Nugent added, with merit raises going only to those eligible.

"We've cut our capital, we've reduced our operating costs. The only thing left is personnel," Nugent said.

He said he would exhaust all possibilities before cutting jobs.

Commissioners' reactions to the news was mixed.

Rowden criticized the administration for not having kept the board in the loop earlier and noted that the budget office had made savings recommendations in late May that still have not been carried through.

"We should have been having a workshop weeks ago, because we're coming down to the wire," she said. "You can't hide underneath a rock. You can't just stay behind closed doors and pretend this isn't happening."

Commissioner Chris Kingsley said he had not seen the May memo and that Thursday's session with budget planners was his first look at the financial situation. He said he believed the county could solve the problem without a tax increase, but that all facets of government would be cut.

"Balancing the budget is the first priority," Kingsley said. "So we've got to figure out what sort of projects are going to move forward and which will have to take a back burner for a while."

Commissioner Mary Aiken also cringed at the idea of raising the tax rate, calling such a move "the kiss of death."

"I don't want to do it because I've felt for a long time that this government is a pretty expensive item," Aiken said. "We have to economize."

Chairwoman Nancy Robinson withheld judgment on the recommendations, saying the staff needed time to work out the kinks in the budget. She, too, rejected a tax increase, saying economic hard times have hit everyone -- not just the government.

"We need to look to live within the county's (current) dollars," Robinson said. "We should be conservative and make every effort to live within the income that we have."

The financial situation seemed to sneak up on commissioners, who did not get any warnings last year that the budget was headed to rocky times.

Commissioners have spent more than $1-million from reserves, departments are spending their full budgets for the first time in years, and several revenue generators such as the state sales tax are not at full speed.

To avoid a similar situation again, the budget staff also has posed some long-term solutions. These include such ideas as bonding with designated funding sources, such as a half-cent sales tax, to pay for large construction projects; a ban on using the general fund to subsidize other funds, such as emergency medical services; and establishing a cash account equal to 25 percent of the operating budget.

All requested new programs would be required to have a revenue source equal to the cost in order to be approved, under the proposals.

Commissioners said they expected to have a workshop on the budget in the near future and possibly to discuss the matters at their meeting Tuesday. The fiscal 2003 budget goes into effect Oct. 1.

-- Staff writer Jamie Jones contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com.

Recommended cuts

Hernando County government staff has recommended a small ad valorem property tax increase, as well as operational cost cuts, project shutdowns, and less money than requested for the Sheriff's Office, property appraiser, tax collector, clerk of circuit court and supervisor of elections. Receiving less money than this year in the 2002-03 proposal would be:

The county's residential road repaving program

Park improvements in Ridge Manor and Hill 'N Dale

Contributions to the Fine Arts Council and United Way

Library book purchases

The fairgrounds reserve fund

The contingencies reserve fund

-- SOURCE: HERNANDO COUNTY BUDGET OFFICE

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