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Budget gurus look for balance

Planners propose a property tax rate increase. Commissioners balk. Come Monday's workshops, let the cutting begin.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- Noting that economic realities have taken their toll on everyone's spending ability, a majority of county commissioners are saying they will seek to balance next year's budget without raising the property tax rate.

Budget planners have presented a $199-million budget that includes a rate increase, the first since 1996. The increase of 23.76 cents per $1,000 of assessed value equates to $1.1-million, which roughly translates into the amount of extra money the Sheriff's Office has requested for new positions, programs and raises.

"We may be able to find a couple of hundred thousand dollars to reduce. But there's no way I can make up $1.1-million without hurting somewhere," said George Zoettlein, director of the Office of Management and Budget. "I balance the budget. It's not my decision to cut programs."

Services should meet the needs of a growing Hernando County, commissioners agreed. But when times are tough, several said, priorities must be set. The conversation will begin Monday with the first of three budget workshops.

"I'm going to look at it very cautiously and figure out where we can make some cuts," Commissioner Betty Whitehouse said of the budget. "We need to go into it very objectively and not have set areas that we think are sacred."

The commission will have to balance health, safety and welfare concerns with financial realities, Chairwoman Nancy Robinson said. Maybe some spending can wait, she suggested, and perhaps some programs can be scaled back.

"Like every household has to make financial decisions, the board has to do the same thing," she said. "We need to be very conservative until the market stabilizes. We have a lot to think about as we go through this process."

Zoettlein said he hoped commissioners would give him direction during the budget workshops, so all the necessary changes can be made prior to two public hearings, scheduled tentatively for Sept. 5 and 16.

"We don't want to be sitting at the second public hearing with the calculators going a mile a minute trying to figure out new numbers," he said.

Also, the county must provide the Property Appraiser's Office with its tentative tax rate no later than Aug. 2.

Commissioners floated several ideas to balance the budget without a tax-rate increase. As none of the ideas equals a full $1.1-million, it would take a combination of moves to make the plan work.

An ordinance change to let the county spend utilities regulatory fees differently, for instance, could free close to $500,000 for the general budget. Commissioner Diane Rowden said she would recommend that amendment to her colleagues.

Another target might be the Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Richard Nugent told commissioners during a recent discussion about his spending plan that his department could live with a 4 percent increase, although he requested 9 percent. The administration put 6 percent into the budget.

Commissioner Chris Kingsley has questioned whether the Sheriff's Office might get by with less. Robinson said she would talk with Nugent again to determine his perceived needs.

Every percentage point of the sheriff's increase equals $191,462.

Employee pay also will come under the commission's microscope.

"Not that we're not going to give raises, but I don't know I'm going to give all of what's recommended," Whitehouse said, deeming the county's proposed 5 percent raises "high" compared to most other employers. "This needs to be looked at and justified."

One percent of employee raises equals about $105,000.

Rowden noted that the county intends to absorb all employee health insurance cost increases, at a cost of close to $85,000 in the general fund and $300,000 overall. She said it might be acceptable to give workers pay raises lower than 5 percent, because the added insurance payments total about $360 per person.

If workers had to cover that amount from a 5 percent raise, she said, the actual extra take-home pay would be less than 5 percent anyway.

"Employees do not realize they have an extremely good benefits package," Whitehouse said.

Most would not support postponing salary adjustments for positions determined to be paid too low by a survey of similar jobs in other jurisdictions, though. "It does help employees at the lower levels the most," Whitehouse said.

If general fund employees get lower raises, Rowden said, it would only be fair to give smaller raises to all county employees -- including those who work for the constitutional officers.

Improvements to the government's phone system are slated to cost $250,000. Several commissioners said that upgrade might be delayed and the money saved. Other capital improvement projects might get postponed, too.

Zoettlein also has reminded commissioners that the county has yet to receive $10-million from the wind-down of Regional Healthcare Inc., the former management company for Brooksville Regional and Spring Hill Regional hospitals. It is not included in the budget plan, although the money is expected to arrive soon.

Invested properly, Zoettlein said, the money could generate as much as $500,000 annually in interest. That amount could offset much of the tax rate increase.

The base amount of the Regional Healthcare money, meanwhile, should remain as a reserve for emergencies, Whitehouse said.

"I am very concerned with the federal deficit we have. That is huge," she said. "One of the things I've heard . . . is there are going to be more unfunded mandates coming to the counties. . . . We need to be very cautious that we have enough reserves that we can deal with these issues."

County Administrator Richard Radacky said he would ask commissioners for direction on reserve funding and spending priorities during the workshops. He also planned to begin discussions on how to cover future spending needs.

"The board needs to address future growth in the county and funding of future budgets," Radacky said. "Obviously, we're not going to sit down and try to do a budget for 2004 or 2005. But we want to let the board know we're seeing a decline in available funds and see how they want to direct staff to go about establishing a long-range funding program."

Rowden suggested that the commission would not be in this situation if commissioners had not cut the tax rate in three of the past four years. Residents should not suffer decreases in services now simply because past commissions felt it necessary to make cuts, she said.

"Obviously (a rate increase) is a last resort. But at the same time, I have to look at what is the long-term solution," Rowden said. "Nobody was looking at long-term when they started cutting this and then wanted to increase services."

The real problems cropped up this fiscal year, Robinson said, as the commission spent more than it should have, relying on one-time revenue sources for some ongoing expenses. Departments got used to the new levels, she observed, and now commissioners must decide which programs can remain and which ones can go.

Having faced a projected $8-million deficit just weeks ago, she said, the situation has improved, making decisions that much easier. Still, Robinson acknowledged, "the board has a major challenge in front of us."

The first budget workshop is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday in the commission chambers.

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com.

Budget workshops

County commissioners are to review the administration's proposed budget for 2002-03 at workshops Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. The meetings will begin at 10 a.m. in the commission chambers at the Hernando County Government Center, 20 N Main St., Brooksville. Commissioners expect to make any significant changes at workshops, not at public hearings tentatively set for Sept. 5 and 16.

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