City explores hiring freeze, other options

Published May 10, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - Faced with rampant uncertainty about how the Legislature will resolve the property tax crisis, a City Council member this week raised the prospect of a city spending and hiring freeze.

Joe Bernardini urged city officials to give the idea serious thought, especially with a special legislative session on tax relief set for the middle of June.

"Who knows what they'll come up with?" Bernardini said.

Interim City Manager Steve Baumgartner said Wednesday that he believes the city is being cautious about spending so far. He added that it was wise to raise the issue and that he plans to seek further direction from the City Council in the coming weeks.

Baumgartner plans to talk to department heads this week about not asking for more in their budgets for next year. Instead, he wants them to begin thinking about how to do the job with less, if that's what the state decides.

Baumgartner argued that an outright freeze could make some city functions struggle. While an accounting or finance position might be okay to delay for awhile, other positions, such as a dispatcher, might need to be filled immediately.

Making those choices is hard without having some idea of what revenue the city might have to work with, he explained.

"At this point, " he said, "I just wish that we knew more."

State lawmakers grappled with a variety of property tax relief plans throughout the last regular legislative session. They talked about curtailing property taxes, making up the difference through higher sales taxes. But in the end, they could not reach an agreement.

At Monday night's meeting, Baumgartner assured the City Council that Brooksville was getting regular reports from the Florida League of Cities detailing legislative updates.

Some believe that because the special session is happening so close to the regular budgeting process of governments all across Florida, any reforms approved would not kick in until fiscal year 2008-09.

Brooksville's fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Public hearings on the spending plan take place in the summer.

Bernardini said there was a lot of uncertainty about what the new funding structure might do to the city and when, but he wanted to err on the side of conservatism.

"It's a big unknown out there and I know that a lot of cities are already talking about it, " Bernardini said. "I just know that it's much easier to not hire somebody than it is to lay somebody off."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 352 754-6117.