Commission girds for cuts

At a budget hearing, the county grapples with the idea of less income after property tax reform.

Published May 18, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - All over the state, taxpayers have begged lawmakers to cut taxes. But Thursday morning in Hernando County, they begged to be spared from the impacts of those cuts.

Layoffs. Park closures. Cuts in preschool and mental health programs.

Coaches begged for their teams. Charities asked to be saved.

Hernando County Sheriff Richard Nugent stated flatly that budget cuts could mean layoffs that would threaten public safety.

This is the grim picture painted for the County Commission at its budget workshop.

"You're going to hear some things today that are a little scary," warned County Administrator Gary Kuhl. But the County Commission needs to get ready.

Perhaps the starkest warning came from Nugent. He didn't ask for new deputies last year or this year, he told the board. But deputies earn raises and promotions. The cost of health insurance has increased. So has the price of gas.

Nugent warned that if he gets just the same amount of money as least year, he'll have to lay off 35 deputies, plus 35 part-time staff. That means closing neighborhood substations, getting rid of school resource officers and crossing guards, and cutting back on community policing.

"What I worry about is that the state's rush to reform is going to crush local government," he said.

No one knows how deep the county will have to cut. State legislators scheduled a 10-day special session beginning June 12 to focus on tax reform.

Kuhl used the rough outlines of a plan hatched by Gov. Charlie Crist, estimating that Hernando County would face nearly $18.9-million in cuts.

Where will they come from?

The county is in the early stages of the budget process, so Kuhl offered his best guess.

He first outlined the largest fixed costs, like reserves, repaying loans, matching grants, paying for state programs, and paying for the private contractor that runs the jail.

Those "untouchable" expenses came to $50.7-million.

In "touchable" spending, the commissioners had $70.8-million, including $31-million to pay for board departments, plus $39.8-million to pay for operating the Sheriff's Office, Supervisor of Elections, clerk of courts, property appraiser, tax collector and state agencies.

The County Commission agreed to hold another budget workshop June 5. They plan to invite state legislators, and explain to them the real cost of tax cuts.

"It's not to scare folks," said Commissioner Dave Russell. "It's just what we see coming."

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352 754-6127.