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Budget, millage advance

Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 05:58 PM

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In less than one hour Tuesday, county commissioners voted to tentatively approve a $402 million budget for fiscal year 2012-13 and a general fund tax rate of 5.9169 mills.

The votes were 4-1, with Commissioner John Druzbick the sole dissenter both times.

The 5.9169 millage is the rollback rate and Budget Manager George Zoettlein said the county would receive the same amount of revenue as last year and most residents would see no increase in taxes because of declining property values.

The approved general fund budget was $70 million.

Because most of the groundwork for this budget had been completed in the last several weeks, there was limited discussion among commissioners. Only two residents spoke during public input.

County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said despite personnel cuts, services to taxpayers are not that bad.

But the future remains bleak.

Zoettlein said he is anticipating a $7 million shortfall going into the 2013-14 fiscal year budget.

"It's been a tough year," Dukes told Zoettlein. "(Now) you're telling us it's going to be a tough year coming."

Rather than cut more, commissioners opted to take some $1.8 million from its judicial reserve fund to balance the budget.

That money was set aside in 2005 and was unencumbered. Even with tapping that fund, there is still some $5 million of county money remaining in that fund, Commissioner Dave Russell said.

"The utilizing of reserves isn't all bad," Russell said. "Even businesses do that during tough times."

Russell said using the judicial fund money will "help soften the blow to the general fund."

From hereon, the county will look at saving money through employee attrition, he said.

Case in point: It was announced at the budget hearing that the county's mosquito control manager, Guangye Hu, resigned last week and is moving to California.

Russell said the county may discuss not replacing Hu and instead merging that department with another, saving some $100,000.

"We're buying time but at the same time, we're able to downsize government further and responsibly and still provide a decent level of services," Russell said.

Druzbick was reluctant to dip into reserves and sought a higher tax rate, especially with the anticipated shortfall next year.

Higher taxes would not have impacted taxpayers that much because of lower property values, he said.

Zoettlein thanked Sheriff Al Nienhuis, who last week cut another $1.3 million from his budget by returning anticipated unspent money to the county.

Nienhuis also helped save the county $300,000 by assuming oversight of the animal services officers.

Commissioners said they have already cut services to the bone and further staff reductions would jeopardize customer service.

County commissioners were further handicapped this year when property values dropped 8 percent, more than anticipated. Zoettlein said the county has received only 91 percent of collected property tax revenue.

Zoettlein said the county lost $1.3 million because of its challenge to the state Medicaid's bills.

Board members have said the constitutional officers did not step up to the plate this year to cut enough out of their respective budgets, which forced them to seek alternate revenue-enhancing methods.

Tuesday was the first of two public hearings on the 2012-13 budget. The final meeting will be held at 5:01 p.m. Sept. 25 at the Hernando County Government Center, 20 North Main St. in downtown Brooksville. (352) 544-5290

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