Local News

Commissioners deal with 3/4 of budget deficit, but a huge chunk remains

SEBRING - Commissioners whacked three-quarters of their $6 million deficit in a special meeting Thursday, but they will still have to deal with $1.5 million more on Tuesday night.
They made drastic cuts: $800,000 from the sheriff, $114,000 from their own budget, and all $215,461 from the Highlands County Economic Development Commission and Industrial Development Authority.
"We were blindsided by that," Director Stephen Weeks said Friday. "We thought they would probably cut our funding and we were preparing for that."
Since there is some private funding in the agency's budget, as well as some carryover, the Avon Park office won't just shut down Oct. 1, the beginning the new fiscal year. He and three office workers won't be immediately out of a job, but he is already planning for exactly where new funding will come from.
Another $3 million was less painful. It was accomplished by the transfer of unused transportation funds. Sebring Parkway won't be affected, budget manager Tim Mechling said.
The $168,000 cost of living increase was eliminated for all county employees, who haven't gotten a raise for five years.
"Out in the real world, none of us got raises in the past five or six years either," Commissioner Ron Handley reasoned.
"Some of us got reductions." Chairman Jack Richie added.
State law doesn't allow counties to pass a deficit budget, so still on the table:
A tax increaseLayoffsAcross-the-board budget decreases in all departments.
Despite taking over information technology maintenance from other departments and the telephone system from the county, the clerk of court's budget was reduced $80,587.
"This morning I called Tasha (Morgan), my director of finance, and we'll sit down and see what we can come up with," Bob Germaine said. "In our IT department, we spend a lot of money in contracts, so maybe we can put off something for a year," Germaine said on Friday.
At Thursday's meeting, Germaine was irritated at Commissioner Don Elwell's suggestion that three constitutional officers be allowed to add the projects they've take over or are required to do - the supervisor of elections must hold a gubernatorial primary in 2014 - and then add a 1 percent increase to the current 2013 fiscal year to form their 2014 budget.
"If you do that with everybody, we'll make it work," Germaine agreed Thursday. "I just want it to be fair."
From Sheriff Susan Benton, that meant cleaving her $1 million increase to $224,000.
Her Florida Retirement System contribution has gone up $680,000, Commissioner Jim Brooks pointed out.
"You're right," Elwell agreed. "But we're asking all the constitutional (officers) to eat it. I hate to say eat it - absorb it... But we've got to draw a line in the sand."
Their other choice, the commissioners argued, is to raise taxes.
"The money that was always returned every year from the constitutionals, what happened to that?" Richie asked. In previous years, the five constitutional officers have returned millions in unspent funds.
County Administrator June Fisher explained: "Because budgets have gotten so close in past few years, there was less to return."
Commissioners couldn't reduce Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre's budget; it's already been approved by the Florida Department of Revenue. Similarly, they couldn't touch Tax Collector Eric Zwayer's budget; it's all driven by revenues collected in his office anyway.
Also, commissioners can't tell the constitutional officers - who are elected by the voters - how to spend the money in their budgets.
"It's not our purview," Richie said.
Although Elwell wanted to eliminate a $330,000 contribution to the three municipal recreation programs, he was outvoted. Instead, the commissioners vowed to find a different funding source in next year's budget talks.
"Much of the participation in youth sports is outside the city limits," Brooks said, "so I struggle with removing the funding."
"We've already cut it in half, almost," Commissioner Greg Harris said. "And recreation means an awful, awful lot to our youth."
With Handley agreeing, Richie directed Fisher to keep the item in the budget.
A final budget must be passed in September.