Local News

Sheriff will trim $1.1 million from budget

— After two days of budget hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, county commissioners succeeded in trimming only $90,568 from a $10.8 million deficit.

However, Sheriff Susan Benton said on Friday that she’ll offer to revise her budget downward by $1.126 million, and commissioners directed staff to look again at line items which appeared as if they might be reduced.

Budget Director Tim Mechling said Highlands County administrators and department directors will do that on Tuesday.

“We’ll be looking at lot of items and cost centers,” Mechling said Friday.

Among the items cut were the commissioners’ own salaries. In fiscal year 2012-13, when the county’s population was slightly lower, their salaries were set by state law at $48,802.

“We don’t need to be increasing that,” Commissioner Don Elwell said Tuesday.

“I’m with you,” Chairman Greg Harris said.

Since they’ve been unable to offer increases to employees for seven years, commissioners voted 5-0 not to accept more money either. The state had set the annual amount at $50,679.

By that same salary schedule, all five constitutional officers and the school superintendent also got about $4,000 more per year. County commissioners were to receive an additional $1,877; school board members will be paid $1,156.

Commissioners examined hundreds of line items during those two days, but could find nothing to cut for most departments.

“Children’s Advocacy Center,” Harris said.

“A $76 decrease,” Elwell said. “It’s a very small budget.”

“Yes, it is,” Harris said. “See anything guys?”

None of the five commissioners saw possible cuts.

“Emergency medical services,” Harris said. “A reduction of 2.67 percent, $138,145.”

Again, no commissioners saw a possible cut.

“Animal control, 4.45 percent, $24,517 increase in operating supplies. Not a whole lot of fluff in here,” Harris said.

Libraries are taking decreases, and their budgets for new books are the same as last year.

“Traffic operations. Increases all down the line,” Harris said.

“There may be some opportunities there,” Elwell said.

“County shell pit,” Harris said. Fuel costs looked overestimated.

“No,” County Attorney Ross Macbeth interjected. It’s going to be used for Sebring Parkway Phase 3, a new road which will start at a 90-degree turn west of downtown Sebring and end at South Florida State College.

“Just see if maybe there could be a reduction,” Harris suggested.

“Yes sir,” County Administrator June replied.

What if the county didn’t build Phase 3 this year, Harris asked. However, he realized he may be grasping at straws. “What would it cost us in the future? If we don’t spend $3 million now, will it cost $12 million in the future?

“Some money has already been spent,” Macbeth said. “FDOT would have to be reimbursed. If you’re looking for that kind of information, staff could probably do that.”

County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete wasn’t available, so Harris turned to Fisher. “Maybe Ramon could do that when he gets back?”

Done on Tuesday with the department heads who work for the commissioners, on Wednesday they questioned non-profits requesting grants and three of the constitutional officers about their budgets.

Tax Collector Eric Zwayer and Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre were absent. Clerk of Court Bob Germaine cut is budget by $32,000, and Election Supervisor Penny Ogg’s budget almost the same as four years ago, when the last gubernatorial primary was held.

In the past five years, commissioners have deleted funding for all three chambers of commerce, and cut funding for agencies like Heartland Horses for Handicapped and Ridge Area ARC, saying they needed to find a way to raise their own donations.

They’ve also cut NU-HOPE Elder Care Services’ funding from $55,000 in 1994 to $29,250 last year, said Resource Development Director Laurie Murphy. The agency asked for $35,000 this year.

“They’re providing a service that, if they weren’t providing it, we would have to provide it,” Commissioner Jim Brooks said.

“Unlike most non-profits, we were formally organized as a result of federal and state legislation,” Murphy said. Florida required counties to provide services for seniors in one of two ways: the county could provide funds, or provide meals and services.

“We don’t want to create a new department,” Harris said.

“Forty percent of Highlands County’s population is age 60 or older,” Murphy told the commissioners, and 51 percent of voters are 60 and older.”

“What is your total budget for the year?” Elwell asked.

“$2.2 million, for three counties,” Murphy said. “But what we raise in Highlands County does not cross over. It is spent here.”

Safehouse was another agency the commissioners didn’t question.

Sherri Schwab, director of victims service, asked for $30,000. The abuse shelter took in 271 adults and 86 children last year.

“I don’t feel there is any question we want to fund this,” Harris said.