BROOKSVILLE — Hernando School Board members didn't have the stomach for a property tax rate increase that would have brought in $2.2 million for the upcoming budget year.
Now, they must decide whether to ask the voters to tax themselves for 2012 and 2013.
It came as no surprise, but the board on Tuesday evening turned down its last opportunity to levy another 25 cents for every $1,000 of property value to help bolster the district's operating fund.
Board member James Yant moved to approve the so-called critical needs millage, but the motion died for lack of a second and with no discussion. It would have taken a super majority vote, or four of five board members, to make it happen.
Instead, the board approved a tentative rate of 7.147 mills, or $714.70 dollars for a $125,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption. That's $6.20 less than last year for the same example home.
Had the board levied the critical needs millage, the bill for that home would be $766.70, or $18.80 more than last year.
Those examples assume property values had stayed the same. But values tanked again this year, dropping about 11 percent, so tax bills for most residents will come in even lower.
The state sets most of a district's tax rate. Last year, the Legislature gave school boards the power to levy an extra quarter mill for the 2009 and 2010 budget years. Hernando was not among the 44 of 67 districts that took the option last year.
Board members had voiced strong opposition to the additional millage even when the district's budget looked to be nearly $6 million in the red. In recent weeks, though, that picture has brightened.
The district collected about $1 million more in property taxes than expected, and was able to carry forward some $6 million that went unspent this current budget year on staffing costs and diesel fuel, chief financial officer Desiree Henegar told the board.
Now the total general fund is projected to be $171 million with $6.3 million in reserves, though Henegar noted that all but $1.7 million is already designated for other purposes.
Still, that took the pressure off the board to raise the tax rate.
The voters must approve the levy for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 budget years, and boards must decide this summer to place the issue on this November's ballot. That also requires a super majority vote.
The board is expected to consider at its Aug. 10 meeting whether to have the county elections office place the question on the ballot. The measure would require support from 60 percent of voters to pass. Elections supervisor Annie Williams said she needs direction as soon as possible and no later than the Aug. 24 primary.
At least three board members have said they are fine with letting taxpayers decide.
"I'll support putting it on the ballot, and I'll be out there saying we should approve it if our financial situation worsens," board member John Sweeney said.
Board member Sandra Nicholson admits she still has "mixed emotions."
"In some ways I want to let the voters decide," Nicholson said. "On the other hand, I would hate even trying to do that. I don't like taxes."
While Nicholson said she may vote for the ballot question, she wouldn't lobby for its passage.
"It would be, 'Here it is, take it or leave it,' " she said.
There has been some concern, however, that the statute is worded in a way that could leave a voter-approved increase open to a legal challenge if the school boards do not approve the levy this year. State officials have said it's not necessary for school boards to do so in order to put the issue to voters, but board attorney Paul Carland and superintendent Bryan Blavatt told the board Tuesday they are still worried about the legal vulnerability.
Board member Dianne Bonfield said that concerns her.
"Whenever voters have a chance to vote on money issues, I think they should be given that chance," Bonfield said. "The issue boils down to whether it's legal or not."
The second and final budget hearing is set for 6 p.m. Sept. 7.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.