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Amid budget woes, Hillsborough commissioners trim tax rate

TAMPA — Twenty-four cents.

That's how much a typical Hills­borough County homeowner will save on his county property tax this year.

The tiny, symbolic cut came when county commissioners voted Thursday to lower the millage rate ever so slightly.

But times are tough in Hillsborough County, so why cut the tax rate at all?

Because county commissioners had a 16-year streak of lowering the millage rate behind them and were aiming for a 17th year.

Keeping that going this year will cost them $100,000 out of the general fund.

The tradeoff didn't add up for Commissioner Kevin Beckner.

"Twenty-four cents?" he asked. "Okay, so if we decided not to do this, what could we use the $100,000 for?"

He worried that chunk of money would come from public programs. So did Commissioner Kevin White.

"I don't want to be the killjoy to break anybody's streak," White said, "But I think our citizens want a little more than symbolism now. … A quarter vs. $100,000 is a no-brainer."

The 24-cent cut applies to a $200,000 house with a $50,000 homestead exemption. The county's millage — a dollar of tax for each $1,000 of taxable property value — now stands at 10.7614, compared to last year's 10.7630. It affects only the county's part of a tax bill, not school district taxes or taxes paid by city residents.

The other commissioners sided with the slight decrease. Jim Norman said those little cuts add up over time, and they create pressure for future commissions to keep the streak alive. Not cutting it would set a bad precedent, he said.

Rose Ferlita said there didn't have to be a tradeoff. That $100,000 didn't have to come from programs. It could come from efficiency cuts in the budget.

"It shows confidence, it shows leadership, it shows something our citizens can hang onto," Ferlita said.

If this cut was merely symbolic, White said, why not make it $10,000 instead of $100,000? That would have given back two cents to that $200,000 homeowner. Both Beckner and White voted for that option.

But commissioners felt that cut was too insignificant, and voted against it.

Ultimately, Beckner sided with the five other commissioners in the vote to lower the tax rate. White cast the only dissenting vote. Beckner later said he was satisfied with county staff's assurance that the money wouldn't be taken out of programs for children, seniors or families.

Also Thursday, commissioners continued to comb through the budget as officials rattled off the effect of cuts.

Commissioners flagged one program slated to be stripped down to minimal funding — the Hillsborough County Extension Service. The program provides the agricultural community, kids and consumers with educational programs and research on topics from gardening to nutrition and urban forestry.

To save $453,000 in the 2010 budget and an additional $70,000 in 2011, 17 staffers would be cut. Ferlita and Norman asked for more discussion, emphasizing the importance of agriculture in the county.

The public will also see library system cutbacks. In order to save $2.2 million in 2010 and $2.3 million during 2011, there will be fewer book orders and reduced library hours. Twenty-six jobs will be eliminated.

Instead of opening in the morning on Thursdays, libraries would open at noon on the system's slowest day. Some community libraries would close for an additional three to eight hours a week.

Norman suggested including a solicitation in a monthly county bill, such as a water bill, asking people if they'd like to donate a dollar to the library system. Staffers will look into that idea.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Amid budget woes, Hillsborough commissioners trim tax rate 07/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 30, 2009 11:44pm]
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