BROOKSVILLE — County Administrator Len Sossamon has said it repeatedly during town hall meetings and in talks with groups around Hernando County:
He knows that libraries are popular. And he has no intention of closing them.
But there's a problem. During the next fiscal year, to operate at their current level, Hernando libraries will need an additional $2 million.
On Tuesday, the County Commission will consider one possible option — a separate taxing unit to support libraries. The commission will consider setting a public hearing on a taxing district for next month.
Whether the option will even make it to a public hearing is unknown. Last year, when commissioners considered special taxing units for libraries and parks and recreation, they unanimously turned thumbs down.
Adding a special taxing unit, they reasoned, would increase residents' overall property tax bills.
Commission Chairman Dave Russell said he is still opposed to the idea, but wants his fellow commissioners to have the chance to discuss the idea's merits.
George Zoettlein, assistant administrator for budget and community development, said commissioners are coming up on an important deadline and he sees approval of a taxing unit as "having something in our toolbox to create a revenue source."
Establishing the unit doesn't obligate the commission to use it, he said.
The commission must act by May 24 to establish the unit in order to have it as an option as they go through the final stages of their budget planning this summer, Zoettlein said.
While Sossamon has been insistent that there is no plan to close libraries, that is one county service officials have threatened to curtail in the past. In fact, as property values have fallen in recent years, officials have warned that various departments could shut down entirely.
For several years, the county was able to blunt the sting of falling property tax revenues, using excess reserve funds and, in the case of libraries, grant money from the state.
But the excess reserves are gone, and grants have been relied on so heavily that the grant reserve is nearly gone. The annual state grant amount is not sufficient to cover all costs.
In the current fiscal year, the county is spending $90,000 out of the general fund to pay library expenses. The overall library budget is $2.7 million.
Another item on the Tuesday commission agenda will drive home the popularity of the county's libraries. Sossamon will present the results of his recent town hall citizen survey.
A total of 783 surveys were returned. While ambulance service, fire service and law enforcement were at the top of the list of services based on importance, libraries still ranked in the top third of all county services.
The survey also showed that when asked if it was most important to keep taxes and fees as low as possible, even if it means reducing the current level of programs and services, 63 percent of those who responded said no.
When asked if a revenue increase was acceptable if it means preserving current levels of programs and services, 71 percent responded that it was.
The County Commission has approved increases in the tax rate the past two years, but not to the point of making up the revenue lost by falling property values. Commissioners have been reluctant to do so because there has been a strong public outcry in the past to cut government and lower taxes.
Increasingly, over the past two years, as the size of the county staff has shrunk and service levels have dropped, more residents have come forward at public meetings to say they are willing to pay a little more to maintain some services.
The Hernando County library system was recently named the 2013 Florida Library of the Year by the Florida Library Association.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.