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County budget proposal reflects improving economy

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill presented a budget to commissioners late Friday that for the first time in years shows an increase in tax revenue due to rising home values and consumer spending.

The $3.8 billion spending plan reflects increases in almost all of the county's major money sources, from property to sales taxes, though the gains are modest. They reflect a slow recovery from an economic downturn that has forced governments across the country to slash public jobs and eliminate or streamline services in the past five years.

As such, the budget includes few, if any, major new spending proposals. A highlight for government employees is that it will include their first raises since 2009, which Merrill had confirmed weeks ago.

"This budget signals a turning point," Merrill wrote in a message to county residents and commissioners. "For the first time since the world economy sank into a deep recession over four years ago, we are once again seeing positive growth."

His spending proposal assumes that the county's overall property tax rate stays the same at $10.76 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value. That means that someone with a $200,000 home in unincorporated Hillsborough who has a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay $1,614 for the county portion of his property tax bill. School and other taxes add to that amount.

The budget is the first since commissioners crafted a strategic plan during the past year that seeks to put economic development and creating jobs at the top of their agenda. In addition to the pay raises and a state-imposed $7.2 million increase in county contributions toward employees' pensions, there is $1.7 million in seed money for creation of up to five redevelopment areas throughout the county.

These so-called tax-increment finance districts are being considered for the University of South Florida area, the West Shore business district, the Florida State Fairgrounds area, Palm River and the Big Bend area in southern Hillsborough. Such taxing districts, where gains in property taxes due to rising values are reinvested into the immediate area rather than getting spent in other parts of the county, take several years to raise substantial sums. The seed money would kick-start redevelopment efforts.

"It's to help establish the districts and to help get improvements implemented," said Bonnie Wise, chief financial administrator for the county.

If approved, the budget also would create 5 new positions in the county's economic development department at a cost of just more than $700,000 and set aside $500,000 for job training by the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance.

Commissioners, who had not seen the budget Friday, will recognize other items that they have previously approved. They include $2 million to promote the tech startup community and $6.5 million for roadwork that was an enticement to lure a Bass Pro Shops store in Brandon.

"It's the sort of budget I like," said county budget chief Tom Fesler. "It's kind of boring."

Beyond the Bass Pro expenditure, there are not many other big-ticket items because the county is not exactly flush with new money. Property taxes, for instance, are expected to bring in about $22 million more than they did in the current fiscal year, or about $569 million.

That's the main pot of money that covers much of the county's operating costs, from paying sheriff's deputies and firefighters to filling in potholes.

Merrill is asking for about $1.5 million to implement steps seeking to reduce the number of animals that are euthanized each year at the county's shelter, which commissioners had already endorsed. Smaller pools are set aside to improve areas that the county arguably has neglected, such as by increasing the frequency of mowing at parks and along roadways.

Finally, the administrator has set aside $5.4 million in recurring money and about $30 million for potential one-time expenses that he has not committed, allowing commissioners to decide whether he has overlooked something. Some of that money could go unspent, allowing the board instead to continue a nearly 20-year tradition of lowering the tax rate, even if it is by a barely noticeable amount.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

County budget proposal reflects improving economy 05/31/13 [Last modified: Saturday, June 1, 2013 12:36am]

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