Wednesday, February 21, 2018
News Roundup

Expanded library hours, added public safety highlight Pasco's proposed budget

NEW PORT RICHEY — For the first time in three years, Pasco commissioners considered a proposed county budget that matched recurring spending with available revenue.

It didn't last long.

Instead of an austere budget, with enough money for employee raises and little else in new general fund spending, commissioners dipped into a reserve account for a multimillion-dollar spending spree. The proposed 2017-18 budget now includes money to: keep libraries open longer; add ambulance service in Trilby and west Pasco; bolster elderly nutrition; turn an empty building in Dade City into a one-stop community center for needy youth; double the size of employee raises, and honor all of the spending requests from Sheriff Chris Nocco, Elections Supervisor Brian Corley, Clerk of the Circuit Court & Comptroller Paula S. O'Neil and Property Appraiser Gary Joiner.

An initial budget proposal from County Administrator Dan Biles, previewed for commissioners Tuesday morning during a daylong workshop, included status quo property tax rates for the county's general fund (7.6076 mils) and fire department (1.8036 mils). In the general fund, most of the new revenue from a growing property tax roll was earmarked for the final installment of a three-year pay plan to increase deputies' salaries and benefits at the Pasco Sheriff's Office at a cost of more than $5 million.

It left just less than $557,000 in new tax money to cover more than $8 million in requested spending from Nocco, the other constitutional officers and the commission's own initiatives.

"It's not always happy at budget time,'' said Nocco. "I get that.''

Not included in the initial budget were Nocco's request for 14 new positions, O'Neil's pitch for six new employees in her financial department and Joiner's plan to add two information technology employees. Nearly all of the commission's own planned initiatives were excluded as well.

The proposed spending plan did, however, include 2 percent raises for county employees and staffers in the constitutional offices outside the Sheriff's Office. Tax Collector Mike Fasano's budget is financed by fees the office collects and is not due to the state Department of Revenue until August.

In the afternoon session, commissioners went from frugal to generous. They doubled the raises to 4 percent, fulfilled the constitutional officers' requests and plugged in enough money for nearly all of their own proposal. The only items that failed to land in the budget were three new supervisors for emergency services, $50,000 to join a Tampa Bay Alliance of Economic Developers and $332,000 to eliminate parking fees at county parks.

The proposed property tax rates also remained unchanged. But typical homeowners with a homestead exemption will see their county tax bills go up a little less than $10 in combined general fund and fire district taxes because of a 2.1 percent increase in property values.

Separate from the property tax rates, the proposed budget also includes a $38 increase in the stormwater assessment to $95 per home for drainage work.

The proposed budget for the county fire department includes new equipment, including a platform ladder truck and fire rescue boat and 25 new employees, including 15 officers, drivers and firefighters to staff the new truck; four plans examiners; four division or battalion chiefs, and a public information officer.

The final budget numbers are expected to change as the Property Appraiser's Office finalizes the tax rolls by July 1. Joiner previously provided a preliminary estimate of a $24.2 billion tax roll, an increase of $1.336 billion or 5.8 percent. Any increase in the final number will generate additional property tax dollars for the county that could be used to replenish the reserve account or cover other spending.

A year ago, the final tax roll figure from retired Property Appraiser Mike Wells Sr. grew an additional 2 percent over the preliminary estimate. If that happens again, it would provide an additional $3.6 million in tax revenue to the county.

The overall budget totals $1.33 billion and is anchored by a proposed $273.6 million general fund budget that is financed with $161 million in property taxes. Commissioners will set the property tax rate at their July 11 meeting and must conduct two public hearings before final adoption of the budget in September. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The debate Tuesday also included a short-lived discussion, sparked by Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, to separate spending for parks and libraries into new municipal service taxing units. The idea died, however, when commissioners learned they did not have sufficient time to meet the legal requirements for advertising and adopting the ordinances by July 1.

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