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Hands tied, Zephyrhills mayor backs off on vetoing unchanged millage rate

ZEPHYRHILLS — Mayor Cliff McDuffie arrived with a prepared statement to put his frustration on the record.

"Over the last year, I have twice advised the council to raise the millage rate," McDuffie read from his statement Monday evening to the City Council.

But the council voted last month to keep the same tax rate for next year — which would bring in the nearly $500,000 less than last year that McDuffie said could lead to cuts in services or possibly layoffs.

"It just doesn't seem to me the council thought this decision through," McDuffie told the Times.

Then came this revelation: McDuffie said he so objected to keeping the tax rate at 5.57 mills that he eventually came to the "hard political decision" of using his mayoral power to veto it. But he held off when he learned what the consequences would be.

State law spells out the process for local agencies to set their tax rates, publicly advertise them and hold public hearings. An agency that violates those procedures — say, for instance, by raising the tax rate after certain deadlines have passed — can face penalties, including the loss of 12 months of half-cent sales tax revenue from the state.

After studying state statutes and talking to the city attorney, McDuffie said he realized Zephyrhills could face up to $2 million in penalties if he vetoed the tax rate.

So, he decided not to veto it — but implored the council on Monday to give more serious consideration to a higher tax rate the following budget year.

McDuffie said he would like to bring in financial advisers to explain the consequences of future budget decisions, and he hopes the process is started earlier next year.

McDuffie had previously lobbied for raising the tax rate to 5.7 mills, or $5.70 in tax for every $1,000 in taxable property.

He said Monday evening that such an increase would have resulted in an extra $5 in property taxes for someone in a $91,000 home.

"That is about the cost of a pack of cigarettes, a six-pack of beer or a Cuban or Subway sandwich," the mayor said. "However, that increase would bring in some $70,000 to the city's coffers."

According to a memo prepared by City Manager Steve Spina before last month's vote, keeping the millage rate the same as last year's will generate almost $446,000 less for the upcoming budget because of a number of factors, including falling property values and the larger homestead exemption provided under Amendment 1.

During last month's debate, council president Jodi Wilkeson said she favored higher fees over higher taxes because she said more citizens would be negatively affected by a higher millage rate.

But McDuffie argued that higher fees would cost taxpayers more money than a bump in the millage rate would have.

After making his statement Monday evening, McDuffie handed out written copies of his speech to the council and the media.

Council member Lance Smith thanked the mayor for not vetoing the tax rate. Smith said it was clear the mayor was looking out for the citizens of Zephyrhills.

McDuffie said he was frustrated he could not do more sooner.

He said he is afraid the people of Zephyrhills may soon feel the financial squeeze.

Hands tied, Zephyrhills mayor backs off on vetoing unchanged millage rate 08/25/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 9:09pm]
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