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Hernando commission considers separate taxing units for parks, libraries

BROOKSVILLE — Just how much does a property owner pay each year to keep Hernando County's parks and libraries operating? What about other county services?

Those are answers the County Commission would like to provide to better educate residents.

Exactly how that will happen, however, is still up in the air. And some commissioners expressed concern that the discussion will lead to higher taxes.

The issue was raised Tuesday when the county's budget manager, George Zoettlein, asked commissioners to consider approving an ordinance that would allow the county to establish separate taxing units to pay for parks and for libraries. Such an ordinance would have to be approved by June 15 if the county is to use the taxing units to generate revenue for the 2012-13 budget.

Zoettlein said commissioners wouldn't need to set tax rates for those units until later in the summer as they were closer to working out final details of the budget.

The county's general fund, which pays for services such as parks and libraries, law enforcement, development services and county administration, has seen revenue losses in recent years. A taxing unit could allow the county to move the funding for particular purposes out of the general fund.

Several commissioners voiced concern that the public perception of such a move could be that the board was simply looking for a way to increase overall tax revenue.

Commissioner Dave Russell said he likes the idea of transparency so residents know what they're paying for, and he indicated he would like to see the spending of constitutional officers broken out as well.

But information is one thing and setting a tax rate is another, he said. Even without the taxing units, commissioners have the option of increasing the property tax rate if they determine that they need additional revenue, he said.

"My concern is . . . public perception at this point,'' Russell said.

Commissioner Jim Adkins said his concern was that a taxing unit would mean a tax increase for property owners unless corresponding cuts were made in the general fund.

"It's just leaving an option out there,'' Zoettlein responded.

If commissioners approved the ordinance, they could always decide later this summer to fund the taxing units at zero or cancel the ordinance.

Zoettlein explained that more than half a dozen other counties break out services such as parks and libraries. He also noted that, if the board simply wanted to break out the existing tax rates to better demonstrate how each service is funded, he could do that.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins reminded his colleagues that there have been discussions before about having a separate taxing unit for the sheriff, whose budget consumes the largest portion of general fund revenue.

Zoettlein said some communities do break out law enforcement, but doing so is more complex than it is for other county services.

Commissioner John Druzbick said that if the county didn't create separate taxing units to fund some services, it was unclear whether information about how much each service costs could be put on tax bills.

County officials said they needed to do more research on the issue, so commissioners agreed to talk more about the topic during their June 5 budget workshop.

The county has struggled with falling tax revenue over the last few years as property values have dropped. For the 2012-13 budget year, which begins Oct. 1, county officials anticipate another 5 percent decline, although they will get a better idea when the first estimate of property values is released by the Property Appraiser's Office next week.

Zoettlein is also awaiting the delivery of budget proposals by the county's constitutional officers, which are due on June 1.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando commission considers separate taxing units for parks, libraries 05/22/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 22, 2012 8:33pm]
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