BROOKSVILLE — County voters will decide next year whether they want to continue to tax themselves to buy environmentally sensitive lands and whether they want a special tax to pay for controlling mosquitoes.
The County Commission on Tuesday unanimously agreed to those referendum questions and accepted the concept that, for the next two years, they will not levy the tax for sensitive lands. Instead, they will levy a tax that essentially cancels out the lands levy to pay for mosquito prevention and eradication.
Tax-cut advocate Linda Hayward said putting those questions on the ballot and identifying each tax as a continuation "is a little bit sneaky.''
Those decisions on the ballot questions were part of a larger discussion of the county budget. Commissioners stopped short of deciding on the overall tax levy, which must be set at their meeting next week to meet state deadlines. At that point, the commission can set a tentative tax rate above what they might need but can lower it anytime between that date and the date of the final budget hearing in late September.
Without spending $100,000 in property owner notifications, the commission cannot raise the rate after they set the tentative rate next week.
That is just what Commissioner John Druzbick advocated Tuesday.
He noted that there were many budget issues still unsettled and that the board should consider setting the so-called "roll-back'' rate or a portion of it. The roll-back rate is the tax rate the county would charge to raise the same amount of revenue in the next fiscal year as was raised this year, considering the change in property values.
As Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek informed the board in a memo delivered this week, because property values continue to fall and the tax rate has been unchanged or lowered in recent years, this year the county raised the same amount in property tax as it did in 2003 when there were 30,000 fewer people in the county.
Mazourek has also encouraged the board to levy the roll-back rate.
Druzbick said the prediction is that the county will continue to see values drop and that, next year, the county will start out more than $3.7 million in the hole.
Without going with a higher tax rate, he said, the county will be forced to make even more cuts and "I'll be hard-pressed to find them.'' He reminded his colleagues that even if they set the rate higher, there is still time to lower it before the final budget hearing in September.
Citizens in the audience had a wide variety of opinions.
Anthony Palmieri suggested that the commission set the rate at the roll-back amount and add a bit more to mosquito control to get the job done right. At a lower rate, "I'm not sure it's enough to do what we need to do'' with mosquitoes, he said.
A roll-back was unacceptable to Anna Liisa Covell. "The people are angry. They're really angry. Please think about this before you raise our taxes,'' she said.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins suggested that the budget discussion continue next week and that two individuals on whom much is riding be invited to the meeting to join the conversation.
The county has balanced its budget with the supposition that Sheriff Al Nienhuis will find another $1.2 million in cuts in his budget and Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams will find more than $200,000 more. The commission agreed to invite them to the meeting next week under the request of Commission Chairman Jim Adkins.
The balanced budget also relies on a vote of the commissioners to approve using just under $2 million in funds from the budget stabilization reserve. That money can be used to offset an unusual financial problem, such as this year's double-whammy of having to refund taxes because of tax value challenges primarily by Cemex and a shortfall in the budget of Tax Collector Juanita Sikes in fee revenue reductions and added expenses for taking over driver's licensing functions.
But using the fund requires a vote of at least four commissioners and Druzbick said that he wouldn't vote for it and other commissioners had doubts. The board tabled action on using the reserves Tuesday to wait and see how other budget discussions are resolved.
The commission also let slide the last date they could save seven employees from layoffs. With no commission action, funding for those positions is gone. Some of those employees used union contract language to bump other less-senior county workers from jobs.
Commissioners were also briefed on 40 other vacant positions in the budget, some of which county officials had hoped to fill.
County Administrator David Hamilton told commissioners that he and his leadership team appreciated their oversight of the spending decisions, but were also busy doing their jobs to be sure only those positions that were absolutely necessary would be refilled.
One of those came later in the meeting when the commission approved a new building official, William Frank Baxter.
The commissioners also set their first of two required formal public hearings on the proposed budget and tax rate for 5:01 p.m. Sept. 13.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.