BROOKSVILLE — On Tuesday, Hernando County commissioners will get their first shot to talk publicly about the county's proposed 2013-14 budget, a plan that relies on the most significant property tax rate increase in recent years.
Commissioners say they have plenty to discuss — and some listening to do as well.
At the 2:30 p.m. budget workshop, county staffers will present County Administrator Len Sossamon's proposed $322.8 million budget, which includes a $92.2 million general fund.
The tax rate to support the general fund is a 24.5 percent increase over last year's, but officials say that the average homeowner would see an increase of about 8 percent in the amount of his or her tax bill.
Commissioners have varied opinions about whether the tax rate increase should be imposed. They also question whether they should approve the 3 percent employee pay raises proposed by Sossamon at a time when the county has a revenue shortfall of $9.7 million.
County officials scheduled the workshop to take place after Hernando County property owners received their truth in millage, or TRIM, notices announcing what they could be paying in taxes for the upcoming budget year.
But since the notices hit mailboxes, the County Commission office has heard little reaction.
Commission Chairman Dave Russell said he has heard a few comments from business people concerned about the level of the tax rate increase, but he noted that when they saw the actual proposed increase in the amount of their tax bills, they didn't think it was so bad.
Russell said he would still like the tax rate increase to be smaller than the 1.4 mills that Sossamon has proposed. A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value. Russell said he would like to see a rate closer to a 1 mill increase. That reduction would trim more than $3 million from the county's projected revenue.
"I want them to go back and try a bit harder to get that increase to a little bit lower level,'' Russell said. "There is going to have to be a millage increase. It's just a matter of how much.''
The pay raise issue is a difficult one, he said.
"On the whole, the average government employee wages and benefits are significantly higher than the general public,'' Russell said. And while the economy seems to be starting to turn around, "we're still not there yet.''
While the county administrator built 3 percent raises into the overall county budget, Sheriff Al Nienhuis has proposed 2 percent to 6 percent raises for his staff, costing $700,000.
In asking for a reduction in the proposed tax increase, Russell said "there are no sacred cows'' when it comes to finding cuts.
Russell said the county has done a good job in recent years to cut costs while maintaining needed services.
"Everybody has done the things we have asked,'' he said. "But we still owe it to the taxpayers to look harder until we hit the wall, … and we're very close to the wall.''
Past years' revenue shortfalls were largely absorbed through attrition as employees left and by spending down reserves. Now county departments are so thin that employees who leave often must be replaced. And there are no more reserves to tap.
Commissioner Diane Rowden said she is not anxious to tamper with the budgets of the county's constitutional officers, such as the sheriff.
"The constitutionals are duly elected. They're professionals. They have budgets, and they know what their needs are,'' she said.
But Rowden also said that no county employee raises, even those of the constitutional officers, should top whatever the commission's employees would receive. She said she supports raises because the severe cutbacks over the past few years have meant "a lot of our employees have been picking up the slack,'' and, after six years since the last raise, it is time.
Rowden said she knows that the proposed tax rate increase will prompt some push-back, but she said the proposed rate would still translate into bills that are markedly lower than before the bottom dropped out of the housing market.
Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he is opposed to any pay raises.
"Now is not the time,'' he said, "not when we are in a $9 million deficit.''
Nicholson also said he is not in favor of raising the tax rate. Instead, he would like to see various departments make cuts equal to their share of the deficit. That would mean slicing $3 million from the departments that answer directly to the commission, and the sheriff would have to cut $6 million from his nearly $40 million spending plan.
"That's his job, not our job,'' Nicholson said.''
Commissioner Wayne Dukes is no big fan of a tax rate increase either.
"I want to talk about options,'' he said, "but I'm still the commissioner of no.''
He also opposes employee pay raises.
"No one in the private sector is getting pay raises,'' he said.
Commissioner Jim Adkins said he wants more information, including how much money the county will be able to roll forward from the 2012-13 budget into next year.
"I'm keeping an open mind on all of it,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.