BROOKSVILLE — A divided Hernando County Commission voted tentatively Tuesday to raise the property tax rate to a level that would bring in the same amount of revenue next year as this year, averting for now possible closures of parks, libraries and other non-mandated services.
The decision came after pleas from residents — those who didn't want county programs cut further and senior citizens who said they couldn't afford higher taxes.
Others urged the county to balance the budget by using more of its reserves; some, on the other hand, asked commissioners to "man up'' and raise the tax rate rather than worry about the political implications.
The plan approved was negotiated by top county officials during talks late Monday and early Tuesday and was recommended by County Administrator Len Sossamon. It included some last-minute changes in the budget of Sheriff Al Nienhuis.
The sheriff agreed to cut his budget by $1.16 million. But the cut will not affect Sheriff's Office services. Instead of taking county money up front to provide services such as school resource officers, school crossing guards, inmate road crews and emergency services dispatching, he will let the agencies that reimburse him for those services pay the costs.
In the past, he would collect the money from the county, get reimbursed by the agencies later, then return those funds to the county at the end of each fiscal year.
Taking that money out of the general fund altogether lessens the amount the county is required to keep in its reserves, meaning more money is freed up to cover other expenses. That reduces the projected general fund revenue shortfall of $5.8 million for 2012-13.
Nienhuis noted that the plan means his finance staff would have to keep a close eye on the cash flow in his accounts. But he said he was confident it wouldn't create a problem.
"We're going to continue to dig'' to find more savings, he said.
Sossamon's plan also includes taking dollars the county has set aside to pay post-employment benefits and using that money to cover some of the revenue deficit. And the county will impose a new surcharge on the county utilities budget.
The tax rate the commission tentatively set — 6.0851 mills — is .4572 of a mill higher than last year, translating to $45.72 in additional tax for every $100,000 of appraised taxable property value. That amount is what is known as the rollback rate because, when applied to lower property values, it brings in the same dollar total as last year.
Commissioner Dave Russell explained that, even with a tax rate increase, property owners in Hernando County still would be paying at a 12 percent to 15 percent lower rate than in 2006. And their property values have fallen, meaning they're paying less in taxes.
Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes expressed frustration with the county staff. While commissioners had asked how much of county departments' budgets were mandated services that could not be cut, the staff has said that most of what they do is mandated.
Dukes bristled earlier in the meeting when code enforcement and building department managers gave reports saying that combining the two functions and cutting several staffers would slow services to customers and back up cases.
Dukes suggested that cutting staff or cutting salaries were still options to be considered.
"What you're doing is setting us up to raise taxes again next year,'' Dukes said. "I will vote no.''
Commissioner James Adkins said he worried that the higher tax rate was going to further hurt businesses already struggling in the current economy.
"If I'm pro-business, I can't be pro-tax on business,'' Adkins said.
Russell pointed out that he was a longtime businessman and he knew many other business people in the community. Not one has asked him to not raise the tax rate, he said. Several, he said, have told him that the time has come, after five years of budget cutting, to increase the rate.
Commissioner John Druzbick said no one had spelled out for him some other way to make up the millions of dollars the commission would have to cut from its budget in order to hold the line on the tax rate. And how would the county be able to find money to attract new businesses like the manufacturing firm the county is currently courting if there is no money in the county's coffers, he asked.
At the rollback rate, with home values still falling, Druzbick said, "if you paid $500 in tax last year, you'll still pay $500 in tax this year.''
Russell turned to Dukes and Adkins and demanded to know where they would find millions to cut. Would they cut parks, libraries or the county cooperative extension service? "I would just like to hear from you guys what your idea is,'' he said.
Adkins said he wanted to see the county's five constitutional officers cut more from their budgets.
Russell grimaced and called the question, prompting the vote.
Druzbick, Russell and Jeff Stabins voted in favor of the tentative rate. Dukes and Adkins voted against it.
The commissioners agreed that between now and the final budget hearing in September, they will continue to look for savings to try to reduce that tax rate further.
Commissioners had to vote on a tentative budget plan Tuesday because, by law, the county's budget manager must present them with a balanced budget by July 15.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.