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Hernando County considers special taxing unit to fund mosquito program

BROOKSVILLE — The County Commission is considering a new way to fund its battle against mosquitoes, but officials emphasize it won't mean higher taxes.

The idea is to not raise any money next year through a levy taxpayers have supported for years to buy and maintain sensitive lands. Instead, the county would create a special taxing unit that would raise the same amount of revenue, only the funds would go to Mosquito Control.

A public hearing on the idea is set for 9:30 a.m. June 14. At that meeting, the board will hear public comment, then determine whether to form a Municipal Service Taxing Unit.

If the commission chooses to levy the same amount as the sensitive lands fund, the tax rate would be 0.0844 mills. A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value.

For the owner of a home valued at $150,000 with the full $50,000 homestead exemption, that rate would amount to $8.44 on the tax bill.

Countywide, that would raise $604,742 to run Mosquito Control. The department's budget is $535,743 although officials have said they may run over budget because of the cost of fighting the mosquito outbreak in April.

That outbreak, partially blamed on heavy rains, brought the discussion of Mosquito Control funding to a head. More than 1,000 people called the county to complain about the swarms of mosquitoes and county officials mobilized to provide additional spraying.

Soon after, during an early May budget workshop, Environmental Services Director Joe Stapf told the County Commission that part of the reason for the outbreak was a lack of preventative work ahead of time caused in part by lack of money.

Last year during budget talks, the commission slashed more than $100,000 from the Mosquito Control budget.

That meant the office lost all of the seasonal workers who ran the spray trucks leaving that task as one more that had to be accomplished by the four remaining spraying staff, Stapf told commissioners.

He went on to tell them that it was time to fund the department appropriately or simply stop the service.

"If we're going to do it, we have to do it right. If we're not going to do it right, then we need to get rid of the program,'' Stapf said. "We can't do the program right with the funding as it is set.''

The special taxing unit idea grew out of a suggestion by Commissioner Dave Russell that the county simply use the sensitive lands fund to pay for mosquito control. He reasoned that much of the land the county has acquired is swampy and contributes to the breeding of mosquitoes.

County staff determined another way to accomplish the same thing was to create a new taxing unit and simply not levy the sensitive lands fund. That way, County Administrator David Hamilton said, the change would still have no effect on the bottom line of property owners' tax bills.

Stapf had also done some research on what it would cost to do a countywide aerial spraying and that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and would last just three weeks. "I don't think that's a good use for tax dollars,'' he told the commission.

Since then, Stapf found that St. Johns County had a contract with an aerial spraying service that was used by several other counties.

He recommended, and commissioners agreed, to piggyback on that contract in case of some future emergency such as an outbreak after a hurricane or an outbreak with a concentration of mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile Virus or encephalitis.

Commissioner John Druzbick said that he thought it was imperative that the county get its preventative program back in place so that such a massive and expensive spraying plan wasn't necessary.

Stapf agreed.

The aerial spraying, he said, "this is replacing the entire engine because you didn't change the oil.''

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

Hernando County considers special taxing unit to fund mosquito program 06/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 3, 2011 8:21pm]
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