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Hernando officials start talking about a higher tax rate

BROOKSVILLE — After several years of belt tightening to offset falling property tax revenue, county officials this year may have to seriously consider a tax rate increase to stop "the bleeding'' in the words of one official.

Hernando's leadership team has recommended that the County Commission consider a modest increase in the tax rate to support county services even as it continues to try to cut spending.

The board could set a slightly higher tax rate and keep parks open and avoid making deeper cuts, using reserves or forcing the sheriff and supervisor of elections to cut their budgets, noted the team of county department directors.

On Tuesday, the commissioners must set the tentative tax rate, which is a key factor in figuring the amount of tax each property owner must pay for county services. Other taxing entities, such as the School Board and the city of Brooksville, will be setting their own rates in the coming weeks.

The rate set on Tuesday could be lowered before budgets are finalized in late September.

For the last few years, the county government's tax rate has stayed the same. As property values have fallen, however, so has property tax revenue.

The amount of revenue raised this year, $41 million, is just below the $41.5 million raised in 2003, Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek told commissioners this week.

"I don't see the logic in how you can use less revenue to take care of 30,500 more people,'' said Mazourek, noting Hernando's population growth.

He has advocated that the commission go to the so-called "roll-back'' rate, which is the rate the county would charge to raise the same amount of money as was raised this year.

Mazourek said that about 70 percent of property owners would actually still see their tax bill drop from last year even if that additional millage was levied.

"The values have come down so your tax bill is going to come down and you're still going to be paying less in taxes,'' he said.

While board members have said there still may be some downsizing to do before they will consider raising the tax rate, commissioners John Druzbick and Jeff Stabins this week said the time has come for that difficult discussion.

If additional cuts aren't made and the county wants to provide enough revenue to cover its major objectives, the board would have to charge an additional .5636 mill. That additional amount would mean and extra $56.36 in tax for a home with a taxable value of $100,000.

That increase is below the amount of the actual roll-back rate so the county would still not bring in quite as much in tax money as if it would if it levied the full roll-back, which would be .7077 mill.

Mazourek said he realizes that the stand he has taken on the roll-back rate is "a political hot potato,'' but shuttering parks and cutting back on other quality of life services is not serving the residents of Hernando County and will not attract the kinds of business development county leaders are saying they want to bring here.

"The bleeding needs to stop,'' he said. "I just think it needs to be done because it's what's right.''

Stabins has also said he hopes other constitutional officers will favor a modest tax rate increase. None of the elected officials have done so, and Sheriff Al Nienhuis said this week he would not advocate such an increase.

Stabins has urged Nienhuis to "do the right thing'' and trim what has been asked. The focus on the sheriff's spending is necessary because he is set to spend $39 million next year of the $70 million the overall county general fund will spend.

County staff has outlined a series of choices commissioners must consider Tuesday before they set a "worst-case scenario" tax rate.

First, commissioners must consider the painful hit they took when property values were adjusted for Cemex and other property owners who raised a challenge. That is costing the county $1.4 million in lost revenue.

Another $300,000 is lost because Tax Collector Juanita Sikes is expecting less in commissions and she will have additional costs to take over driver's license functions in the new fiscal year.

The county has asked Nienhuis to cut nearly $1.3 million from his budget and for Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams to cut more than $200,000. Nienhuis has said he doesn't anticipate finding any substantial areas to cut; Williams is seeking a budget increase.

County officials, who have lost nearly half of the board-controlled positions in the general fund since 2008, point to Nienhuis' non-sworn staffers, who outnumber all of the remaining county employees.

Williams has said publicly that she cannot cut her budget because of elections next year. Both Nienhuis and Williams have been invited to Tuesday's commission meeting.

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

Job totals:

Here's a comparison of the numbers of selected categories of employees, measured in full-time equivalents, in 2008 and in the proposed 2012 budget

County Commission:

317 in 2008; 160 in 2012.

Sheriff's Office:

400 in 2008; 510* in 2012

Source: Hernando County's 2012 proposed budget

* Includes jail employees. The sheriff took over the jail in 2010 and hired 140 employees.

Hernando officials start talking about a higher tax rate 07/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 21, 2011 7:48pm]
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