SPRING HILL — County Administrator Len Sossamon got a good sense of what is on the minds of Hernando County residents when he sponsored his first town hall meeting Thursday evening.
The subject was the county's proposed 2012-13 budget, and residents representing a spectrum of opinions spoke on the topic of the week: whether the County Commission should consider raising the property tax rate to avoid budget cuts that could gut parks and libraries, government broadcasting and recreation programs.
When one woman spoke out, saying she thought the county had no choice but to raise the tax rate, many in the audience of about 60 people broke out in applause.
Another resident, Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, said she could afford the $1.10 a week that the owner of an average-priced house would pay to wipe out the county's projected $6.3 million budget shortfall.
"You can only cut services so much,'' Schoch said, noting that the increase in the rate would "make (Hernando County) a decent place to live again.''
There also were several vocal people who were against any increase in the tax rate. One woman said she was already overwhelmed with bills and couldn't pay anything more.
Others who spoke out said they were being coerced into paying taxes and that what they paid was not being spent on the things they wanted. Several people, for example, questioned the benefit package of government employees compared to the benefits in the private sector.
Local businesswoman Anna Liisa Covell said she didn't see where the county had proven its case for a tax rate increase.
George Zoettlein, the county's budget manager, gave a presentation on the current state of the budget. Property appraiser Alvin Mazourek followed with information about potential revenue shortfalls that loom, including several that would result from voter approval of new tax-cutting measures that will appear in four separate statewide amendments on the November ballot.
Mazourek told residents that he understood that some of them live on low incomes. But county services are needed, and all county departments have cut their budgets repeatedly in recent years, he said.
"You can't keep cutting and maintain the services,'' he said. "If you want to maintain what you have, somebody's got to pay for it.''
Earlier this week, Mazourek, Tax Collector Juanita Sikes and Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai all urged the County Commission to increase the tax rate for 2012-13.
Then, on Thursday, prior to the town hall meeting, commissioners and Sossamon received a six-page memo from assistant county attorney Jon Jouben, warning that if the county doesn't raise additional revenue, it could face insolvency.
As Thursday evening's meeting wound to a close, Sossamon thanked the audience members for their input and urged them to continue the conversation with the county. He invited them to the special County Commission meeting on the budget slated for 9 a.m. Tuesday.
On Friday, Mazourek's office certified countywide property values to local governmental bodies so they can prepare their budgets and tax rates.
The countywide taxable value increased approximately $35.8 million since the May good-faith estimate to a total of $7,135,815,845. In addition, the county saw another $55 million in new construction value.
"At least it did go up,'' Zoettlein said Friday.
But the numbers show values continue to fall, and that is why property tax revenue has continued to decline for several years. Last year's taxable value was $7,718,505,348. Last year's new construction value was $60 million.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.