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Hernando settles tax dispute with Cemex, adds revenue to next budget

BROOKSVILLE — It took some time, but Property Appraiser John Emerson has settled his office's legal dispute with Cemex over the value of its mining facilities in Hernando County.

And the timing couldn't be better.

On Thursday, just four hours after assistant county administrator for budget George Zoettlein emailed Hernando's constitutional officers, telling them how much they would have to cut from their 2013-14 budgets, Emerson emailed Zoettlein to say the series of lawsuits had been settled.

The settlement will bring the county's general fund an unexpected $1.3 million windfall, just as the county was looking to trim another $2 million from its spending plan.

"We won't complain about that,'' said County Administrator Len Sossamon.

With the first of two public hearings on the budget slated for 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sossamon said commissioners will have a chance to talk about how they believe the unanticipated funds will affect the budget.

The total settlement will bring back to taxing authorities across the county nearly $3.5 million from Cemex and a small amount from Vulcan Materials, another mining company. Smaller county taxing units will see some of that, and the school district could receive approximately $1.7 million.

County Commission Chairman Dave Russell said the cash shouldn't be seen as a way to avoid making needed cuts by the county or by the constitutional officers.

"We're still going to look for the cuts,'' Russell said.

Zoettlein had asked for $1.3 million from the sheriff, $28,000 from the supervisor of elections and $15,000 from the clerk of court. The County Commission's portion to cut was $660,000.

Zoettlein said he had proposed that the commission make its cuts by putting off major maintenance on the chiller on the roof of the county government center, reducing the amount the county pays to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and cutting the amount to be given to the county's economic development incentive program.

Russell said he wants to consider reducing the increase in the property tax rate that has been proposed.

"This is a significant tax increase,'' he said. "Anything we can do to lessen the burden on our taxpayers, we owe that to them. There are some areas we can look at.''

Sossamon originally suggested a tax rate of 7.3691 mills for the general fund, a 24.5 percent increase over the 2012-13 rate. But commissioners asked for that to be trimmed to 7 mills, which would be an 18.3 percent increase over the current rate.

A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 appraised taxable property value.

Russell said the county cannot look at the Cemex money as recurring funding to build its revenue stream since only a portion of it will return in the years to come.

Hernando County superintendent of schools Lori Romano said the district did not expect the money from the settlement.

"It's an excellent opportunity to receive additional funds in light of current budget shortfalls," Romano said.

The lawsuits started in 2009, when Cemex officials argued that with the crash of the housing market, their equipment and structures were not as valuable as they had been in the past.

In that year, the property appraiser valued Cemex's South facility at $228 million and its North facility at $56 million. That same year, Cemex argued before the county's Value Adjustment Board that the South facility was really only worth $114 million and the North facility $28 million.

Cemex lost its case that year and filed the lawsuit. Suits also were filed for the 2010, 2011 and 2012 tax years.

During a day of mediation last month, Emerson said, values that will result in the $3.5 million in added revenue were agreed upon to cover Cemex's taxes for the past four years. The agreed-upon tangible property values for 2012 and also for 2013 are $187 million for the North facility and $40 million for the South.

Those values mean a total tax bill of $2.9 million on the North facility and $614,000 on the South for 2012 to all taxing authorities. The 2013 value was placed at the same level, and Cemex cannot challenge that before the Value Adjustment Board.

"I'm happy with it,'' Emerson said. "It's closer to our number to start with than theirs.''

Sara Engdahl, Cemex spokeswoman, declined to comment on the settlement.

Staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando settles tax dispute with Cemex, adds revenue to next budget 09/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 6, 2013 6:11pm]
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