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Hernando sheriff now backs office becoming separate taxing unit

BROOKSVILLE — For years, Hernando officials have talked about taking the sheriff's spending out of the county budget and putting it into a separate taxing unit, which would have its own line on the annual property tax notice.

The reason was simple: The sheriff's budget is a huge piece of the overall spending; breaking it out would show taxpayers just how much they are paying for public safety.

And, for years, Sheriff Richard Nugent has resisted.

The issue will surface again at Tuesday's County Commission meeting.

The difference this time? Nugent likes the idea now.

"We're willing to investigate the possibilities'' Nugent said Thursday. "We need to find out how we're going to fund public safety.''

The county has told Nugent, the other constitutional officers, and county department heads how much they will be expected to trim their budgets to help bridge the anticipated $10.5 million revenue shortfall in the 2010 county budget.

The sheriff's hit was $4.2 million out of his $33 million budget estimate.

Nugent said he wished he had more time to look at target budget numbers and the idea of the taxing authority. But with the research his staff has done to date, "we will be in favor'' of moving forward, he said.

"I'm willing to stand up and say what it costs to do what we have to do,'' Nugent said.

In the past, he said, "there was never a strong case presented as to why we should do this.''

Now?

"Today is a different day,'' Nugent said. "Today, with the current crisis in the county, this is a way for us to separate out for people to make a decision if public safety is indeed a priority to them or just something they talk about.''

On Tuesday, county administration will ask the commission about setting up a Municipal Services Taxing Unit to fund public safety. If the board says yes, they will get more details at their June 9 meeting, said deputy county administrator Larry Jennings.

That would give the commissioners enough time to hold a public hearing on June 23 on an ordinance creating the taxing district. If approved, it would meet the July 1 deadline and allow the item to be on next year's tax bills.

The sheriff's MSTU would be a standalone item on the bill, much like assessments for the water district and other taxing authorities.

"It just defines what we're spending for public safety. It makes it easier for people to decide what they want to spend on public safety,'' Jennings said.

One big wrinkle in this is the recently approved tax rate caps on local governments.

The caps would still apply to the county tax rate whether it stays as a single tax or becomes a county tax plus a new MSTU. The total of the two funds would still be the same rate unless the County Commission opts to raise the millage rate.

Separating out the sheriff's budget could make it easier for the commissioners to argue to taxpayers the need to raise the tax rate, said former Commissioner Diane Rowden, who tried three times as a board member to create the separate taxing unit for the sheriff.

The public may be more willing to accept higher taxes to pay for public safety, she said.

With the sheriff facing possible staff cuts in order to hack $4.2 million out of his budget, the timing for the change is perfect, Rowden said.

"Safety is all about people. You've got to have enough manpower out there to provide the safety,'' she said. "This would make it real clear'' what the funds would be used to provide.

Since property values have not been certified yet for taxing purposes for next year, it is not clear whether the county would be able to raise the tax rate to make up for the falling property values.

Jennings said the assumption is that values will have fallen to the point that the county could increase the tax rate to make up for lost revenue.

That might leave wiggle room for the county to recover some of the lost revenues anticipated for the 2010 budget.

There are numerous details still to be worked out if the commissioners decide to move forward with the separate taxing authority. One of those details is how to handle the property owners of the city of Brooksville, which does receive service by the sheriff that city residents now pay for through their county tax bill.

The law that allows such taxing units to be created are only for unincorporated areas. Jennings said talks with Brooksville officials are planned.

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

Hernando sheriff now backs office becoming separate taxing unit 05/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 21, 2009 8:03pm]
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