BROOKSVILLE — Hernando property owners face a potential tax rate increase in the coming fiscal year to pay for the higher budget being sought by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
Early projections show the rate increase — 0.1048 mills — would generate roughly $708,000, enough to cover the shortfall, according to George Zoettlein, the assistant county administrator for budget.
In a memo sent Thursday to Sheriff Al Nienhuis, Zoettlein wrote that there were no alternatives but to increase the tax rate in order to balance the budget and "meet the sheriff's budget request."
The county administrator is required by Florida statutes to present the proposed budget by July 15. County commissioners will take it up on July 22, and the tax rate needs to be sent to the Hernando County property appraiser by Aug. 4.
The county initially did not want to pursue a tax rate increase.
On Wednesday, Zoettlein sent a memo to Nienhuis, informing him that the county would reduce the proposed budget by roughly $600,000.
The memo said the sheriff's budget increase was $1.3 million. Accounting for an expected return of roughly $700,000 in unspent funds, the actual increase for 2014-15 would be $642,829. After discussions, Zoettlein wrote that County Administrator Len Sossamon's proposed budget would include a reduction of $598,585 for the sheriff.
The next day, however, the county learned that statutes prevented the change to the sheriff's request and must be considered as submitted. Any changes must be made by county commissioners during a public hearing.
That's when they sent the memo notifying the sheriff of the needed increase in the millage rate. One mill is equivalent to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessed, nonexempt real property.
Zoettlein said the numbers are still changing and nothing is certain at this point. The sheriff could return more money, meaning the tax rate increase might be less or nothing at all.
In real dollars, Nienhuis is seeking $42,760,940 — a 4 percent increase over his request for 2013-14.
In his request submitted to the County Commission in May, he asks for eight new positions and for the return of unspent dollars from the current fiscal year so he can continue to phase in pay raises. He started that process this year to make up for inequities that resulted from several years of frozen salaries.
To retain and recruit staff, the budget also includes a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for personnel below the rank of lieutenant.
Zoettlein said there are no raises built into the budget for any other employees of the County Commission.
Nienhuis said Friday he feels that the latest memo is the result of a miscommunication and that there are too many unknown variables that remain in the budget process.
"If anything, this is way too premature to be saying things as specific as that," he said of the tax rate increase. "I don't think we're far enough in the process to make statements like that."