Monday, January 22, 2018
News Roundup

Increased revenues help ease pain as Hernando prepares 2017-18 budget

BROOKSVILLE — With the addition of new homes and businesses and a steady rise in the value of existing properties — nearly 6 percent in the past year — there could be enough money in Hernando County government coffers next year to provide for new staffers, capital expenses and the continuation of programs that in lean years always seemed to be on the chopping block.

All of that would come without a tax rate increase in the general fund under the proposed 2017-18 spending plan, published late last week by the county budget office.

There is a proposed increase in the cost of fire service, a rate agreed to tentatively earlier this year to help bring Hernando County Fire Rescue out of a deficit that caused the agency to take out a $7.5 million loan from the general fund last year.

The proposed budget also would include full funding of the 5 percent increase Sheriff Al Nienhuis requested to add new road patrol deputies and increase salaries, the first time in several years the County Commission hasn't battled over his request. Under the plan, the sheriff's budget would rise from this year's $42.9 million to $46.4 million — accounting for 43.3 percent of the general fund budget.

Under the balanced budget posted, the county general fund would rise to $107 million from this year's $103.6 million. The overall budget proposed would be $409 million, compared to last year's $414 million.

The general revenue tax rate would remain the same as last year at 6.9112 mills. That amounts to a tax bill to support county services of $691.12 for the owner of a house appraised at $150,000 with the full $50,000 homestead exemption.

The fire fee increase is twofold. Currently, property owners pay for fire service through a flat fee. But earlier this year, commissioners agreed to consider an increase in both that fee and the renewal of an old property tax rate to supplement the fee.

Under the proposal favored by commissioners, the current flat fire fee of $185.43 would rise to $194.70 during the 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. In addition, there would be a 0.5-mill property tax, which amounts to 50 cents in tax for every $1,000 of appraised taxable value. For the owner of a house with a taxable value of $100,000, those two increases would amount to $59.27.

The new fire rates would also apply to property owners in the Hernando Beach, Aripeka and Forest Glenn areas, previously covered by the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department. The County Commission disbanded the volunteer department in February and took over operations after numerous problems came to light, including failures to follow protocol and not having a medical director.

Residents who had been served by the volunteers had paid a flat fee of $107.36 annually for that service.

In early June, the County Commission had a daylong workshop to talk about the financial needs of county departments and constitutional officers, agreeing to commit some unspent dollars in this year's budget to buy new voting equipment for Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson and provide new playgrounds, new ice machines and new air conditioning at county parks. The workshop included a discussion about the need for added employees and changes in pay and job titles for others.

Commissioners rejected a couple of ideas, including a study of county government employee pay and the search for a new economic development director, a job that County Administrator Len Sossamon now does.

This is the fourth year the county has experienced increased property values after values fell significantly for six years during the real estate bust. During the lean times, budget discussions centered around cuts, including reductions in the number of employees and capital expenses.

As they prepare their 2017-18 budget, county officials are aware that they could be dealing with funding cuts in the not-so-distant future. A referendum has been approved by the state for the 2018 election ballot. Voters will have the chance to increase the homestead exemption, and county officials have said that, if the referendum is approved, it could cost the county $2.6 million in the general fund.

County tax rate and budget details are not finalized by the commission until the second of two public hearings in September. In the coming weeks, property owners will receive their Truth in Millage statements. Those statements will outline proposed tax rates and list the public hearing times and locations for various taxing authorities.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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