Let's start a tax revolt.
Let's pack the County Commission meetings, circulate petitions, hold a rabble-rousing seminar or two.
Tell the bums we'll by God throw them out of office if they don't listen. Tell them the following message is not a request but a demand:
RAISE OUR TAXES!
Raise them a little, I should add, because, obviously, a lot of people are hurting. In fact, the way I see this playing out, most of us could still see an overall drop in our tax bills. This revolt is about increasing the tax rate just enough to keep the county's revenue the same rather than falling, as it has for four straight years. Think of it as a movement to stop the bleeding.
Like most wild-eyed tax activists, we have selfish motives, but can make a credible argument that a little selfishness is a good thing.
See, we've invested a lot in this county over the years — in parks, libraries, law enforcement and fire protection. Compared with many other counties, Hernando got out ahead of planning for roads and sewage treatment systems. The cubicles in county offices are generally — and I did say generally — filled with dutiful, hard-working people.
All in all, we've built a decent community, and this is worth a lot — to each of us individually. A decent community is a marketable community, a place that can attract businesses and jobs.
By now, we know Hernando's economy is pretty grim without a home-building industry. We also know, from the failed experiment in slashed impact fees, that it will take more than a featherweight tax burden to bring it back. If we want a few home buyers, if we want to eventually get a fair price for our houses, Hernando has to be a place that attracts newcomers.
It was five years ago, when Joe and Jennifer Ward arrived from Palm Beach County. They liked the rolling hills, parks and bike trails.
The hills aren't gone, though it's possible fewer of them will be protected if the county grabs the revenue in the environmentally sensitive lands fund for other purposes. The baseball and soccer fields at Ernie Wever Youth Park, north of Brooksville, is where the Wards' three children play baseball and soccer. Those are due to be closed. So is Lake Townsen Regional Park in Istachatta, where the family has access to the Withlacoochee State Trail.
What else? All or parts of five other parks will be padlocked, as will the county cannery, at least if it can't find private funding. In the libraries, we will see fewer new books and trained librarians and no new computers.
Response to our complaints to Code Enforcement — engaged in a mighty struggle to keep parts of Spring Hill from looking like a slum — will be slower. Or even slower, I should say, because its budget has been repeatedly slashed over the past few years. Mosquito Control appears to be in some danger, even though, as I recently learned, living in Florida without it would be about like living without air conditioning.
These were just a few cuts proposed Tuesday, when the working assumption was that revenues would come up $5.2 million short rather than the revised $5.7 million. And we haven't heard from the constitutional officers, who will have to trim their budgets, too. You want fewer deputies on the road in the midst of what seems like a growing epidemic of prescription drug abuse? I didn't think so.
Look, this is not to say the budget is fat-free. I suspect the Sheriff's Office can get by with a slight reduction in its squadron of pencil pushers, that we might be able to lose a court clerk or two. If I were Land Services director Ron Pianta, I might let go of another planner (they aren't exactly swamped with proposals for new subdivisions right now) if it would keep a park open.
But no matter how wisely our leaders cut, we face the danger of a downward spiral — declining appearance and services that bring lower property values, less revenue and, in turn, more decline. It would be the kind of place less likely to attract the Wards, who are the type of people whose investment in the community could spread to a lot of pockets.
He's a lawyer; she's a pediatrician. They bought a house north of Brooksville and are now in the tiny minority of folks actually building a new home — this one on 10 acres south of town, with four bedrooms and a study. Though they haven't received an appraisal, I imagine they'll be paying their share of property taxes.
And they're willing to contribute a little more.
"Nobody wants to pay more than they have to," Joe Ward said. "But if you don't pay for anything, you're not going to have anything."
How much more? County budget director George Zoettlein wasn't around Thursday to give me an exact number, but last year he said a 6 percent increase in the property tax rate would generate an additional $7 million in revenue — and, because of lower property values, still result in a lower tax bill for 70 percent of households receiving a homestead exemption. Since the shortfall is a little less this year, so would the rate increase needed to close the gap.
So fight for it, by golly. That's the only way to keep the commission from rejecting it out of hand as they did last year (and, let's face it, as they would probably do again). Don't just come in and complain about a loss of services. Say you're willing to pay to keep them.
Demand it, in fact, that higher tax rate. I mean, a little higher.