BROOKSVILLE — County Administrator Len Sossamon is recommending to the Hernando County Commission a $322.8 million spending plan for the 2013-14 fiscal year, funded in part by a 24.5 percent increase in the property tax rate.
Sossamon's budget includes a general fund of $92.2 million, just $53,000 more than last year, 3 percent raises for county employees and full funding of the budgets requested by the county's five constitutional officers.
The proposed property tax increase — the largest in years — would offset the county's $9.68 million revenue shortfall, said George Zoettlein, assistant administrator for budget and community services. A small increase in the mosquito control tax is also recommended, but, even with that, the general fund will still have to contribute approximately $160,000 toward that program.
The proposal raises the property tax rate to support the general fund from 5.9169 mills to 7.3691 mills. A mill is a dollar in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value.
For the owner of a home valued at $150,000 with the full $50,000 homestead exemption, the tax bill for county services would rise from the current year's $591.69 to $736.91.
Largely because of declining property values, county government has experienced revenue shortfalls for several years. Officials have made ends meet through a combination of cuts in services and the use of funds held in reserve. The difference this year, Sossamon and Zoettlein explained, is that the county has no more reserves it can use without the likelihood of damaging the county's bond rating.
Staffing levels also have been reduced to the point where entire departments would have to be eliminated if there were further cuts, Zoettlein said.
And a further loss of services is not what county residents who responded to a survey earlier this year and who attended town hall meetings wanted to see, Sossamon said. In fact, 71 percent of those who completed the survey said they would agree to an increase in taxes to keep services at their current levels.
In a break from recent tradition, commissioners will not be asked next week to agree to place Sossamon's tax rate proposal on the tax notices that go out to property owners in August. That action is not required by law, Zoettlein said.
The County Commission sets the final budget and tax rate, and that will happen later this summer, prior to the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.
Sossamon presented his budget plan to county commissioners individually in recent days, and he said Tuesday that he would like to have "a bigger comfort level'' that they will accept it.
As he put it, "there is a divergence of opinion'' among commissioners.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes told the Times he did not support either the pay raise recommendation or the tax rate recommendation.
"I think it's good,'' Commissioner Diane Rowden said of Sossamon's budget proposal.
Sossamon said he had told commissioners that to make up the current shortfall without a tax rate increase, the county would have to let go all of the employees controlled by the commission and cut commissioners' pay to zero.
Rowden said that provides a good perspective of where the county is right now financially. She also said she liked the idea of a pay increase for employees since workers haven't seen an increase since 2007.
"I'm optimistic that in the next year, we'll see improvements in our revenue and businesses coming into our county so residents aren't left holding the bag'' for most of the cost of government, she said.
Commission Chairman Dave Russell was complimentary of the proactive approach that Sossamon has taken on the budget, but noted it is only the first step in the process.
"Obviously, there are going to be some discussions that are going to have to take place,'' Russell said.
Those include commissioners talking about pay raises, possible reductions in the budgets requested by constitutional officers and the amount of the tax rate increase.
But Russell has said that he believes a tax rate increase needs to be part of the conversation this year. He noted that the commission has used the county's reserves carefully over the last several years "to keep our millage rates low while at the same time streamlining and downsizing,'' but at some point the county has to balance its approach.
Zoettlein calculated that, since the County Commission cut the tax rate in 2007 when property values were at their peak, reductions have given county taxpayers $108 million in tax relief.
He also said that 71 percent of property parcels in Hernando County would experience an increase in their tax bill of less than $1.40 a week if the recommended millage rate is approved for 2013-14.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.