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Largo commission gives preliminary okay to 5 percent tax hike

LARGO — Nobody loves the tax man, but there has been little outcry about Largo officials' decision to increase the property tax rate 5 percent next year.

In the first of two required votes, the City Commission voted 6-1 last week to raise the tax rate. Officials say the hike is necessary to keep city services at the same level. Largo's overall property value went up 1.4 percent last year.

The $136 million budget includes these highlights:

• A 2.5 percent pay raise for city employees. Except for police officers, city employees haven't gotten a raise in three years. Police officers got a raise two years ago.

• Money to hire one more police officer and one more IT professional. The city has trimmed nearly 100 jobs over the last seven years, budget manager Amy Davis said.

But the budget does not include a return of Sunday hours at the Largo Public Library or hiring more than one police officer. Those are high on Largo's wish list, but they won't happen during the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

The tax rate increase will cost the average Largo homeowner an extra $23 a year, said former city Commissioner Gigi Arntzen, who now chairs Largo's finance advisory board. "This option is preferable to making further reductions in staff and services, or raising or adopting other revenues," she said at Tuesday's commission meeting.

Residents' views were mixed.

Pat Edmond, president of Friends of Largo Nature Parks, said the increase would cost her just 15 cents a day. "This simply is not a catastrophe," she said.

Jeff Mosely, a persistent critic of city decisions, suggested a lower tax rate. "The higher the millage rate, the more dollars the city has, the more dollars the city's going to spend," he said.

If the commission votes again for the increase following a public hearing Sept. 18, the tax rate will rise to 5.2139 mills. One mill is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessed, nonexempt property. For example, the owner of a home valued at $100,000 after exemptions paid Largo $499 in property taxes this year but would pay $521 next year.

Commissioner Curtis Holmes was the only "no" vote against the increase. "You've got a multitude of people living in this town who are living paycheck to paycheck," he said.

Other commissioners defended the decision, pointing to a recent survey of 660 Largo residents, who mostly found the city to be an affordable and secure place to live.

"I believe the people in Largo trust us with this responsibility that they've given us," Mayor Pat Gerard said.

Pointing to features like the new Highland Recreation Complex and its small water park, the mayor said, "those seem like extravagances," but they serve parents who can't afford to pay for expensive outings.

Last year, Largo raised its property tax rate by 9.7 percent to stave off deep budget cuts. The city has gone through seven straight years of declining revenues, forcing it to cut $16 million a year from general fund spending.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Final hearing set

On Sept. 18, the Largo City Commission will hold its second and final hearing on next year's tax rate. It begins at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

Largo commission gives preliminary okay to 5 percent tax hike 09/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 6, 2013 4:12pm]
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