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Largo commissioners give initial okay to property tax rate increase

City leaders voted to raise next year's property tax rate, saying the increase would ease deeper cuts in years to come.

At Thursday's special meeting, they also approved a tentative $149.9-million budget for 2008-09.

By a 6-1 vote commissioners approved a rate of $3.84 for every $1,000 of taxable assessed value. That rate would bring in about $15.8-million, slightly less than the city gleaned this year with a rate of $3.65 for every $1,000.

Commissioner Mary Gray Black opposed the increase.

City property taxes finance part of the total budget called the general fund. Most of that fund is spent on personnel, public safety and recreation.

A final vote on the tax rate and budget is scheduled for Sept. 23.

Around budget time, Largo leaders typically hear from residents pleading to save their favorite programs.

This year, the city cut library hours and held off filling several vacant positions, but few major programs were on the chopping block.

On Thursday, about 10 residents, mostly city volunteers, showed up to ask Largo leaders to raise their tax rate so the city can keep services in the future. A couple of residents who attend most City Commission meetings urged city leaders not to raise the tax rate.

Amendment 1 created an additional $25,000 homestead exemption. So, even with a rate increase, the typical Largo homeowner would pay less in city taxes.

This year, the owner of a home valued at $133,000, before a $25,000 homestead exemption, pays $394 in city taxes. Next year, with the additional exemption, that homeowner's tax would be about $60 less.

Resident Curtis Holmes said renters and business owners will suffer the brunt of the increase.

"If you own commercial property, you're getting hammered on this thing," he said.

Next year, the proposed budget calls for the loss of 16 full-time positions, but just a handful of employees lost their jobs because positions were frozen earlier this year, staffers said.

City leaders say a rate increase is necessary to stave off bigger cuts in services and jobs in future years. A $3.84 rate will generate $793,000 more than a $3.65 rate, said Amy Davis, assistant to the city manager.

The city would have to cut $5-million from fiscal years 2010 to 2013 with the current rate, staff members said. The higher rate would give the city $1.3-million more leeway in those years.

Holmes accused the city of stashing cash.

"This is a cushion. This is a savings account. This is mad money. This is your beer money," Holmes said.

Two commissioners addressed his claim.

"You're right, because I don't want to make $2-million in cuts next year," said Commissioner Gigi Arntzen.

Mayor Pat Gerard said city leaders take their responsibility as stewards seriously.

"We do consider this somewhat of a sacred trust that we have your money in our hands," Gerard said. "We're going to make the most of it and we're not going to drink beer."

The tentative budget is actually $6.5-million more than the budget proposed in June. Davis said the increases were mostly due to drainage and road construction projects that were planned for this year but were rescheduled for next year.

>>Fast facts

Tentative city budget

Total: $149.9-million

General fund: $61.9-million

Want to weigh in on city spending? Largo city commissioners will vote on a final budget and property tax rate Sept. 23. The meeting is 6 p.m. at City Hall, 201 Highland Ave.

Largo commissioners give initial okay to property tax rate increase 09/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 3:39pm]

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