Saturday, September 22, 2018
News Roundup

Largo commissioners raise ceiling on next year's property tax rate

LARGO — The proposed budget included a recommendation for the property tax rate to remain the same, but city commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to increase the maximum rate in a move to give city officials more flexibility.

The rate commissioners approved 6-0, with Mayor Woody Brown absent, is about $5.74 for every $1,000 of assessed taxable value. That number is the maximum rate the city will be allowed to levy next year, meaning commissioners could pass a rate lower than that but not higher. The rate, and the rest of the budget, still have to go through several more layers of approval before they're finalized for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

The proposed budget calls for the same rate as this year: $5.37 for every $1,000 of assessed taxable value. That rate would bring in about $2 million of additional property tax revenue, while the higher rate would bring in about $3.5 million, according to city data. A homeowner with a home valued at $100,000 after exemptions would pay $537 at the same rate and $574 at the higher rate. Either way, the total tax bill will likely rise thanks to an increase in property values.

Commissioner John Carroll floated the idea Tuesday of the higher rate, which gained steam as discussions turned toward the uncertain financial future due to looming hits to the city's revenue stream.

"There's going to be reductions. There's no way around it," Commissioner Jamie Robinson said. "Maybe it'll generate some conversation and bring some citizens in here and have some discussion about what's going to happen in the city of Largo. ... It's going to be a different city in the next couple years."

Office of Management and Budget manager Meridy Semones told commissioners there are about $3.8 million of potential budget reductions built into fiscal years 2019 and 2020 to plan for upcoming financial variables. One of the biggest is a homestead exemption increase on the ballot next year that would slash city revenue $650,000 in the first year.

Also contributing to the budget woes are slowed growth in revenue streams such as utility and motor fuel taxes, raises for police and fire employees and a higher contribution to the police and fire pension fund. Voters will also decide this year whether to continue a 1 cent sales tax known as Penny for Pinellas that helps fund capital projects.

Commissioners will likely discuss alternate revenue sources and which city services could go under the chopping block at their annual retreat in January.

"The automatic answer isn't to ask for more money," City Manager Henry Schubert said. "It's to look at our operation, too."

This is the first budget under the city's new strategic plan, which rolled out this year with three main focus areas that will dictate the city's decision making: sustainability, public health and safety, and community pride. City commissioners still have to discuss the budget at a workshop Aug. 11 then approve it during two public hearings in September.

Other highlights of the budget include a new city department and, with it, new positions. The engineering services division will break out of community development to become its own department. City engineer Jerry Woloszynski will become the department head, and assistant director and construction inspector positions will be added.

The change sprouted from a renewed focus on building and maintaining quality infrastructure in the city, Woloszynski said. Several large projects are coming down the pipeline, including reconstruction to Trotter Road and possible sewage system improvements that could come out of an evaluation of problem spots that contributed to a 24-million-gallon sewage overflow during Hurricane Hermine.

The budget also includes other new positions: three new firefighter-paramedics, an accountant, an information technology network administrator to help roll out a new phone system, a utilities program coordinator for sewer project management and a solid waste driver to help roll out a fifth recycling route.

Public Works Director Brian Usher said the city is reworking all of its recycling routes to accommodate a higher demand for recycling services, which he attributes primarily to annexation of new properties into the city.

There are a few one-time payments going into city coffers, including a $900,000 payment from a lawsuit the city prevailed in against an apartment complex, a $724,000 highway beautification grant and a $300,000 donation from the Largo Library Foundation for the purchase of a mobile library.

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.

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