LARGO — The City Commission approved next year's budget and tax rate Thursday night before a crowd of four, not including staff.
In other cities, a 9.7 percent millage rate hike would generate controversy and bring droves of angry citizens to City Hall in protest.
Not in Largo.
Of the four residents who spoke Thursday, three were commission meeting regulars, including Robert Hunsicker, who is running for commission this fall. Hunsicker was one of three to speak against the tax hike, which supports a $138 million budget.
"Our taxes are going up at the same time our public safety is being degraded," said Hunsicker, 69, a semiretired electrical engineer. "Surely, we can do better."
Hunsicker and James Robinson, 35, an employee of Largo Feed & Pet Supply, are running for the seat being vacated by Commissioner Gigi Arntzen.
The lone newcomer speaking Thursday was Mike Reichold, 53, a nurse and former Largo Public Library Advisory Board member. He spoke in favor of the budget.
"Property values have fallen," he said. "I'd like to see maintenance of services."
The budget passed 6-1, with Commissioner Curtis Holmes voting against it, and the tax rate passed 5-2, with Commissioner Michael Smith joining Holmes. Smith objected to cuts to Largo Fire Rescue's budget. Largo Fire dropped one firefighter per shift, with three shifts a day, from Engine 43, which serves western Largo, Belleair Bluffs and Belleair. Going from four firefighters to three on that engine saves $238,800, part of $2.5 million the city cut from this year's budget.
The tentative budget calls for $62 million in general fund spending in fiscal 2013, which starts Oct. 1. Largo's 2013 tax rate will be 4.9999 mills. One mill is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessed, nonexempt property.
The owner of a home valued at $100,000 after any exemptions, for example, paid Largo about $456 in property taxes under the current 4.5594 millage rate. That same homeowner would pay about $500 under the new tax rate if the property value stayed the same.
The tax hike will raise about $1 million more next year, which staff hopes will prevent more cuts in the 2014 budget. Largo has experienced six straight years of declining revenues, forcing management to cut more than 90 full-time positions, more than 20 this year.
This was a busy week for commissioners, who also met Tuesday night. During that meeting, they heard an impassioned plea from Nancy Perry, the manager of Paradise Island mobile home park, for Largo to reimburse the park for the $15,000 it spent to repair a corroded manhole. Perry says the park will need to spend another $15,000 to $20,000 to fix another manhole and blames the city's sewer system.
City Manager Mac Craig told commissioners the city would work out an agreement with Perry, but declined to commit to paying the full tab for both manholes.
"It doesn't take $15,000 to re-build a manhole," Craig said. "We're going to meet with her, and we'll come up with something."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.