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Lawyers say unanimous vote not needed for Hernando mosquito control tax

BROOKSVILLE — Swatted down by a single "no" vote last week, a mosquito control tax in Hernando County will likely fly again next week with a simple majority during the county's final budget hearing.

The county legal staff has determined that a unanimous vote was not necessary to approve the tax.

After Commissioner Wayne Dukes voted against the tax last week, commissioners asked the legal staff to research the issue and determine for sure whether the tax was dead. The clock was ticking because the final hearing for the 2011-12 budget and tax rate was set for Sept. 27.

The county attorney's office scrambled to research the law, then was in touch with the staff of the state's Department of Revenue to be sure that it had reached the correct conclusion.

The key to how many votes it takes to pass the tax is determined by the combination of all the individual tax rates that make up the overall property tax rate levied for county services, according to the memo by assistant county attorney Jon Jouben.

While the mosquito control tax is a new tax, it was proposed to be set at the same rate that had been levied previously for the environmentally sensitive lands fund, and the sensitive lands fund rate was to be set at zero for 2011-12. Therefore, one takes the place of the other.

But the state's electronic form wasn't flexible enough to recognize the switch, and that ambiguity caused the confusion at the first budget hearing, Jouben concluded.

"The mosquito control (municipal service taxing unit) is not independent of the county but it is merely a component of the county's aggregate millage rate,'' Jouben wrote in a memo to the County Commission on Monday. "Form DR-420, however, does not contain any instructions differentiating between the reporting of a local government's aggregate millage rate from the reporting of a component rate of that aggregate millage rate.''

Because the county's overall tax revenue will be equal to or less than last year, "the board only needs a majority vote to adopt the component portions of aggregate millage rate,'' Jouben concluded. "The board can vote on this issue again during its Sept. 27, 2011, budget meeting.''

That meeting is set for 5 p.m. in the commission chambers of the Hernando County Government Center in downtown Brooksville.

The legal opinion allows the commission to "go back to plan A,'' Commissioner Dave Russell said Tuesday.

When the commissioners thought the mosquito control tax was dead at last week's hearing, Russell moved to levy the environmentally sensitive lands fund again and it passed.

"We had to make sure that that money remained in the budget,'' he said.

That won't be necessary now and the commission can trade the one tax for the other, Russell said.

"The bottom line remains the same,'' he said. "It's essentially a wash.''

The commission is also still committed to putting the question back before voters in a referendum next year. The voters approved the tax for environmentally sensitive lands and should be allowed to choose whether those funds should still be collected and whether they accept the mosquito control tax.

For the supporters of mosquito control, the service is a health and safety issue. Recently sentinel chickens in Hernando County have been found with the West Nile virus, a potentially deadly disease in humans.

Russell said that an outbreak of mosquitoes makes his phone ring more than almost any other county issue.

"People want mosquito control,'' he said.

The county has proposed a tax rate of .0844 of a mill for the mosquito tax. That rate amounts to $8.44 for the owner of a $150,000 home with the full $50,000 homestead exemption.

Previously, mosquito control was paid for through the county's general fund, but falling tax revenue due to declining property values has squeezed that fund, forcing county officials to seek another source to pay for mosquito control.

Dukes has said that he voted against the tax because he thought the financial support should come from the general fund and he believed that the department didn't need the nearly $600,000 that it was budgeted to spend.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Lawyers say unanimous vote not needed for Hernando mosquito control tax 09/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 8:50pm]

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