DADE CITY — County officials preparing to write next year's budget were pleasantly surprised Tuesday when they heard that property values are expected to drop by about 5 percent.
In most years, such news would be unwelcome, to say the least. But in a county rocked the past few years by a plummeting tax base, the relatively benign drop in values could mean county coffers are starting to return to normal.
Under a "worst-case scenario," county budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said there will be a $5.6 million shortfall in the general fund, which pays for countywide services and is the primary target for cuts. That figure would provide "significant relief," he said, compared with the $14 million gap last year.
"He made me really happy today," said Michele Baker, the assistant county administrator. She had been expecting a drop of about 7 percent, which translates to a shortfall of more than $8 million.
Besides the decreased property taxes, some county fees are expected to drop by about $350,000. A potential bright spot is an expected $1 million boost in sales tax collections — restoring that figure to what the county brought in three years ago.
"That might indicate some increased consumer spending in Pasco," Nurrenbrock said, cautioning that the trend is based on only a few months of data. "It's still early."
County commissioners got only a rough sketch of next year's revenue picture during a workshop Tuesday in Dade City. More precise numbers from property appraiser Mike Wells should be available by Friday's commission meeting. A final revenue projection is due in July.
This year, the county is expected to collect $132 million in property taxes for basic services such as law enforcement, libraries and parks. Last year, commissioners closed most of the property tax shortfall by cutting programs. Sharp cuts were largely avoided in 2009 when commissioners voted to increase the property tax rate.
Despite Tuesday's relative good news, Commissioner Pat Mulieri warned that some county programs are still on the chopping block and that she is still facing pressure from some residents for significant tax relief.
"We are being faced with revenue depletions," she said. "I don't know how we would do that."
Officials estimated that county firefighting services, which are paid for with a separate property tax, could also take a $1.3 million hit next year. Last year's shortfall for fire services was nearly double that figure, but commissioners voted to increase the property tax rate to leave the fire budget relatively intact.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.