DADE CITY — Commissioners on Tuesday scaled back their proposed property tax hike, choosing to return millions of dollars to taxpayers rather than saving it for next year or giving it to the sheriff for new deputies.
"The citizens trust us to make the decisions," said Commissioner Ted Schrader. "It's their money."
Earlier this summer, commissioners considered a proposal to raise the general fund rate by 22 cents per $1,000 in taxable value. That gave officials a nearly $4.4 million reserve account, some of which was used to restore a cut position in the veterans services office, keep Centennial Library open and add back positions in the elderly nutrition department and social services.
That left them with about $4.3 million, plus a $823,000 rebate check from Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative.
Commissioners decided Tuesday to move about $2 million of that into a hurricane reserve account.
The remainder will go back to taxpayers, by reducing the size of the property tax hike. County budget director Mike Nurrenbrock estimated it would cut about 15 cents off the 22-cent hike.
That would leave a general fund tax rate of $ 6.44 per $1,000 of assessed value, just a slight increase over the current rate of $6.37 per $1,000.
Commissioners had talked over the summer about stockpiling the additional money to deal with next year's revenue deficits, projected to be as bad as this year's.
But no one even mentioned socking away the money during their brief discussion Tuesday morning.
Also unmentioned: Pasco Sheriff Bob White's plea for a nearly $4 million increase in his budget to hire 28 deputies.
White has indicated he may appeal to the Florida governor and Cabinet if commissioners pass a budget without that funding for more deputies. But he could have a harder case to make since there won't be millions of dollars sitting unused until next year — something that at least one commissioner acknowledged in an interview.
"How do you effectively say 'No' to the Cabinet when you have the money sitting there?" said Schrader.
Commissioner Michael Cox, who has talked often about rolling over money to plan ahead for future deficits, said a potential appeal by White didn't play into his decision.
"Some of the messages I have heard from the people is that they don't want to see an increase," he said in an interview. "What really plays in my mind is the message from citizens that they want things run as leanly as possible."
The Sheriff's Office made a powerful showing at Tuesday night's budget hearing, with about 50 off-duty uniformed deputies in attendance.
Only White spoke, and he challenged commissioners to say a few words to the residents of Holiday and Embassy Hills, the two parts of west Pasco where he wanted to assign the new deputies. (They didn't take him up on the challenge.)
"Can you ever remember seeing this many deputies at a County Commission meeting?" he said. "I don't."
White said he didn't support raising taxes, just rethinking priorities.
"They're not asking for money, they're asking for backup," he said.
"I don't think there's any one of us up here that would not want to add more deputies," said Cox. "If next year's budget was not going to be worse, I'd be willing to entertain something. Unfortunately, we're going to be in a much worse situation next year."
White asked again if there was room for at least one new deputy. Schrader said that all he hears from residents is to hold the line on the sheriff's budget.
"What I've heard is the sheriff has had enough," he said.
White would not say after the meeting whether he'd follow through on an appeal, saying there was still one more budget hearing. But he left commissioners with a hint:
"You'll just have to forgive me," the sheriff said, "because I represent the people."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.