NEW PORT RICHEY — Raise fire taxes a minimum of nearly 8 percent, or lay off 30 firefighters and forfeit a $2.3 million federal grant.
That was the surprise Pasco County commissioners got Tuesday at their first workshop to discuss the proposed 2013-14 budget.
Budget writers offered a series of options, including doing nothing, which staffers referred to as "Option 0."
"That's because it's really not an option," said Heather Grimes, assistant county administrator for internal services, who offered commissioners a preliminary overview of the proposed budget, which will be presented to commissioners on July 9.
The reason for the proposed tax increase is that for the past seven years, the county fire department's expenses, many of them unanticipated, have outpaced revenues. Call volume during the same time also has increased 12.5 percent. That meant the only way to balance the budget was to raid the reserve fund. If nothing is done next year, Grimes warned, the reserve fund would go into the red.
Issues to solve, she said, are eliminating the budget deficit, becoming more proactive in handling the life cycles of safety equipment and rebuilding the department's reserves over the next three to five years.
Under the "do nothing" option, residents and businesses would pay the same tax rate as this year, currently set at 1.5405 mils. A mill represents $1 for every $1,000 of taxable value. The owner of a $150,000 house with a $50,000 homestead exemption now pays $154.06 for fire rescue service. That does not include taxes for other county operations, schools or water management districts.
While that option would save $825,500, it would also mean firefighters would have to go without the 3 percent pay raises now being considered for other county employees. It also would mean a reduction in service levels for three engine companies and the loss of 30 firefighter positions. Of that number, 18 would come from a federal SAFER grant. Commissioners approved the grant in January amid testy relations with the firefighters' union, which had filed a grievance over not getting a pay raise. An agreement was worked out earlier this year.
To keep the grant and the 30 positions, a minimum increase of 7.95 percent in the tax rate is necessary, Grimes said. That would raise an additional $1.4 million but not cover any pay raises or new initiatives.
Option 2 is a tax increase of 12.68 percent, and Option 3 would cost taxpayers an extra 16.85 percent. Both include 3 percent wage increases, while Option 3 adds $1 million to the reserve fund. Option 4 is the most expensive and would boost fire taxes by 17.84 percent. In addition to the pay raise and the $1 million for reserves, it would add a chief of operations and a new records management system.
"I think we all understood when we had accepted the grant money that it was not in anybody's best interest to terminate those (30) positions," Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said after the workshop. "It's not my intent do that. As a county that continues to evolve, and we expand our fire service, it's necessary that citizens recognize the need for those services is such that we're going to have to pay for it."
He declined to say how much of an increase he would support but said the commission would have to consider "a number of cost-cutting measures" for the overall budget, "none of which are going to be a very pretty picture."
The county must have a final budget approved before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.