DADE CITY — Commissioners have got a menu of options to choose from when they meet again next week to begin tackling a nearly $15 million budget deficit:
Raising the tax rate for the firefighting fund; hiking ambulance fees; raiding a $5 million reserve and asking Sheriff Bob White for a 5 percent reduction.
"I think we need to digest some of this," said Chairwoman Pat Mulieri before the board set Tuesday as a special meeting at which they can vote on the measures.
County officials say that raising the tax rate for the fire department — from $1.19 to $1.44 per $1,000 of taxable value — would give it enough to keep roughly the same budget as this year, plus cover increases in health insurance (9 percent) and pensions (nearly 16 percent).
Under that scenario, the owner of a homesteaded $150,000 property in unincorporated Pasco would see the firefighting portion of his tax bill go from $119 to $144.
And commissioners, two of whom face re-election this year, would not have to take the political heat for raising that rate – if they keep the tax rate for the countywide general fund, which pays for such services as law enforcement, parks and libraries, relatively low.
That's because the two rates are advertised as an aggregate, county budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said. To keep that overall rate from reflecting a tax increase, commissioners could not allow the current general fund tax (now $6.37 per $1,000 of taxable property value) to go higher than $7.18.
Nurrenbrock told commissioners he had not finished crunching the numbers on whether it would save money to fill some — maybe around 15 — of the roughly 40 vacant positions in Pasco Fire Rescue or continue paying overtime to keep the stations and trucks properly manned.
"There's got to be a number that makes sense that can alleviate things," said Commissioner Michael Cox.
Commissioners also discussed a $50 per parcel assessment fee for firefighting services, which every property owner would pay. That would generate $11.5 million, some of which could be used to reduce the firefighting tax rate. But such a plan could not go into effect until 2011-12 at the earliest.
However, commissioners expressed serious interest in setting up something they could put in place this coming fiscal year: A special taxing district that would pay for a large portion of the sheriff's budget.
Countywide functions, such as jail operations, would continue coming from the general fund; road patrol and other functions done only in unincorporated Pasco would come out of a special property tax fund.
Moneywise, that wouldn't make much of a difference. But in some way, it's a public relations-type issue for a commission that is pushing the sheriff to reduce his budget.
"I think it's just going to put the spotlight on the sheriff's budget," said Commissioner Jack Mariano.
If a taxing district had been set up in the sheriff's current year's budget, it would have financed roughly $51.7 million in law enforcement costs. That would have required a millage rate of roughly $3 per $1,000 of taxable value. Since that would require less money from the general fund, the countywide property tax rate would be reduced by about $2.60.
Nurrenbrock told commissioners that if the sheriff cuts his budget by 5 percent, and county officials take a number of other measures, such as using $5 million from reserves, the county would need to cut about $1.9 million.
If the sheriff's budget remains flat, and the county still does all those other things, the cuts are more like $6.2 million.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.