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Pasco commissioners won't close libraries, must find more budget cuts

Pasco County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader suggested closing libraries as a way to save money, but library backers objected. Instead, the county will delay hiring in a few departments and put a hold on plans to hold an assessment of county functions. But commissioners are still $50,000 shy of their goal.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2012)

Pasco County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader suggested closing libraries as a way to save money, but library backers objected. Instead, the county will delay hiring in a few departments and put a hold on plans to hold an assessment of county functions. But commissioners are still $50,000 shy of their goal.

DADE CITY — Pasco commissioners looking to trim next year's tax rate didn't get all they wanted from Tax Collector Mike Fasano on Tuesday, but they did get some help.

Fasano appeared before the commission to say how much Pasco can expect in refunded excess fees — the amount left over in the tax collector's budget each year from driver's license, auto tag and other fees generated at the agency. By law, those leftover funds must be remitted to the county and nearby municipalities.

Officials calculating the county budget count on those annual fees as revenue. They were hoping for about $3.5 million this year, an amount similar to last year's remittance. But soon after Fasano approached the podium to address commissioners, it became clear they wouldn't see that much.

Fasano told commissioners to expect about $2.7 million.

In most budget cycles, all of this might not matter to commissioners, but this year is different. Commissioners are trying to trim a proposed 7.8 percent hike in the property tax rate and need all the revenue they can muster.

To complicate matters, when commissioners forecast the millage rate a few weeks ago, they did so without a final number from the tax collector's office.

The previous tax collector, Mike Olson, who died June 26, had indicated the county might get a smaller remittance. After he died, commissioners weren't sure who would succeed him or when his replacement would be named, so they calculated the budget and millage rate around the fees received last year: $3.5 million.

As Tuesday afternoon wore on, it became clear that this had left commissioners in a bind. Raising the tax rate further wasn't an option. That meant finding cuts elsewhere to bridge the $720,000 difference between what was expected and what Fasano offered.

One thing off the table early in the debate were library closures.

Earlier, commissioners voted to end discussion on whether to close any libraries after a group of library backers stood at the podium to argue against closing the Centennial Park Branch and the New River Branch libraries.

Commission Chairman Ted Schrader had suggested closing the libraries as a way to save money. The move would save about $700,000, and more in the second year — but the proposal sparked an immediate outcry from library backers. About half a dozen spoke up Tuesday against the closures.

"To me, closing or diminishing the amount of library hours is a sin against nature," said Diane Halterman, a former branch manager.

The commission then voted not to close any libraries. But by late afternoon, and with the libraries off the table, fatigue seemed to settle in as commissioners debated other ways to close the $720,000 budget gap.

In the end, they settled on four areas to cut: They put on hold plans to hire more staff for planning and development, as well as code enforcement. They also will cut $36,000 in funds for the public information office. And they also delayed plans to hold an assessment of county functions called the Sterling Collaborative Assessment.

Together, the cuts amounted to about $670,000 in savings — about $50,000 shy of their goal. So more cuts might be on the way. The commission has at least one more budget session planned before two public hearings next month, on Sept. 10 and 24. The final vote on the budget is set for Sept. 24. The fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

"The tax collector was a bit of a surprise today. I didn't expect that," Schrader said afterward. "But I'm hopeful that at the end of the year, when he closes the books, there may be some more funds available. We'll see."

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Pasco commissioners are planning to cut funds from the Public Information Office, but will retain funding for a public information officer. A previous version of this story was incorrect on that point.

Pasco commissioners won't close libraries, must find more budget cuts 08/13/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 6:33pm]
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