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Pasco County budget presents 'worst-case scenario' of cuts

DADE CITY — Your fire trucks would have fewer firefighters, your libraries and animal shelter fewer operating hours. Social services organizations and your kids' 4-H club would have a lot less money. Buses would run fewer days. Your wait for code enforcement and veterans services would be longer. Swimming pools in Zephyrhills and Holiday would be shut down.

Next year's proposed budget, unveiled at Tuesday's Pasco County Commission meeting, presented what one commissioner called a "worst-case scenario" in a historically tough financial year.

Nearly 260 full-time county positions, almost 128 of them filled, would be eliminated to help deal with a projected property tax shortfall.

But the budget contains something else: around $13.2 million that commissioners could use to undo some of those cuts.

That's money generated by the "rolled back" tax rate, which would raise the same amount of property tax revenue as the current year.

That total rate — counting both the general fund and the fire taxing district — is $7.62 per $1,000 of assessed value, up from $6.35. That's a nearly 20 percent hike in the tax rate.

Under that proposed new rate, the owner of a homesteaded property with an assessed value of $115,095 would owe $84 more in property taxes than he did in the current year, according to county officials. That homeowner would still be paying less in 2009 and 2010 than he did every previous year since 1995.

It would mark the first general fund tax rate increase in nine years and the first fire district rate increase in seven years.

Though he called it "the most trying budget I've presented to you," County Administrator John Gallagher told commissioners that the financial times were forcing local governments to get back to their core services.

"We've been a lot more conservative then our neighbors, but we have expanded services," he said.

The possibility that the commissioners could decide to "buy back" certain cuts with the $13.2 million could mark an opportunity for many of the affected groups to begin lobbying for restoration of their programs.

That started Tuesday, with more than a dozen kids from the 4-H club showing up. A few children carried homemade four-leaf clover signs.

Commissioner Ted Schrader said he wanted to emphasize to the public that none of the cuts is set in stone.

"This is clearly the beginning of the process," he said.

If commissioners keep the same millage rate, they'd be looking at a $23.7 million deficit due to the nearly 15 percent drop in taxable property values.

Other revenue sources are down, too. State revenue sharing and the half-cent sales tax will bring in $2.8 million less next year. Interest income has decreased by $11.68 million.

The overall spending plan is a roughly 4.6 percent decrease from the current year. The $211 million general fund, which pays for basic services such as law enforcement, libraries and parks, is down from the $213 million fund approved last year.

General employees have no wage or salary increases budgeted for the upcoming year, though a mediator recently awarded a 5 percent merit increase for the firefighters union for the current year.

In his letter to commissioners, Gallagher said that if the 5 percent merit increase is not implemented, officials could restore 44 of the 48 fire positions and 11 of the 20 rescue positions that are slated to be cut. He said the union and administrators have also discussed removing two kinds of holiday pay to offset the merit increase.

"We await the decision of the bargaining unit," he wrote. "The higher the compensation, the fewer the number of employees we can afford."

Over the past two years, voter-approved property tax reform plus a dramatic drop in real estate values have resulted in an $8.38 billion reduction in Pasco's taxable property values, Gallagher wrote to commissioners. The taxing district that pays for fire services in unincorporated Pasco lost $7.8 billion in revenue.

That's the equivalent of losing the benefit of the last seven years of construction.

But county officials found room for some economic development initiatives. One of them is $2 million for an economic development reserve fund "to attract another employer of the type and scale of T. Rowe Price."

The budget also includes $500,000 for incentives for smaller companies. The current practice has been to take money out of reserve funds for those incentives.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco County budget presents 'worst-case scenario' of cuts 07/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 9:02pm]
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