DADE CITY — Pasco administrators released next year's $1.1 billion county budget on Tuesday, relying on an increased property tax rate to largely spare services such as parks and libraries from cuts.
The proposal includes a "rolled back" property tax rate, bringing in roughly the same amount of property taxes as the current budget year. That rate is 5 percent higher than the current rate. If commissioners had kept the rate flat, they would've had to cut another $9.25 million from the budget.
"Thank goodness we did the roll back," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand.
Property values dropped an average of nearly 6 percent this year, causing the tax base to lose $1.5 billion, twice as much as last year.
"We all thought we were kind of bottoming out last year," said budget chief Mike Nurrenbrock. "But actually the revaluations downward were twice as bad as last year."
Hildebrand added she is cautiously optimistic values will finally begin to recover next year.
The budget includes nine new firefighters, two fewer than Pasco Fire Chief Anthony Lopinto had requested in earlier budget workshops in an effort to avoid paying excess overtime.
Nurrenbrock noted the budget also includes a new Fire Rescue technician focused on information technology. That will free up firefighters who currently perform those tasks.
The budget includes 13 new positions that are not paid for with property taxes. Most of those jobs are in the county's stormwater and utilities departments.
There are also two Community Development positions funded with grants.
For departments paid for with property taxes, the county shed a total of one and a half positions.
The parks department lost an aquatics director, anticipating that a private swim club will take over pool operations at Veterans Memorial Park.
The library system added one full-time position but lost three part-time jobs. The county did, however, add two new positions to help Pasco government find efficiencies.
Even though overall property values fell by 5.9 percent, that figure includes about $300 million in new construction. Nurrenbrock said properties built more than a year ago fell by an average of 8.15 percent.
As an example, Nurrenbrock used a $116,000 home with standard homestead exemptions — the county's median home value. If its value dropped by that 8-percent average, the owner would pay $39 less in taxes.
"Bad news, the property went down," he said. "Good news, even with the change in the millage rates to get to the roll back, they'll be paying a little bit less than they would have last year."
If the homeowner was lucky enough not to lose any value, the higher tax rate means he or she would pay $40 more in taxes.
The budget does not add any more money to the county's economic development fund, which stands at $7 million.
It also leaves emergency operating reserves unchanged at $32.9 million. That is 90 percent of the county's goal of enough cash to operate for two months in an emergency.
Starting next year, Nurrenbrock suggested commissioners adopt a similar goal for the fire budget.
Currently that department only has enough to operate in "emergency mode" for about 10 days.
"Tropical Storm Debby showed us how much we will have to activate our fire and EMS," Nurrenbrock said.
The budget includes $4.2 million more to comply with a new state law regarding Medicaid bills that were previously disputed by the county. Pasco is one of 55 counties challenging that law in court.
Nurrenbrock also warned about a lawsuit challenging last year's state-required pension contributions from most government employees.
If that lawsuit is successful, Pasco pension costs might jump by more than $5 million, though its not clear when that increase would take effect.
Commissioners are scheduled to formally adopt the property tax rate at their July 24 meeting in New Port Richey.
They are set to hold public hearings on the budget on Sept. 11 in Dade City and Sept. 25 in New Port Richey.
The budget year begins Oct. 1.