DADE CITY — Officials creating a county survey crafted a question to see how residents would feel about raising property taxes to plug an anticipated budget hole next year. For a home valued at $150,000, the question said, the tax bill would go up $32 under such a proposal.
But that example was too pricey for County Commissioner Jack Mariano, who said most people don't own homes that expensive after the housing bust decimated property values.
"That's a high number," he said at Tuesday's commission meeting, adding that his research showed the county's median sales price is $99,700.
The numbers were part of a question to be included on the county's annual survey about what residents really want in a fiscal year with a proposed $6.1 million revenue shortfall, the amount expected for 2012-13. The question said tax rates would need to go up by 0.3164 mills to support services at current levels. (A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 in taxable value.) For the owner of a home valued at $150,000, minus $50,000 in homestead exemptions, that would mean an extra $32 in taxes.
Other questions ask residents, if they don't want to pay more in property tax, what they were willing to do: cut services, increase user fees, or raise tax rates for people in areas who receive expanded services.
After some debate about what the home values really were and how using sales prices wouldn't be accurate and whether condos or mobile homes should be included in the figuring, commissioners agreed to let budget director Mike Nurrenbrock consult the Property Appraiser's Office during a break and report back before making a decision.
He returned with information that the median appraised value was $99,455, with $61,754 of that amount taxable.
In the end, Mariano agreed to "keep the numbers easy" but said a $100,000 appraised value, minus the usual homestead exemptions, was a more realistic example for most residents. That would mean an increase of only $16 a year, which Mariano said may make a difference in the survey results.
The other commissioners agreed to revise the question based on a $100,000 home.
Commissioners also went against the staff's recommendation to omit the technical language about tax rates.
"Most people don't understand millage," said Heather Grimes, the county's customer service director.
Commissioner Henry Wilson disagreed. Leaving the millage in, he said, would allow residents and businesses to figure their own rates and determine how much such an increase would cost.
"I don't think we're giving our citizens enough credit," he said.
Mariano also proposed giving residents another choice besides service cuts, fees and taxes when it came to paying for services: Tap the reserve fund.
That drew fire from commissioners Pat Mulieri, Ted Schrader and Ann Hildebrand.
"I'm not excited about that at all," Hildebrand said.
Mulieri, who is not seeking re-election, said voters who don't want financial stability "shouldn't vote us in next time."
"I don't agree with tapping reserves," she said.
To which Mariano shot back: "You did on Dec. 20."
That was the day commissioners voted to make Dec. 23 a paid holiday for county staffers even though it wasn't in the original budget and was expected to cost about $300,000 in overtime for emergency responders and other critical personnel. Mariano cast the lone vote against the extra day off, saying it cost money that could have been used to offset park fees. Some of the money came from the county's general fund reserve, which staffers said was about $7 million.
Schrader said going with no rainy day fund would be unwise, given the county's vulnerability to hurricanes.
"What if we get hit with the big one?" he said.
The survey, which will have to be revised further, is expected to be available later this year as commissioners begin setting the proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
In other news Tuesday, commissioners:
• Approved a low-cost spay-neuter program. Under the program, which will cost the county $45,000 the first year, low-income residents can get their dog sterilized and vaccinated for rabies for a $15 co-pay, plus $5 for a license. The costs were not listed for cats. Currently residents may seek a $40 rebate after having a dog spayed or neutered by a participating veterinarian.
• Denied a request by the Alzheimer's Family Organization Inc. to waive $295 in park user fees for an upcoming event. County Parks and Recreation director Rick Buckman said letting the nonprofit avoid the fee set a precedent for other groups to seek the same consideration. Buckman said the county had already worked with the charity to whittle the amount from $440 to $295. "We've got to draw a line somewhere or pick a couple of causes each year," he said.