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Pasco commission votes to increase tax rate, for now

NEW PORT RICHEY — County Commissioners voted Tuesday to increase the property tax rate, though residents could catch a break by the time commissioners finish budget talks in September.

The vote raises the aggregate millage rate to 8.9342 mills, a 7.8 percent hike over the current rate.

That increase, which is less than what county officials initially proposed, is not set in stone and commissioners can trim the overall millage rate during budget talks over the next two months. The rate cannot go higher than the level approved Tuesday without the county incurring additional expense. The fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

If the rate is approved as suggested it would cost a homeowner whose property is valued at $150,000 with $50,000 in exemptions an additional $66 per year, said Heather Grimes, assistant county administrator.

The vote followed a public hearing in which a half dozen residents spoke against the proposed increase, saying it will burden their families and businesses. Generally, the speakers called on commissioners to enact more spending cuts. One warned that commissioners will be voted out if the rate passes.

"I'm not going to feel sorrow for you. You were elected to do this job," he told commissioners. "Do not raise taxes on one single person in this county or it will cost you your jobs."

Commissioners have a history of reducing the rate from its initial level once budget talks begin. They lowered the rate each of the past two budget cycles.

At issue for commissioners now is this year's $1.16 billion proposed budget.

County Administrator Michele Baker said the plan generally maintains current spending levels but comes with some increases, including a mandated $4 million contribution to the state's pension system.

It also adds $1.9 million for a jail expansion and awards most employees — many of whom haven't had a raise in six years — a 3 percent raise.

"It is a tough budget year when you compare expectations with reality," Baker said. "There are two camps: Those who say we're recovering and need to reinvest in the community and those who say we need to hold the line. We're trying to find a balance."

The proposed tax increase has already triggered backlash from residents. In recent weeks, about 15 voters have fired off angry emails to commissioners warning that any property tax increase will derail the fragile economic recovery and could cost them at the polls next November.

The county staff initially asked for an even larger increase, to 9.0893 mills. Commission Chairman Ted Schrader, citing the escalating rhetoric, suggested the county could add another $3 million in revenue to the operating budget. That got the rate down to what was passed Tuesday.

Most of the added revenue would consist of a reimbursement from the Tax Collector's Office for unused funds, Schrader said. The remaining amount — about $500,000 — would come from reserves and would be used toward the county's 911 consolidation program.

The county is consolidating its emergency dispatch systems at the Sheriff's Office and fire department to improve emergency response times and lower operating expenses in the long run. Instead of paying for the program with general operating funds, Schrader suggested using reserve funds.

Looking ahead, commissioners have several workshops in which to discuss the budget and then a public hearing on Sept. 24 to finalize the spending plan and millage rate for the next fiscal year. The next workshop is set for Aug. 6 with the Sheriff's Office.

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

Pasco commission votes to increase tax rate, for now 07/23/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 6:06pm]
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