TAMPA — Hillsborough County officials had hoped they had seen the bottom of the economic collapse.
But property values have continued to fall and the county will have at least one more year of lower property tax receipts.
County Administrator Mike Merrill will present a $3 billion budget to commissioners next week for fiscal 2013 that factors in another $14 million in declining property taxes. Since 2007, property taxes collected by the county have fallen about $300 million.
This time Merrill thinks the county really has hit bottom.
"I really finally have that sense," he said. "I think most of the foreclosures will have been flushed through the system. Commercial is starting to recover. Jobs are coming back."
Merrill's budget proposal is balanced without a tax rate increase, thanks in large part to tapping what he calls "one-time money." The state each year requires county governments to approve a budget that plans for spending no more than 95 percent of anticipated tax revenue.
What's left over at the end of the year is so-called one-time money that can be used to address needs the following year. Ongoing workers compensation claims that are lower than projected and other savings achieved through the year also will be used to fill the gap.
This is the second year of a two-year budgeting cycle used by the county. Traditionally in the second year, few changes are made from the prior year. But Merrill's budget does have a few differences.
He proposes giving all employees a one-year, $1,200 cost-of-living adjustment to partly make up for six consecutive years of pay freezes and reductions. The county's two major unions, which represents firefighters and many blue-collar workers, are demanding more and have declared an impasse in annual contract negotiations.
Merrill would not get the raise himself, warding off criticism leveled at his predecessor Pat Bean. She was caught giving raises to top employees and herself without alerting commissioners.
He also presents the option of asking voters to approve a slight property tax increase that would be dedicated to parks and recreational centers. It would function similarly to the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program.
The county would take on debt to pay for a number of building projects, using proceeds from the tax to pay it over 10 years.
Included on the list of projects is $27.5 million to preserve the Friendship Trail Bridge, a former span of the Gandy Bridge, and converting it into an over-the-water linear park.
Merrill said he has heard enough positive feedback from commissioners to bring forward the new tax proposal. But it was unclear late Friday if the enthusiasm will wane once the proposal gets publicized. The 0.15-mill tax would cost the owner of a house valued at $165,000 about $25 a year. "It is something that gives the voters an option to give either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down," Merrill said.
He said the county has all summer to get public feedback, not having to approve a referendum for the November ballot until September.
Short of that, Merrill suggests other options for raising money for delayed parks projects. They range from laying claim to some $9 million in sales tax money set aside for Tampa Bay Buccaneers training center that the team has not tapped. Another $9 million could be taken from money earmarked to Hillsborough Area Regional Transit that has not been spent.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected].