TAMPA — A lengthy streak could come to an end if commissioners approve Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean's 2009 spending plan.
For the first time in 15 years, the tax rate in Hillsborough County could actually increase, just as taxpayers are crying for relief the loudest.
The increase is ever so slight, at this point about 0.00036 mills. To put it in perspective: That's an increase of about 54 cents on a $200,000 house that enjoys a $50,000 homestead exemption, assuming that home neither lost nor gained value this year compared to last.
But there is symbolism in any increase. And some commissioners are well aware of it.
"That's not gonna happen," said Commissioner Jim Norman in a recent interview.
Bean's proposal actually recommends cutting $87-million, or about 7 percent, from a budget initially approved by commissioners a year ago. The proposal includes eliminating more than 400 full- and part-time jobs, in response to voter approved property tax reductions.
However, taxable property values have declined about $4-billion since last year. Because of that, Bean's plan includes an increase in the part of the tax bill that goes toward county debt payments for things such as parkland the county has purchased.
"Normally the tax base goes up, and the millage automatically goes down for debt payments," said county management and budget director Eric Johnson. "Anytime the tax base declines, the millage goes up to generate that fixed payment for debt."
For some time, incumbent commission candidates have bragged about having cut the tax rate for year upon consecutive year. The rate cuts have been modest, and generally they have not offset increases in tax bills caused by skyrocketing property values.
Three commissioners are up for re-election this year. And not all of the board members were aware that the spending plan they are considering includes a rate increase.
"I was not aware of the millage increase," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who is one of the board members on the 2008 ballot.
"I'll be honest with you, it's not something that was on my radar," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who is not running for re-election this year. "Now it is on my radar. Even though it's symbolic, that's a very important issue."
Commissioners would need to trim a little more than $250,000 from Bean's spending plan in order to cut the tax rate. While that amount is not large, they have spent much of the summer looking for ways to restore some of the programs Bean had already recommended cutting.
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.