Saturday, February 24, 2018
News Roundup

Proposed tax rate increase is needed — really

Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon has proposed what looks like a big tax increase, and at Tuesday's County Commission budget workshop he no doubt will say it really isn't so big at all.

There's also no doubt that this will sound like spin to some of you.

Actually, it isn't.

Consider, first of all, this year's general fund is a little more than $92 million.

The proposed 24.5 percent increase in the general fund property tax rate would boost that amount all the way up to — well, a mere $53,060 more than it is now.

That's because during the last budget season and several previous ones, the County Commission filled holes in the budget by spending reserves.

It now has to stop doing this or risk blowing up its credit rating. Its only choice is to raise money the honest way, by increasing the tax rate.

Okay, but the proposed millage rate — 7.37 — has to be way higher than at any time in recent history, right?

Not really. It was 7.24 as recently as 2006. But you paid a lot more back then because the average single-family home was appraised for tax purposes at $156,228.

Now it's down to $88,782. Figure in homestead exemptions, and the average taxable value of a residential parcel in the county is just $55,461.

That would generate a property tax bill of $408, which seems like a reasonable sum considering that it pays for parks, libraries, code enforcement, community planning, administration and the big daddy of general fund expenses, law enforcement.

True enough, it takes more than property taxes to keep the county running. You also need fees such as the ones for fire protection and ambulances.

But most of these other assessments will stay the same or, in some cases, even decline slightly. Which means that for most of us the overall county tax rate increase isn't 24.5 percent, but 7.85 percent.

And that would be just enough to keep the county on its current, near-starvation rations.

The number of employees under the control of the commission is — and would continue to be — 180, which is precisely half as many as five years ago. The hours at libraries would still be limited, as would money to pay for new books. Park maintenance workers will be able to do just enough to keep ball fields from turning into mud pits. Code Enforcement might or might not get around to dealing with the neighbor whose lawn doubles as an auto salvage yard.

The only item in Sossamon's budget that a cost-conscious politician could reasonably object to is the first pay raise for county employees in years — 3 percent in most departments, up to 6 percent at the Sheriff's Office.

For that reason, mainly, commission Chairman David Russell favors an increase a half-mill smaller than the one Sossamon has proposed.

This might be necessary to get any increase at all approved by a commission with two members — Wayne Dukes and Nick Nicholson — who don't need a reason to object to a rise in rates. And as much as I think pay raises are overdue, I don't think the ones handed out at the Sheriff's Office should be higher than anywhere else, meaning there might be some room to shave expenses.

Which is a nice favor Sossamon has done by introducing the most responsible proposed budget this county has seen in years.

He's taking most of the heat. He's allowing his commissioners to talk about decreases to it instead of increases to the current tax rates.

For example, that reduction Russell is talking about?

I hate to bring this up, considering how desperately it's needed, but it still amounts to a 17 percent increase in the general fund millage rate — if, that is, you want to give it the worst possible spin.

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