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Separate tax bill for sheriff could end up costing Pasco taxpayers more

With little fanfare, and over the objections of Pasco Sheriff Bob White, commissioners this week changed the way they will finance the sheriff's budget.

In a 4-0 vote, they decided to set up a separate tax just for law enforcement. The board will hold a public hearing on the matter before the July 1 deadline to get the item on next year's tax bills.

Here are a few basic questions about the issue:

Who will be affected?

If you own property in unincorporated Pasco County, the tax will be levied under something called a municipal services taxing unit, or MSTU.

What's that?

It's a special tax district with its own millage to pay for some specific service, in this case, law enforcement by Pasco County Sheriff's Office. You already see an MSTU on your tax bill now, for county firefighting services.

Could this mean a tax increase?

Based on the preliminary scenario floated this week, it could. (See explanation further below).

How is the sheriff's budget financed now?

Out of the general fund, which pays not only for the sheriff but also for basic services like libraries, parks and recreation, animal control.

Why did commissioners single out the sheriff?

His total budget, for both law enforcement and countywide operations like the jail, this year totaled about $85 million. That took up nearly 40 percent of the property taxes collected for the general fund. Commissioners say separating out the sheriff's budget will give the public a better sense of where the money goes. It might also show whether the public would be willing to support higher taxes to support law enforcement, which is routinely listed as a top priority in citizen surveys.

So is this extra money for the Sheriff's Office?

Not necessarily. Basically, commissioners are moving money around. The costs of the sheriff's law enforcement functions — think road patrols, investigations, for instance — will shift from the general fund to this new fund.

Why those specific functions?

They are the ones that the sheriff provides in unincorporated Pasco. Cities with police departments, the idea goes, don't need to pay that. Those costs totaled around $52 million out of this year's total $85 million budget.

What about the other things the sheriff does? Like running the jail, paying court bailiffs, overseeing an aviation patrol unit?

Those costs will stay in the general fund.

Why?

Because if all the sheriff's budget were put into the MSTU, city residents would pay nothing for the services — the jail and court bailiffs, for instance — their police departments don't provide.

Who sets the rate?

The County Commission.

How much do they think it might be?

County officials have sketched out some preliminary numbers that show the board would need to set a millage rate of about $3 per $1,000 of assessed value if it wants to give the sheriff roughly $52 million for law enforcement.

So that means the general fund would be reduced, right?

Right. Officials estimate that if they move that $52 million out of the general fund, they could reduce the tax rate for that fund by about $2.57 per $1,000.

Wait, does this mean I'm paying more?

You could. The difference in those two rates — about 40 cents — could mean another $40 a year for a $150,000 house with $50,000 in exemptions. But there are caveats: Officials haven't shored up the actual numbers; they could compensate by making other cuts; your assessed value might go down.

I don't understand; why can't they reduce the general fund rate dollar-for-dollar?

Since the tax roll for the general fund includes the cities, it's about $3 billion greater than the MSTU. Raising the same amount of money from a smaller tax roll requires a higher rate.

Is this just another way to raise taxes?

That's what critics say. "It's a way to get more money out of us," said Ann Bunting, an anti-tax advocate. Commissioners say there's a long history of keeping taxes low in this county — and that they wouldn't last in office long if they jacked it up.

I live in a city with a police department. What about my taxes?

You wouldn't have to pay the sheriff MSTU and you'd see the general fund rate go down. So, yes, in theory, the county portion of your taxes might decrease.

What does Sheriff White say about the MSTU?

He doesn't like it. For one thing, he says it won't cover his costs of helping out the cities. He said it still keeps him at the mercy of the County Commission, and he points to financial shortfalls in the MSTU for firefighting services.

Didn't someone pitch something like this before?

Former sheriff Lee Cannon proposed a MSTU in 1998 to hire new deputies. His idea differed, however, in that it would have raised additional taxes to supplement his budget. The board put the proposal to voters, who rejected it amid questions about the crime statistics Cannon used to justify the request.

How many other counties have MSTUs just for law enforcement?

Eight, according to a list provided by the Department of Revenue. Hernando County considered a similar proposal last year, but the board rejected it.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Separate tax bill for sheriff could end up costing Pasco taxpayers more 05/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 2:27pm]
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