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Tax rate in Largo budget talks already gets a 'no'

LARGO — The city's proposed 2012 budget deals with another year of falling property values without resorting to mass layoffs, big service cuts, or staggering tax or fee hikes. So city management deserves a pat on the back, right?

Depends on which city commissioner you ask.

The Largo City Commission begins in earnest this week to look at the budget that city management has proposed for fiscal year 2012, which starts Oct. 1. Commissioners' opinions of the $65.4 million general fund budget, which adopts the rollback tax rate, vary widely.

The rollback rate is the tax rate that generates the same amount of tax revenue for the city after accounting for changing property values and new construction. In Largo, in 2012, that means increasing the tax rate from about 4.31 mills to about 4.56 mills.

One mill is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessed, nonexempt property. The owner of a home valued at $100,000 after any exemptions, for example, would pay $431 under the current tax rate and about $456 under the proposed rate.

Largo property values have dropped 4.4 percent this year, according to an estimate by the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office, and the rollback rate will bring in $138,000 more revenue than 2011, according to city management, which characterizes that in the budget document as "keeping property tax virtually flat."

To City Commissioner Curtis Holmes, no matter how management parses its argument, the rollback rate is a tax hike. Which he won't vote for.

"It's a tax increase," Holmes said. "That's a fact. … If the appraised value has diminished, and you are still charging these people the same amount of money, that's a tax increase."

City Manager Mac Craig disagrees.

"We're not raising taxes. That's what the rollback rate is for," he said. As evidence of Largo's austerity, he pointed to the $12 million the city has cut from its budget and the nearly 50 full-time equivalent employees it has lost since 2008.

Mayor Pat Gerard is content with the budget. To Gerard, the worst thing proposed in the 2012 budget is the loss of the Largo Public Library's hours on Sunday. The library's hours dropped to six days per week this summer as a cost-savings measure.

"If we can get away with that being the worst thing that we do, that's pretty good," Gerard said.

There may be more cuts on the way, though, as the City Commission debates the budget. The commission was scheduled to vote Tuesday night on the maximum property tax rate Largo can charge in 2012, and to set the schedule for the rest of budget season.

The proposed schedule includes a City Commission budget review Aug. 5, and public hearings and commission votes on the budget and tax rate Sept. 8 and Sept. 20.

Holmes promises to criticize Largo's continued funding of a cultural center and golf course during the discussions. While he may be on his own on the cultural center, Holmes will not be the only commissioner to question Largo's continued use of general fund revenue to keep the golf course solvent.

"That's one of the things I'll be looking at very closely," said Vice Mayor Robert Murray of the golf course, which will receive $150,000 in city funds in the proposed budget, after getting $200,000 in 2011.

Murray is one of several commissioners who has suggested city management look for a private company to run the course, which was intended to pay for itself when the city bought it.

The cultural center, conversely, was not supposed to turn a profit when the city opened it in 1996 to offer theater, dance, and low-cost public entertainment. Other commissioners have cited that difference while explaining their support for the cultural center, which will receive $543,600 in city funds in the proposed budget.

Holmes disagrees, and says government should not be in the entertainment business.

"I'll never vote for a budget that includes those two items," he said.

Murray isn't sure if he'll vote in favor of the rollback rate, and said he'll decide in the next few weeks. Gerard expects the commission to approve the proposed budget, eventually, even if there is some dissent.

"Perhaps not complete consensus," she said. "There is always one person who votes against the budget."

Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@sptimes.com.

Tax rate in Largo budget talks already gets a 'no' 07/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 5:10pm]
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