At the county level, no issues matter more this election season than spending and taxes.
So it's no surprise the three county commissioners fighting to retain their seats in this anti-incumbent environment are touting fiscal responsibility in their campaign ads.
All three commissioners say they voted to lower Hernando County's property tax rate by varying degrees:
"I have voted for six county tax rate millage reductions in seven years … that is over $62-million in revenue that has been removed from county budgets and given back to the taxpayers during my tenure," a Chris Kingsley brochure proclaims.
"In the past eight years I have been a county commissioner, the millage rate has not gone up but has gone down by 2.16 mills," writes Diane Rowden.
"Jeff has voted to lower property taxes by reducing the millage rate 25% over the last three years," a Jeff Stabins mailing reads.
All three commissioners did vote to trim property tax rates, but only one gets the numbers right, according to data provided by the county's budget office. The other two miscalculated the figures and take credit for cuts approved before they took office.
Another problem: The incumbents all ignore the broader context. Hernando County's property values increased significantly during their terms, so even though they reduced the tax rate, many residents still paid high bills as their property values increased.
"The millage rate went down but it didn't do down enough to bring it in line with the (proportional) increase in property value," said George Zoettlein, the director of the county's Office of Management and Budget.
A mill produces $1 in tax for every $1,000 in taxable property value.
For the owner of a Hernando house appraised at $150,000 who is eligible for the full $50,000 homestead exemption, the tax bill for county services now totals $634.31.
Two get it mostly right
Stabins, a first-term Republican running for re-election in District 1, is the lone math whiz.
He took office in 2004 when the county's property tax rate stood at 8.4204 mills. In his first three years, the board sliced the rate three times to 6.3431 mills, where it still stands. That's a 24.669 percent reduction in the millage rate; Stabins reasonably rounds to 25 percent. So on the Politifact Truth-O-Meter, he earns a True.
Rowden, a two-term Democrat in District 3, voted for those same cuts and correctly notes the property tax rate dropped in her eight years on the board. But she muddies the facts by asserting it "has gone down by 2.16 mills."
To get her figure, she used different numbers that considered just the general fund, not the countywide millage rate, which is the standard benchmark.
But she counts a property tax cut made in the 1998-1999 fiscal year budget — which was approved before she took office in November 1998. (The county's fiscal year runs Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.)
Rowden said she didn't calculate her own number. She asked Zoettlein, the county budget director. "I'm not a budget person; I just asked him," she said.
Zoettlein said he gave her a chart and she added up her own figures.
"I just gave her the spreadsheet, the same one I gave you," he said. "Maybe I should have asked her when she got elected" and reminded her about the fiscal year.
Either way, Rowden said she looked at the budget year of her first full year in office, 2001. But she didn't realize that number represented the 2000-2001 fiscal year budget, which the board finalized two months before she took office.
The tax rate did drop in her tenure by 2.0773 mills — not much off the 2.16 she claimed. So the Truth-O-Meter gives her a Mostly True.
Kingsley's fuzzy math
Kingsley's declaration about his tax-cutting record is much more sweeping and factually flawed. He served on the board from 1998 to 2002 when he lost his re-election bid. The Democrat won another four-year term in 2004 in District 5.
The claims on his campaign flier in this race are multifaceted. The first part states he voted for "six county tax rate millage reductions in seven years."
Like Rowden, Kingsley counts a tax cut in a budget approved before he took office. In this case, the .1831 mill reduction from fiscal year 1998-1999.
He acknowledged this week that the claim is mistaken. "I guess that would be correct," he said of the mix-up.
But it's the next part of Kingsley's claim that is most disputable.
He suggests those cuts equaled "$62-million … that has been removed from county budgets and given back to the taxpayers during my tenure."
It's skewed for three reasons:
• It's misleading to say the money was given back. It's not like taxpayer got rebate checks; the money just was never collected.
Kingsley said he "removed (taxpayers) from the liability of paying that much in taxes," calling it a matter of semantics.
• It counts two property tax cuts approved before Kingsley was elected (the 1998 and 1999 fiscal years) and two budgets finalized when he wasn't in office (2004 and 2005).
Kingsley said he takes credit for savings in the years he wasn't in office because the tax rate stayed constant after he left. But the wording on his brochure is precise: "during my tenure." This would not include savings in years when he was not in office.
• The $62-million is how much property tax revenues the county would have received had the tax rate remained the same from 1998 to 2008. But the rate did change, often year to year.
Kingsley took that figure from Zoettlein's chart ("I just used his numbers. I didn't massage them."). But Zoettlein said the figure isn't meaningful. "It is just my number to keep track of what the revenue could have been, it doesn't hold any other significance."
A better way to score how much taxpayers saved is a year-to-year analysis that takes into account the property tax rate as it changes in each budget year, Zoettlein said. Under this premise, Kingsley accurately can take credit for year-to-year tax cuts totaling $24.1-million.
But Kingsley disagrees with that approach.
"To say it's not cumulative doesn't make any sense," he said. "It just makes sense to say it's cumulative because that's the money we didn't have to pay. … Each year they get the savings one more time."
Kingsley suggests there's precision behind the $62-million figure. But it's actually quite a stretch that wrongly implies taxpayers got the money back because of his work in office. So he earns a Barely True on the Truth-O-Meter.
John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.