Hidden behind layoffs and reduced services, a ray of light exists in Hillsborough County's tentative budget.
For the 18th year in a row, the county plans to lower its property tax rate.
The decrease in the millage, however small, is a point of pride for commissioners who were faced with cutting millions from the county's proposed budget for fiscal 2012.
"I think it shows that the County Commission has recognized the importance of providing tax relief to our residents," Commissioner Ken Hagan said.
This year's cut, which will be voted on at the end of the final budget hearing in September, would reduce the county's portion of the property tax bill for a home valued at $200,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption by 24 cents, said Tom Fesler, director of business and support services.
Alone, the number is less than staggering, but when coupled with the savings accumulated during the almost two decades of reductions, the impact is stronger, Hagan said.
For a home valued at $150,000, the savings would equal more than $3,000 over the years, Fesler said.
"If you look at any individual year, the reduction is more symbolic in nature," Hagan said. "But collectively, if you add up the reduction over 18 years, it's a significant savings to property owners."
So why take so long to make the decrease?
A substantial tax reduction all at once would cause severe disruption to county programs, County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said.
"It would create a lot of uncertainty," he said.
The reduction strategy allows the county to slowly wean off taxpayer dollars to provide the essential services residents are accustomed to, he said.
Yet easing away from the use of that money doesn't always come voluntarily. For the past four years, commissioners have had to deal with declining property tax revenue caused by falling property values and a sluggish economy.
Five years ago, the county collected $813 million in property taxes. Estimated property tax receipts for next year are just $561.5 million, down $22 million from last year.
It has been a reminder to the government that relying on funds that can fluctuate from year to year is risky, Sharpe said.
"Our obligation is to provide services without turning to the taxpayer and saying we are going to take more of your money," he said.
Reducing the property tax rate forces government to consolidate, partner with public and private entities, and do a better job with less money, he said.
"We haven't had to do that in the past; now we are forced to," he said. For many homeowners, any reduction in property taxes is a welcome one, even if it's a small one over several years.
"It counterbalances the fact that my insurance payment went up," said John Colizzo, who has lived in the same Valrico house for the past seven years. Colizzo said he hasn't noticed a reduction in county services but can always feel the benefit of a property tax decrease.
"They've got to make some cuts somewhere," he said. "But, obviously, I'm happy to save any money on property taxes."
Although many commissioners agree this year's slight reduction in the property tax rate is largely symbolic, it's something they hope will reverberate with residents.
"Symbols mean a lot sometimes," County Administrator Mike Merrill said, "especially in this kind of environment where we are limited in cutting large amounts of taxes."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2442.