Fearing a steep budget shortfall, Pasco County officials have privately discussed something not done since 2000: raising property taxes.
In one-on-one meetings with county commissioners last month, budget director Mike Nurrenbrock offered options of raising the tax rate to reduce or eliminate the expected falloff in property tax revenue — and perhaps even collect more money.
The county faces a $29 million drop in property tax revenue because home values have plummeted. More than $2 million more could be lost from shrinking gas and sales tax revenue. The declines would crimp services such as law enforcement, libraries and parks.
Several commissioners said Tuesday that raising the property tax rate should be an option, despite the risk of riling voters who backed deep tax cuts in a 2008 statewide referendum.
Commissioners Michael Cox and Pat Mulieri are due to seek re-election in 2010. Neither ruled out supporting an increase.
Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said Pasco needs to continue trying to "cut every which way but loose" — while keeping its options open, too.
"If everybody's value is dropping, even if the millage (rate) ticks up a bit, they may still be paying less than they would have," said Mariano, a Republican.
But Bill Bunting, a foe of tax increases and former Republican Party chairman in Pasco, said it's the wrong time to raise the rate. The county has too many seniors with tight budgets and too many homes in foreclosure, he said.
"They really should tell the entire community every cut they made before they do that," he said of commissioners.
In most scenarios for rate increases, many homeowners would still pay less taxes, but not save as much as if rates stay the same. That's because, collectively speaking, property values have fallen by a fifth.
If Pasco raised rates high enough to eliminate the shortfall, the owner of a home valued at $160,000 this year would pay $48 less than last year, assuming the home value fell by 20 percent.
Nurrenbrock said the county faces "drastic" cuts to services if rates stay the same. Department heads have been told to draft budgets that are 15 percent to 20 percent less. Crunching numbers for possible tax increases showed commissioners their options, he said.
"Nothing has been eliminated but nothing has been endorsed or encouraged," he said.
Nurrenbrock planned a public presentation at the commission's Jan. 27 meeting. But he scuttled that idea in favor of sessions with commissioners, which are exempt from Florida's open meeting law. The Times obtained a 14-page copy of his briefing this week.
Nurrenbrock said the meetings provided flexibility without time constraints. The private meetings allowed "open discussion" and avoided influencing public opinion on spending priorities by introducing the potential for tax rate hikes too early, Mariano said.
The next budget doesn't have to be approved until September or unveiled until July. The county hired a consultant to help set its spending priorities and survey residents' views. Pasco also has culled some jobs and reduced spending last year.
Mulieri, a Republican who already has a 2010 opponent in Ken Littlefield, said residents tell her they don't want cuts that are too deep to libraries and parks, so a moderate rate increase is possible. "I think everything's on the table at this point," she said.
Cox, a first-term Democrat whom Republicans have targeted to unseat, said he opposes raising the tax rate because it could worsen people's problems.
"Having said that, if that meant that we'd start getting into the safety issues — having to cut safety — I may have to reconsider that position," Cox said.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.