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Hillsborough's 14-year run of ever-lower tax rates could be ending

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners like to brag about how they've cut the property tax rate for 14 consecutive years.

That streak could come to an end next year.

County Administrator Pat Bean's budget proposal includes a slight millage hike — about 1.9 cents for each $1,000 of value for a piece of property in unincorporated Hillsborough County.

That would add about $2.90 to the property tax bill for a $200,000 house with a $50,000 homestead exemption.

The increase is tied to the part of the county's millage that goes toward paying debt for things like roads and environmental land purchases. With property values falling, the tax rate needs to edge up slightly to keep up with debt payments, said county management services administrator Eric Johnson.

"When the tax base rises, the tax rate falls proportionately," Johnson said. "But when the tax base falls, as it did this year, the tax rate automatically goes up."

Bean's budget proposal, unveiled last week, would keep the rest of the county's tax rate, which covers much of its operating expenses, the same as this year. Bean's proposal calls for cutting $144 million in spending, eliminating 855 jobs, and slashing spending for everything from code enforcement to after-school programs.

While property owners should barely notice the millage increase, the county would have to cut another $1.2 million to keep the tax rate the same as this year. Bean said she hopes commissioners will see how much services will be cut before deciding if they want to keep their tax-cutting streak alive.

"They need to feel what this budget reduction is doing," Bean said. "They need to fully understand that before they make a decision about the millage reduction."

Bean had Johnson alert commissioners to the potential millage hike Thursday during a budget workshop so they aren't surprised later. Commissioners showed little reaction, but have in the past tended to lower her initial millage proposal.

Some commissioners have a mix of views on whether even a slight increase to the tax rate would be tolerable when residents are struggling to hold on to homes and jobs.

Al Higginbotham, for one, said it's too early.

He noted that tax collection projections are still being refined, and he wants to wait for the final estimate. Plus, he said, commissioners should be able to identify other ways to save.

"We've got to look at the whole picture," Higginbotham said. "I'm not receptive at this point to a millage increase."

Higginbotham has repeatedly argued that, despite tax rate decreases, the county has gone on a spending binge in recent years fueled by rapidly rising property values. He's hoping the board takes this time to truly discern how taxpayers want their money spent and then reshape how the county works.

Mark Sharpe has asked for numbers that paint a clearer picture of how each millage change affects typical property owners.

He noted that many taxpayers should finally see reductions, potentially large ones, to their tax bills simply because property values have fallen sharply. He said he wants to get a better focus on that as well before passing judgment on a tax-rate hike.

"The overall objective has been to try to do what we can to reduce the tax burden on residents," Sharpe said. "It's my intention to do in the macro what's best for taxpayers."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough's 14-year run of ever-lower tax rates could be ending 06/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 8, 2009 11:12pm]
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