Nancy Sexton, an avid gardener dismayed at proposed cuts to the Cooperative Extension Service, told the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday that we all need to pay a little more in taxes. I expected boos or at least groans from the standing-room-only crowd, and instead heard ... applause!
Then Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek walked to the lectern and said the county cannot continue to hemorrhage revenue, and that the commission "has to consider a roll-up." Everyone in the meeting understood he meant a bump in the property tax rate to partly compensate for declining property values, but, once again, the response was enthusiastic clapping.
In case anyone missed the significance of all this, it was nicely summed up by Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who thanked Mazourek for "being the first elected official who has the (guts) to speak out and say the right thing."
Yes, this was a revolutionary day in Hernando County, and not only because a politician advocated raising the millage rate and, of the dozens of residents who spoke, a handful asked for the same thing.
Even ones who said they didn't want anything like a tax increase (and there were a few) recognized the value of county services and facilities. And they didn't just care about their pet interests: Ernie Wever Youth Park, Stewy's Skate Park, the Little Rock Cannery or the Master Gardeners program. Several of them fretted about cuts to a whole range of county functions: animal services, mosquito control, code enforcement.
In other words, there was at least some recognition that each service is a thread in the community fabric and that, after all the cuts, is starting to look pretty tattered.
Of course, it's even more difficult to pinpoint the turning of the tide in a meeting room than it is at the shore. There are larger political forces out there, struggling-but-influential business people dead set against even the slightest increase in tax rates. There's the great majority of taxpayers who did not take two hours out of their morning, pull their baseball- and soccer-playing kids out of school, wear T-shirts and hold signs in support of their various causes; it's probably safe to say they care less about county services than the hundred or so people who did.
Plus, Mazourek and other constitutional officers are facing deep cuts for the first time this year, a total of nearly $3 million. And that was even before county budget director George Zoettlein delivered the grim news that the county would have to refund an additional $1.3 million to people who successfully challenged their 2010 property values. So Mazourek is trying to save jobs in his department.
But good for him, because he presented compelling numbers showing that with property values and tax rates going down in recent years, and homestead exemptions going up, residents just aren't paying enough to fully fund his department or any other one. Examining a sample of properties around the county, his office found that 70 percent of landowners pay less now than they did in 1999; the owners of 8,449 houses or lots pay no county property taxes, and the owners of 43,459 properties pay less than $400 per year — most of them a lot less; their average tax bill was $148.
Mazourek wasn't talking about recouping the entire shortfall this year — maybe the price of dinner out for the average family, less than the cost of a pizza for others. And this is only part of a budget formula that will include user fees, more volunteers to maintain parks and, still, plenty of cuts.
No, I didn't see a crowd eager to pay dramatically higher taxes. I saw residents willing to talk reasonably about saving services they cherish without immediately rejecting any increase in the tax rate, no matter how modest and well justified.
To me, it looked like a revolution.