Thursday, March 22, 2018

Bad news: Hernando County is worse off than most others

Chances are when a Hernando County commissioner said Tuesday that budget "Armageddon" is upon us, you barely took notice.

By now, we've all become numb to cries of public funding distress and assume that behind all of them is some amount of political posturing and poor-mouthing.

And because things are bad all over, especially in this flat-busted state, maybe you assume Hernando is no more strapped than any other Florida county.

But I'm here to tell you that, even though some commissioners may in fact have been trying to scare either voters or the county's constitutional officers, the distress is real and so is the possibility of shutting down entire departments.

Not only that, our county has lost more tax revenue in recent years — and made up less of it by increasing property tax rates — than all but a few counties in Florida.

The first clue, not exactly a subtle one, is the headline stripped across the top of Wednesday's Pasco Times: "County agrees to tax hike."

Actually, Pasco commissioners on Tuesday quietly agreed to a possible roll-back property tax rate — not actually an increase for most homeowners, just enough of an increase in the tax rate to compensate for the anticipated loss in revenue caused by falling property values. This would be the second time since 2009 the Pasco commission has approved the roll-back rate, said county budget director Mike Nurrenbrock, who was able to convince commissioners that the rate was needed to keep services from crumbling.

"At a certain point, it gets to be a quality of life issue," Nurrenbrock said.

In Hernando, meanwhile, the commission seems poised to resist anything close to the roll-back rate, which has been the case ever since tax revenues started plunging in 2008.

Combined with possible Medicaid repayments to the state and a loss of library grants the county has relied upon heavily in recent years, here is what this will probably mean:

Neglected parks, shuttered libraries, crippled Code Enforcement, more Animal Services horror stories — a county that, when it comes to providing the kind of basic services that help lure investors and new residents, will lose even more ground, not only to its immediate neighbor, but also to counties throughout the state.

Since 2009, the Florida Association of Counties has compiled charts showing how much property values have declined each year and how much property tax rates have increased to compensate.

Basically, it's a measure of how bad the bleeding is and how much county commissions have done to stop it. And it makes the good doctors on the Hernando commission look like the type who are only interested in chatting about their golf games while standing knee deep in gore.

In 2009, the gap between the amount the county expected to raise from its millage rate was 21 percent below the roll-back rate, eighth-highest of 67 counties in the state. The next year, its ranking was the same. And last year, despite a slight increase in the property tax rate, the gap was still the fifth-highest in Florida.

This is not a complete funding comparison. But it corresponds not only to the news from Pasco but also to a recent report from Florida TaxWatch that showed per-capita tax revenue in Hernando is among the very lowest in the state.

What's the explanation, other than that the foreclosure crisis and sinkhole claims have driven down prices here even more steeply than in most of Florida?

Well, for one thing, we lack Pasco's steady leadership — a county administrator and budget chief who have served for decades and whose advice about the county's needs carries real weight with the public and commissioners.

And even though, obviously, we have no monopoly on no-new-taxes demagogy — boy, we sure have our share.

It's the fallback strategy of two of our commissioners, Wayne Dukes and Jim Adkins. And you have to feel for a more responsible commissioner, such as John Druzbick, who faces a Republican primary battle with Jason Sager, who in a flier for an upcoming fundraiser promises to bring "More Liberty, Less Government to Hernando County!"

Don't be fooled. At this point, anyone who calls for shrinking our local government is really talking about destroying it.


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