Sunday, June 24, 2018
Opinion

Glum budget numbers can't fill shopping list

If this had been a movie, you could call it Glum and Glummer.

Pasco's property tax rolls are up one-quarter of 1 percent compared to a year ago. The $19.3 billion tax roll, upon which Pasco County's government, fire department and school district build the revenue side of their budgets, at least stopped a five-year free fall that removed nearly $10.5 billion from the tax roll since 2008. This year's upward nudge, however, is attributable to new construction. The values of existing commercial, industrial and residential properties in Pasco County still fell 1.59 percent in 2012.

Those recent accounts of home sale prices climbing? They won't show up until the 2015 tax roll.

In theory, the current number means a typical property owner would see a slightly smaller county tax bill even with a status quo tax rate for 2014. But you don't need the intellect of Sheldon Cooper to disprove this theory. It's kaput already.

Here's why: While being briefed last week on early budget numbers for the coming fiscal year, Pasco commissioners learned their own fire department had been running a deficit for the past seven years. Its budget had been balanced annually by tapping reserve accounts that now will be exhausted by Sept. 30, 2014, unless something changes.

And, something will change. Without a tax rate increase for the fire district, the commission will have to cut $825,000 from its next budget, forfeit a federal grant that paid for 18 firefighters and pink slip 12 more for a total of 30 layoffs. The county called that the zero option.

More likely, the commission will consider a nearly 8 percent increase in the fire tax, taking it from 1.54 mills to 1.66, to at least end the raid on the reserve accounts and maintain current staffing.

Giving salary increase to firefighters, rebuilding the reserve account and setting aside money for future capital expenses would push the tax rate even higher – an unlikely scenario considering the budget uncertainties elsewhere.

The general fund shopping list is long and starts with nearly $11 million in higher personnel costs without even hiring a new employee. The county will need $4 million to cover new state-mandated retirement contributions and $5.3 million to finance 3 percent salary increases for county staffers, deputies, and employees of the constitutional officers. There also is a plan to spend $1.6 million to start a wellness program that will include health care clinics for county employees to stave off long-term health insurance costs.

The proposed budget also will include a nickel-per-gallon gasoline tax increase for road maintenance and other transportation-related costs to which commissioners have yet to commit.

Sheriff Chris Nocco wants $2.7 million to hire staff to open the third floor of the jail and to replace the aging fleet vehicles used by detectives. The car cost, roughly $900,000, is an appropriate use of Penny for Pasco sales tax money and shouldn't be included automatically in the county's general fund. The sheriff, however, also is confronting the state's forced retirement benefit increase that will cost his department almost $1.67 million.

If you're keeping score, that's $15.2 million in new money requested for the general fund budget with more to follow as the county plans to roll out another $4.4 million in new initiatives later this month.

There is one more caveat. For decades, the commission relied on money from Tax Collector Mike Olson to help balance the county budget. Under state law, a portion of the services fees collected by Olson's office for such things as real estate transactions and hunting, fishing and drivers' licenses are returned to the commission at the end of the fiscal year. Olson sent $3.3 million to commission last fall. This year, however, he is expected to hold on to much of the money to finance new offices for his agency in south-central Pasco. The service center would replace Olson's current space in a county-owned building on U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes and an office in Zephyrhills that closed two years ago.

After the workshop, Olson projected that he might return roughly $1 million to the commission this year while still squirreling away money for new offices.

Earlier, Commissioner Kathryn Starkey suggested Olson delay his capital spending in order to help finance raises for employees. Chairman Ted Schrader characterized the excessive fees as "a profit that needs to be returned to the County Commission.''

Or, you could say a past commission bought a privately owned office building 20 years ago that is now obsolete for a tax collector who must administer road tests amid a cramped public parking lot.

It's also tough for a commission to deny the capital needs of a constitutional officer considering the county is currently building a new $12.2 million new information technology center in Dade City and listening to proposals for a jail annex and a new criminal courthouse in Land O'Lakes.

When it's a glum budget, austerity should be across the board.

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