Pasco's commissioners are broad-minded when it comes to narrowing resources. Last week, seven months before the start of the next fiscal year, commissioners correctly signaled they are open to all ideas — including an election-year property tax rate increase — to balance the 2013 county budget. The projected spending is based on falling real estate values for a fifth consecutive year.
The lack of political cowardice from the all-Republican commission is a stark contrast to the Grover Norquist-inspired governing that dominates in Washington D.C., Tallahassee and other nearby local governments.
Commissioners wisely recognize Pasco's real estate tax roll has lost a third of its value since 2008, bringing a $32 million drop in general fund property taxes over the same time. Even with a slight property tax rate increase three years ago, commissioners have: Cut operating hours at recreation centers and libraries; closed two swimming pools and turned to a private club to help keep a third one open; halved the local contribution to elderly nutrition; initiated or increased fees for ambulance rides, county parks and other services; and frozen wages and laid off employees.
Though preliminary numbers from Property Appraiser Mike Wells are not yet available, Budget Director Mike Nurrenbrock told commissioners to brace for a continued decline in property values of approximately 4 percent. If the projection is accurate, it means a status quo property tax rate will translate to a $1.1 million cut to an already-stressed fire department budget, and a $5.3 million drop in revenue for the county general fund that finances widely used services like law enforcement, parks, libraries, animal control and other departments. At the same time, the county also could be absorbing reduced sales tax and revenue sharing dollars if the state demands past and future Medicaid payments of up to $5.2 million.
In response, commissioners told staff to begin assembling the coming budget by using the so-called rollback rate that would raise the current general fund tax rate to $6.69 per $1,000 of assessed value, a 5 percent increase. The county will set a preliminary tax rate in July and can lower the amount, but not increase it, before the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.
Certainly, there will be additional budget considerations over the next several months including renewed debates over park fees, reserves and economic development incentives, as well as documentation of other revenue that traditionally includes returned fees from the tax collector and unused appropriations from the Sheriff's Office.
The fiscal work is just beginning, but credit commissioners for prudent planning. Proper budgeting takes more than an exclusive focus on spending cuts.