Hernando County commissioners must end the sleight-of-hand budget trickery that ignores the will of the voters. Just 18 months ago, voters overwhelmingly agreed to a municipal taxing district to finance mosquito control. The referendum, approved by nearly 69 percent of the voters, capped the tax rate at .1 mill or 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. Now, the commission plans to ignore that ballot question, amend its ordinance and raise the tax rate effective Oct. 1 because county staff is seeking a bigger budget to hire another technician.
Legally, the commission can do so because the 2012 referendum was advertised as "nonbinding,'' but the maneuvering tramples the spirit of the election outcome and the commission's own resolve from a year ago. In May 2013, county staffers also asked the commission to raise the tax rate because the $600,000 it generated did not cover the annual cost of mosquito spraying, requiring a $120,000 subsidy from the county general fund. The commission unanimously declined, suggesting that the staff dip back into the general fund if it needed more money.
Last week, the commission unwisely reversed itself, voting unanimously to rewrite the ordinance without a tax cap, and scheduled it for public hearing.
It's a sham reminiscent of the chicanery surrounding the 2011 demise of the environmental lands funding when a prior commission took the millage for preserving land — a 30-year levy approved by voters in 1988 — and earmarked it instead for mosquito spraying. The current strategy repeats that poor planning and lack of political will.
Mosquito control has been problematic for Hernando commissioners since the 2010-11 fiscal year, when the county cut spending for the program and then got pounded by more than 900 complaint calls because it was unprepared to handle a burgeoning mosquito population the following spring. Rather than adequately pay for the service from the general fund, Commissioner David Russell suggested the tax swap that killed the environmental land-buying program and led to the 2012 referendum.
As long as the commission plans to ignore the intent of the voters, it should consider disbanding the tax district entirely or setting the property tax rate at zero. Mosquito spraying is a matter of public health, safety and welfare — the basic tenants of government service. Separating it from the general fund is imprudent budgeting and simply a matter of convenience for commissioners who are reluctant to ask for additional general fund property taxes.
Besides, killing the tax district would follow the board majority's logic of using the general fund, rather than individual taxing districts, to finance law enforcement, parks and recreation, economic development and other public services. And it would end the current dispute with the city of Brooksville, which is not receiving mosquito spraying because it failed to join the taxing district. Using money exclusively from the county general fund would allow the spraying to resume within the city's boundaries.
Commissioners shouldn't pick and choose when they pay attention to the intent of the voters. Raising the mosquito control tax rate without voter consent is disingenuous governing and an insult to the public.