Yet again, some Hernando commissioners are looking for a gimmick to solve the county's budget problems instead of considering thoughtful, long-term solutions. Commissioners David Russell and Wayne Dukes want to ask voters to foist current fire protection costs onto the backs of out-of-towners by increasing the sales tax in exchange for cutting county property taxes. It's a half-baked scheme that needs a lot more vetting before it's even considered for the ballot. Luckily, other commissioners recognize that.
The plan to ask voters for the tax swap in 2014 stalled last week after other commissioners asked for a formal workshop for more in-depth discussions. Good thing. There are plenty of unanswered questions including exactly what will be the size of the Fire Department's budget and how the county will pay for that service for the next two fiscal years considering sales tax collections couldn't begin until Jan. 1, 2015, if voters approve.
More importantly, however, was the concern from Commissioner Diane Rowden, who wondered if a sales tax increase should be considered for more uses than just fire safety. She correctly encouraged the commission to study Pasco County's successful 2012 campaign to win voter approval for renewing a 10-year sales tax to pay for school classrooms, transportation improvements, public safety, sensitive land preservation and economic development.
Only Commissioner Nick Nicholson shared a similar sentiment, though he favors a sales tax for transportation. The rest of the board kept its narrow focus exclusively on a politically pleasing tax swap.
No other county in Florida uses a so-called Emergency Fire Rescue Services and Facilities Surtax. Authorized by the Florida Legislature in 2009, it mandates a dollar-for-dollar reduction in property tax collections to match the increased revenue from the higher sales tax. Current projections show a one-cent sales tax increase could raise $15 million annually in Hernando.
Unfortunately, commissioners immediately overstated how much of that money would be derived from out-of-county residents shopping, eating and conducting business here. Russell put the figure at 30 percent, which would translate to $4.5 million coming from non-county residents. Most estimates, however, suggest the figure should be 20 percent, which would lower the figure to $3 million.
Either way, it is an inappropriate way to pay for fire safety and indicative of a commission still unsure of how to finance a newly merged county and Spring Hill fire and ambulance service that has combined current budgets totaling $35 million.
Russell and Dukes should abandon this regressive sales tax gimmick that unfairly shifts a greater share of public safety costs onto people who can least afford it. The commission should establish a reasonable property tax rate to pay for the combined fire departments and it should then consider the wisdom of even asking the electorate for a sales tax increase next year.
That conversation should include the benefits of expanding uses for the sales tax. The commissioners should detail the road and school improvements that won't get done because of their continuing impact fee waivers for new construction. They should consider the county's inability to offer substantial economic incentives for new employment centers because of its limited resources and they should consider the looming deficit in the Fire Department's capital budget.
Buying firefighting equipment, building and modernizing classrooms, improving unsafe roads and having the wherewithal for more aggressive industrial recruiting are typical bricks-and-mortar projects financed with local sales taxes. Giving the largest tax break to the owner of the biggest house in town shouldn't be among the options.