Amid his 2008 re-election campaign, Hernando Commissioner Jeff Stabins acknowledged he and the rest of the commission had been too slow to lower the county government's tax rate as real estate values boomed.
The political consequences have been severe. Cutting the tax rate by 25 percent over three years and then holding the rate steady for three additional years failed to calm the government-gone-wild crowd that pushed three incumbent Democrats off the commission over the past four years.
Stabins is now retiring, but a legitimate question to him and the rest of the all-Republican commission again surrounds reflexes. Has the current board been too slow to raise the tax rate as property values plummeted?
The earlier recapture caveat of Save Our Homes — requiring an increase in taxable value for longtime homeowners as market values plummeted — has all but disappeared. There simply is no value to recoup.
So, as commissioners again consider a status quo property tax rate for the coming year, they are not holding the line. They are cutting taxes equal to the reduction of the value of individual property. That is an average of an 8 percent tax cut across the county.
Dumping everything possible on the private sector is the apparent strategy, which ignores a few basic facts: Privatizing the skate park failed, and a Sheriff's Office take over of the formerly privately run jail is now paying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of dividends to the county's bottom line. No matter. Animals Services apparently is next with commission Chairman Wayne Dukes asking for private sector proposals to run the shelter.
At a budget workshop Tuesday, Dukes was critical of the appointed leadership team for what he apparently perceived as a lack of vision. "Their biggest thought was to raise taxes, and we can't do that,'' Dukes said.
No, that is not accurate. Using the rollback rate — the millage needed to raise the same amount of revenue as the current budget — is simply asking everyone, on average, to pay the same amount in county property taxes in 2013 as they did for 2012. It is an increased rate, but not an increased payment for the average property owner.
Instead, the county faces the distinct possibility of halving its services. Of its $94 million general fund, $42 million is earmarked for the sheriff and other constitutional officers with other dollars set aside for required reserves and state and federal mandates. Barring other developments, it leaves the commission with the chore of cutting $7.1 million from a $15 million pot that pays for parks, libraries, code enforcement and other government functions.
"Armageddon is here,'' Stabins said.
Yes, not simply financially but in an absence of leadership. The commission's response to the dire warnings from Budget Manager George Zoettlein was to tell him to take a break and come back in the afternoon with different numbers. There was no lunchtime miracle.
Commissioners also should refresh their memories. Nearly every time the county has tried to do something on the cheap — whether asking volunteers to pitch in at Animal Services or scrimping on mosquito spraying — it has backfired into a public outcry and a political mess.
The commission can ask the public to pay the same as they do now or the county can gut government services. Commissioners should consider the wisdom of using the rollback rate. Armageddon need not be the acceptable solution.