Hernando commissioners' reluctance to embrace new taxing districts for parks and libraries is understandable. The idea, floated last week by the county budget staff and scheduled to be discussed at a workshop in June, appeared nearly dead on arrival and resuscitation is unlikely.
Budget manager George Zoettlein proposed the separate districts, with property tax rates initially set at zero, to give the board greater flexibility if it chose to pay for parks and libraries apart from its stressed general fund. The staff is investigating new financing options because the county is projecting another multimillion-dollar shortfall for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.
The current general fund tax rate is just less than $5.63 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The county also charges separate tax rates for transportation, health services and mosquito control. (A tax for environmental land acquisition is on a two-year hiatus.) Adding parks and libraries to that tax list is misguided.
There is a substantial reason — both political and practical — to scuttle the municipal service taxing units (MSTU) that most commissioners failed to grasp. Shrinking its countywide tax base to a special district means a higher millage for most Hernando property owners just to maintain status quo funding.
Here's why: In establishing a separate tax district — as it did for mosquito control in 2011 — the commission has the authority to levy taxes on the unincorporated portions of the county only. So districts for parks and libraries accord tax relief to the city of Brooksville where the owners of 3,800 taxable parcels — valued at nearly $400 million — would be excluded from the tax rate. That translates to a tax increase to the rest of the county's property owners in order to finance parks and libraries at their current levels.
Imagine the public squawking sure to emerge if the commission excuses Brooksville from paying for county parks even though Hernando Park, site of the just-concluded Florida Blueberry Festival, is in downtown Brooksville.
Besides, as Commissioner David Russell correctly pointed out, the commission already has the ability to raise the general fund tax rate if revenues fail to cover expenses. That is an imperative point worthy of additional public debate at the workshop. Over the past four years, the commission has short-changed parks and libraries via staff cuts, reduced operating hours and other cost-saving measures while a majority killed previously approved park fees to help generate revenue.
Parks and libraries don't need separate tax rates. They need a commission's commitment to invest appropriately in the county's quality of life.