The days of raiding reserves to balance the annual budget are likely coming to an end in Hernando County. Just to maintain the status quo, commissioners are now considering a proposed budget that includes a nearly 25 percent jump in the property tax rate that would provide just $53,000 more for new spending in a $92 million general fund. The size of the tax rate increase is not acceptable in a county that has been slow to recover from the down economy. But everyone — commissioners and elected constitutional officers alike — must be part of the solution to balancing the 2014 budget.
A proposed spending plan from County Administrator Len Sossamon maintains current services and smartly ends the practice of using one-time reserves to balance the budget. Over the past six budget years, commissioners spent nearly $21 million from reserve accounts to offset shortfalls largely attributed to a steep decline in property values and some unanticipated, one-time expenses. The plan now is to ask taxpayers to make up the difference with a proposed tax rate of just under 7.37 mills, up from the current rate of 5.92 mills. A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value.
The budget proposal includes $1.4 million to keep library branches open after the county exhausted its state grant funding; up to $160,000 to supplement mosquito control spraying that is running a deficit; and a reasonable 3 percent salary increase for employees who last received a pay bump in 2007.
Sossamon took his cue from town hall meetings and resident surveys earlier this year in which 63 percent of respondents said they did not want additional spending cuts that have reduced county services at parks, libraries, Animal Services, code enforcement and other departments.
Without the property tax increase, the county is looking at a $9.6 million shortfall to maintain services and to finance the pay raises. Raiding reserve accounts is no longer an option unless commissioners want to endanger the county's bond rating, which would make it more expensive to borrow money for future capital projects.
Much work lies ahead. Sossamon's proposal includes unabridged budget requests from constitutional officers who traditionally negotiate with commissioners throughout the summer to reach acceptable spending levels. Those discussions grow more imperative this year in light of the deficit and the proposed tax rate increase.
At least one commissioner, Wayne Dukes, who is seeking re-election next year, immediately balked at both the tax rate and salary increases. His knee-jerk reaction is understandable, but saying no is too simplistic. Commissioners resistant to balancing the budget without any new revenue should be prepared to suggest corresponding spending cuts and also be willing to explain their logic to a citizenry decrying more reductions to county services.