Common sense shouldn't be misconstrued as political courage. Last week, Hernando Commissioner David Russell told fellow board member John Druzbick he had "guts'' and was courageous for proposing an election-year property tax rate that still leaves the county government with a multimillion-dollar shortfall come October.
Druzbick was realistic and practical. But, courageous? It would have been courageous to offer a tax increase. Druzbick just asked to raise the same amount of tax money included in the current budget. The so-called rollback rate might be higher, but, on average, property owners will pay the same amount of taxes because of declining real estate values.
Unfortunately, at least last week, practicality also was flying solo. The commission again delayed making a decision on what property tax rate to include in the proposed budget for the 2013 fiscal year. Clearly, having guts doesn't equate to having a sense of urgency and the contrived stalling will not miraculously increase the county's property values.
Druzbick's proposal to use the rollback rate, increasing the current millage less than 46 cents per $1,000 of property value, still leaves a $2.6 million shortfall in the upcoming budget. Commissioners can continue to cut services or try to plug the budget hole by selling county property, raiding reserves, tapping utility accounts or other short-sighted gimmickry. Without the rollback rate, the general fund budget deficit is $5.7 million.
The commission's long-standing inability to muster three votes to stem the revenue decline brought dire warnings in late June when the county attorney's office advised of potential insolvency and lenders got skittish about executing a line of credit to the county. Even that failed to motivate definitive commission action.
"I will continue to look at everything I can to reduce the cost of county government to the taxpayers,'' Chairman Wayne Dukes said before Druzbick's pragmatism. With Commissioner Jeff Stabins absent from the special meeting, the board declined to consider a formal motion to set the tax rate.
By state law, a proposed balanced county budget must be presented to the public by July 15. The tentative property tax rate cannot be increased after that date, but can be lowered before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Of the county's $94 million general fund, roughly $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 $5.7 million from a $15 million pot that pays for parks, libraries, code enforcement and other government functions.
Failing to set a realistic tax rate this week will be fool hardy and signal a commission majority more interested in political dogma than the county's quality of life attributes. Druzbick's leadership should be mirrored by the rest of the board.