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Costs, taxes, anxiety on the rise // WILL RATES RISE?

Thomas and Ellie Rubino are frustrated.

They pay $2,700 in taxes a year, and they do not see that amount ever going down.

Yet the Spring Hill retirees do not see services improving.

"I'm paying more than half toward school taxes, and they want more and more and more," Mrs. Rubino griped. "And our roads stink. It's pothole after pothole. And when you call them up, they come out with this little bag of stuff and put it in a little hole and you've got a bump."

It does not matter to her that last week's initial vote to increase the property tax rate came not from the Hernando School Board but from the County Commission, which has not raised its property tax rate in seven years.

To the Rubinos and others who oppose the potential increase, it's all government. And no matter what anyone says, it's money taken out of one pocket.

Theirs.

"You can't buy luxury items; you have to think twice on your spending," said Mrs. Rubino, 57. "I could be buying extra gifts for our grandchildren."

County officials contend the tax increase is needed to cover a nearly $3.5-million shortfall caused primarily by the rapidly rising inmate population at the Hernando County Jail, along with a $300,000 jump in required Medicaid subsidies.

In making his pitch, County Administrator Chuck Hetrick argued that without the extra tax money, services such as parks, libraries and Cooperative Extension Service programs such as 4-H clubs might have to be eliminated. Paying for the jail inmates and for Medicaid was not negotiable.

The 3-2 decision, reached after heated debate, is certain to spark just as much discord among residents when it comes up for a public hearing Sept. 5 as it did among commissioners last week.

An informal street survey turned up mixed reactions on the idea of a tax-rate increase, with retirees making up most of the opposition. Of 12 residents interviewed Friday by the Times, nine did not support a tax-rate increase. Of those nine, eight were retirees. One retiree supported an increase.

"I don't think they should be going up," said Althea Davis, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Spring Hill with her husband, a retired minister. "We try to save something so it won't be so hard to pay them. We want to be able to pay the whole thing (and avoid late penalties)." She said tourists and others who do not pay property taxes should help contribute more to county coffers.

Spring Hill resident Thomas Brown took a more favorable view, although he admits that, like everyone else, he does not like to pay taxes.

"It's a fact of life expenses do go up," said Brown, 45. "And there's a lot of growth in this area. If it creates more revenue and more employment opportunities, it could be a good thing."

Despite the formal commission vote, last week's decision does not close the door on the matter.

Commissioners still could decide to lower the amount of the increase or hold the tax rate steady at the current 7.858 mills, or $7.86 for every $1,000 of assessed, non-exempt property.

That makes Mary Ann McKinney nervous.

Knowing it would not be popular, she recently launched a campaign to maintain services such as libraries and parks, even if it meant a tax-rate increase.

"I'm hoping people who are supportive of maintaining services will be (at the public hearing)," said McKinney, who expresses her views with a small white ribbon pinned to her blouse. "I've talked with a number of people who indicated to me that they shared my feelings that we needed to maintain services and were willing to pay that 1 mill because those services are so vital to the community.

"It's not enough for them to sit back at a coffeeshop or at home and say that."

". . . this year is

the end of the line'

Last week's vote came after months of Hetrick's repeated forecasts of gloom and doom if commissioners refused to raise the tax rate.

Parks and libraries might have to close. No longer could departments make cuts here and there, allowing commissioners to maintain the current tax rate, Hetrick warned.

"As we have said would happen, this year is the end of the line," he wrote to commissioners in his newsletter, The Scanner. "You now no longer have the luxury of telling us to make it work anyway."

On Wednesday, commissioners examined a list of services to determine if they could be eliminated. Among those listed were libraries, parks, code enforcement, economic development, shuttle bus service for the poor and elderly, and alcohol- and drug-abuse treatment programs.

Commissioners went over each item. A few department heads sat nervously in the back of the commission chambers, bracing for the worst.

In the end, commissioners decided not to cut any services.

And that left a decision on the property tax rate.

Commissioners Nancy Robinson, Ray Lossing and John Richardson cast the votes that cleared the way for the proposed tax increase. All said that while they did not want to raise the tax rate, they saw no other way to keep county services intact.

"Our citizens have a quality of life, and they want to keep that quality of life," Robinson said in explanation of her vote. "I think it's responsible to support that and maintain it."

Commissioners June Ester and Pat Novy did not want to cut services, but they did not want to increase the tax rate, either.

"We are really hurting our seniors," said Novy, who encouraged residents to protest the proposed increase. "For some of them, it could mean the difference between eating hamburger and eating dog food."

Ester balked at the $320,000 set aside in the proposed budget for employee pay raises.

She said that while she realizes the amount would not come close to making up the $3.5-million shortfall, keeping it while raising people's tax rate makes the county look insensitive, especially to the working poor and retirees on fixed incomes.

"It's more of a perception thing," she said. "People think, "If we're going to have to tighten our belts, then you're going to have to tighten your belt.' "

Besides, she said, the county provides substantial fringe benefits. It pays 100 percent of employees' health insurance premiums and retirement contributions, perks not enjoyed by many in the private sector.

"We have 12 paid holidays," she said. "That's the most of any county in Florida."

Property tax rate isn't

the only increase sought

An increase in the property tax rate by 1 mill would mean an extra $50 per year to the owner of a $75,000 house with a $25,000 homestead exemption.

But county officials really are asking for more than that.

Additional increases are being sought in the form of fees for such things are fire protection and landfill use.

Though they have no bearing on the property tax rate, they affect homeowners' bottom lines just the same.

Officials are asking for a maximum increase of $9.50 per year in the fee collected to run the county landfill. If you live in the Northwest or East Hernando fire districts, you might pay more for fire protection.

Northwest officials want $9 more, while East Hernando residents could end up paying as much as $22 more next year.

That means, for a resident of East Hernando living in a $75,000 home, fees and property taxes could increase by a total of $81.50. Northwest increases could total $68.50.

To make things more expensive, commissioners are thinking about asking voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax on the November ballot, with the $5.6-million in revenue earmarked for road repairs. The sales tax would be levied for five years, under the proposal being considered.

The new sales tax would be an alternative to a 15-year sales tax program that voters defeated by a 3-1 ratio in March.

If the sales tax passes, it would cost the average family $102 a year, according to figures provided by Florida TaxWatch, a taxpayer lobbying group.

"That's a big hit in one year," Ester said of all the proposed increases. She said she could have supported the proposed property tax increase "if it had just been for 50 bucks."

Novy said the property tax vote was an insult to homeowners because it came less than a month after commissioners rejected raising impact fees _ one-time charges on new construction to pay for such things as new roads, parks and schools.

"They wouldn't raise impact fees and now they want to raise taxes?" she said. "Give me a break."

The refusal to raise the impact fees, plus the possible higher assessments, also has made Joe Fox determined to fight a higher property tax rate.

"It's just a play on words," Fox said of the assessments. "They're coming at people from every possible angle. This shows the total arrogance of this county government."

Fox, president of the Hernando County Good Government League, a watchdog group, said his members plan to discuss the matter this week.

"You bet your life we're going to mount a fight against this," he said.

McKinney, the tax supporter, said she hopes the three commissioners who approved the increase will stand firm against anti-tax campaigns like Fox's. She said the idea that government can continue serving residents at the same level with the same about of tax money every year is "a simplistic view."

"What they did was in the best interest of the community," she said. "Everything has gone up, and while I think it would be nice to be able to do things without having to increase costs, it's just not possible. I have increased costs on everything, too, but I keep those things that are important."

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