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Draft of budget includes tax cut

By scaling back on new hires, the county could still fund big-ticket projects. Commissioners get the draft in July.

Hernando County property owners could see their tax rate go down 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value next year.

Budget writers, deep into their preparations for fiscal 2001, are basing their recommendations on that revenue cut, which equates to about $1-million. To make that reduction work and also meet other needs, such as employee pay raises not to exceed 5 percent, Budget Officer George Zoettlein has vetoed new hires in departments that do not generate their own money from fees and other payments.

"The general fund is different," Zoettlein said. "We're saying any additional positions I'm cutting out to help balance the budget."

Other big-ticket items Zoettlein is recommending include $500,000 for preliminary work on a community swimming pool, $800,000 for an Emergency Operations center and more than $200,000 for park improvements such as outdoor lighting. He said those items seemed to be priorities for one or more commissioners, yet none were set in stone.

"We will look at those first if we need to make (additional) cuts," Zoettlein said.

County Administrator Paul McIntosh said he had not seen the budget proposals, but he endorsed the tax rate reduction, which would save the owner of a $50,000 home with a homestead exemption $6.25 a year. That amount would cover the County Commission taxes only, not those levied by other agencies such as School Boards or special taxing districts, and it assumes no change in the home's assessed value.

McIntosh also offered some of his own budget desires.

"Some of the priorities we need to establish focus on our public outreach and public communication," he said. "The Net, our Web site, our television station. We need full-time programming."

McIntosh is scheduled to begin his budget review next week. He said he would take the commission's priorities into account as he completes a plan that meets as many needs and demands as possible.

"I don't know how many questions the board will have," he said.

The commission will carefully control the budget by having each department director justify any proposed spending increases, said Chairman Paul Sullivan, who, along with two colleagues, faces a re-election challenge this fall. He suggested the tax rate could go down even more than Zoettlein is recommending.

"There's a possibility that could go even lower, so long as we're not irresponsible," Sullivan said.

Commissioners should receive the preliminary budget in early July and are scheduled to set the millage rate July 11. Budget workshops are set for July 20 through July 28.