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Tax rate to stay same in budget

Largely by shifting money from one account to another, county commissioners appear to have found a way to balance next year's $199-million budget without increasing the general property tax rate.

They decided in principle Monday to move about $500,000 from utility regulation fees and about $600,000 from the "cash forward" reserve, which is held to ensure that the county can pay its bills before residents pay taxes each year, to cover much of the $1.148-million that a proposed rate hike of 23.76-cents per thousand dollars of property value would have raised.

A handful of departments also agreed to do without $262,000 in new equipment and construction, if necessary, to help balance the budget without a higher tax rate and without cutting staff, programs deemed important, or raises. Commissioners also agreed to pay employees 3 percent more to cover the cost of living, and to make another 2 percent available for merit pay.

"Certainly the fact that the board and its staff are able to provide for the health, welfare and safety of the community without a tax increase in hard economic times . . . . I think that bodes well," Chairwoman Nancy Robinson said after the workshop.

The general government budget would include less than $100,000 in new programs, if the proposals stick. The sheriff's budget, meanwhile, would add 17 new positions as it spends almost all of the new money coming into the county's coffers.

Commissioner Chris Kingsley has asked Sheriff Richard Nugent to defend his budget during a workshop this week.

"I want to take a look at the largest portion of the general revenue source to see if there's an opportunity to reduce it," Kingsley explained.

He noted that other departments and agencies have taken great strides to hold their employment levels steady, while the Sheriff's Office added 15 slots this year and wants more for the coming year.

"I want to be sure we don't miss the opportunity to see if every person is justified," Kingsley said.

Nugent said he is happy to discuss the budget with commissioners at their request.

Other departments that will go into greater detail during workshops on Wednesday and Thursday include fire-rescue, emergency management, parks and recreation, and public works.

Monday's session focused mainly on the big picture. Budget Director George Zoettlein explained how the spending plan, once projected to fall $8.4-million short, came into balance through a series of cuts, reserve reductions and revenue increases.

One of the largest single changes came from a shift in the funding source for a new public works and fleet complex. Rather than borrowing $3.7-million and spending another $1.4-million in cash for the project, the cash will go to the residential road paving program and the county will look into borrowing the full amount.

A county ordinance requires the commission to dedicate $2-million to the paving program, in addition to money generated by the local gas tax. County Attorney Garth Coller told commissioners they would have to amend the ordinance to allow the lower amount.

Commissioners approved in theory tough new policies to regulate reserves, so they are not spent inappropriately and without proper oversight. They also talked about ways they might pay for expected future expenses, such as rising retirement contributions, health insurance costs and stormwater system improvements.

They reached no conclusion, but recognized that the costs will rise in the future and raised the idea of three-year planning to better prepare.

If the budget plan stands, the general tax rate would remain $8.3204 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Commissioners said they wanted to keep the rate stable, rather than reduce it.

That does not mean, however, that homeowners' taxes will not go up. The commission intends to create a new 57-cent-per-thousand tax for ambulance services to all people living outside the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District.

And homestead values might rise by 1.6 percent; state law says they can't rise faster than the consumer price index. The county estimates it will generate an additional $773,117 in taxes because of rising property values.

The School Board tax rate is expected to decrease slightly next year. The city of Brooksville and the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District are expected to keep their tax rates unchanged.

_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.

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