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Tax revenue brightens Tarpon budget

It's lean season in Tarpon Springs, and city officials are preparing to tighten their budgetary belts this fall.

City officials are proposing an overall budget of $38.5-million for the 2003-2004 fiscal year, which starts in October. About $15-million of that money will go directly toward paying for basics such as police and firefighters.

Despite the tight economy, the city's draft budget calls for keeping the same property tax rate _ about 4.95 mills, or $4.95 in tax for every $1,000 of assessed, nonexempt property value.

But with property values growing by a healthy 9.8 percent this year, more than the countywide average, City Hall stands to collect significantly more in property tax revenues. At the same time, individual taxpayers are likely to see their city property tax bills go up because of the growth in the value of their property.

For someone who owns a home assessed at $125,000 and has a $25,000 homestead exemption, that rate would translate into a city tax bill of $494.54 next year. That hypothetical bill does not include taxes levied by the County Commission, School Board or other taxing authorities.

The growth in property tax revenues is the good news.

The bad news is the city is scaling back on payroll spending, expanding a hiring freeze that leaves 27 jobs unfilled. The hiring freeze will save the city more than $796,000 in salaries, city officials said. The move is just one of several ways officials hope to maintain the current surplus of roughly $4.2-million.

"From top to bottom," said City Manager Ellen Posivach, "we're all doing more with less."

Rising insurance rates, a surge in utility costs and a poor economy make it especially challenging to keep the budget on balance. In addition to increased spending, the city has had to absorb a precipitous drop in interest earnings in recent years.

"We have not raised what the departments have been able to spend because of the increase in these costs," city finance director Arie Walker said Thursday.

The city expects to spend more than $700,000 on utilities under the proposed budget. That's an increase of more than $97,000 over last year's bill and a little less than double what the city spent on utilities in 1999.

Another big cost projected for the city this year is insurance. The city expects to spend about $1.9-million on property, liability, health, life and workers' compensation insurance. While liability insurance rates have increased dramatically in recent years, the city has reduced the amount it spends on health insurance for its employees.

"I'm hoping we'll be able to hold the cost down," Posivach said. "We've dropped back in our health insurance coverage so we could have some funds set aside."

City officials are working on ways to build revenue without raising taxes in the future. They have already approved increased fees and fines for items like building and fire inspections, which will go a long way toward shoring up city finances, Posivach said.

_ Candace Rondeaux can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or rondeauxsptimes.com.

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