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City to debate property tax hike

City leaders tonight will discuss raising New Port Richey's property tax from 6.25 mills to 9 mills.

That increase would mean the assessment on a $100,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption would jump from $468 to $675. A mill is equivalent to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of taxable property value.

Officials say talk about raising the millage rate is precautionary, designed to help balance the 2003-2004 general fund budget should a July 29 vote by council members on proposed street light and fire service fees fail.

The proposed fees would charge residents, businesses and nonprofits alike and would mean a $1.2-million boost in general fund revenue. Without those fees and without a tax hike, the budget that pays for items such as police and fire, the library, parks and recreation could go bust, said city staff.

"The well is dry," said city finance director Rick Snyder. "There's got to be significant ways to generate more dollars and we've already cut a lot out of the budget."

City council members must approve a property tax rate by their July 15 meeting.

In past years, leaders relied on a nest egg of undesignated revenue to balance the budget.

"There were years we budgeted a million dollars in reserves," Snyder said. "this coming year, we're budgeting $136,000 in undesignated reserves. That's next to nothing."

Last week, city staff proposed a $34.4-million budget for 2003-2004. Of that, the general fund budget totaled about $12-million _ a 9.25 percent hike due in large part to employee pay and benefits.

Services have increased but property taxes have not kept pace, City Manager Gerald Seeber wrote in a recent memo to the council. Seeber said he favors implementing fire service and street light fees that would also affect non-profits, but he recommends keeping the tax rate at 6.25 mills.

Barring those options, the only other action the council could take would be a $1.2-million cut in city services and/or staff, Snyder said.

A savings of $1.2-million, "you could only produce that with some kind of massive layoff or dissecting services to the public," Snyder said.

Seeber outlined options that included a county takeover of the city's police, fire or emergency services should fees and a tax increase be rejected.

For now, the council is seeking a safety net of sorts via the 9 mills tax rate.

"Whatever you put on the TRIM (Truth in Millage) notice, that's it," said Mayor Frank Parker. "That's your ceiling."

The council can always opt for a rate below that.

"We set it high with the intention of reducing it," Parker said.