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Port Richey residents could see tax bills rise

It seems to happen every year. City Manager Vince Lupo suggests a higher tax rate and the City Council swiftly rebuffs him.

Tuesday night was no different _ until the last minute.

Phyllis Grae, who seemed certain to vote with Dale Massad and Pat Guttman to hold the mill rate at 5.82, changed her mind and agreed to go with Lupo's recommendation of 7 mills.

The typically tax-wary Grae _ last year she declared an increase would not happen "on my watch" _ said she went against convention because of Lupo's warning that city workers might not get pay increases under the lower mill rate, unless some positions were eliminated.

"I wanted to send a message to the employees that, indeed, they are getting an increase," Grae said Wednesday. "We will find a way because it's much needed and long overdue."

The figure established Tuesday night is merely a ceiling. The council can adjust downward, and it probably will, but cannot go above 7 mills.

A mill is equivalent to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of taxable property. The last time the city raised taxes was in the 1999-2000 fiscal year.

The council will hold formal budget talks during the next several months. Among the major decisions is what to do with the Police Department. Proposed cuts, including elimination of the dispatch center, could trim 1 mill from the tentative tax rate.

Although Grae departed from her usual spot in the majority on that issue, she stuck with Massad and Guttman on a related matter. They voted to direct Lupo to explore the possibility of fees to generate revenue outside property taxes.

The officials were taking a cue from the New Port Richey City Council, which is considering a plan to charge homeowners and businesses for fire protection and street lights. Those fees combined could generate $1.2-million extra for that city.

Port Richey's mill rate discussion was long, intense and at times dramatic.

Finance director Annette Perez began to cry when some council members criticized the proposed $3.4-million general fund budget as inaccurate and incomplete.

The nearly $413,000 increase from last year's budget is attributable to rising costs, including insurance and personnel, Perez said.

Lupo had to work hard for the tentative mill increase. He said repeatedly that the council, by maintaining the current tax rate, would be making a dire mistake by not giving itself wiggle room.

The manager is under no illusion that the 7 mill rate will hold, but he says that some increase is necessary given rising costs.

A rate of 6.82 would be "quite manageable," he said.

_ Alex Leary can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is learysptimes.com.

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