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Citizen petitions push tax rate cut

County commissioners received a special delivery Tuesday, tied with red ribbon and topped with a red paper heart for Valentine's Day.

It was a collection of petitions, bearing 11,618 names and dropped off by Linda Hayward, who has been collecting signatures since October, letting commissioners know how serious some residents are about having their property taxes lowered.

Commissioners took note, and directed staffers to attempt to squeeze enough out of the 2006-07 budget to provide for a 0.50-mill reduction in the tax rate. That would be almost double the 0.26-mill reduction suggested earlier by county budget director George Zoettlein.

Zoettlein and commissioners talked Tuesday in the first of a series of meetings to shape the budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. A final budget will not be complete until mid July.

If the millage were lowered by 0.50, it would mean a $50 savings for a person with a $125,000 home and a $25,000 homestead exemption, barring no changes in the assessed value of a homeowner's property.

About $4-million would go back into taxpayers' pockets.

Zoettlein originally calculated for a quarter-mill decrease after noting that a $2-million general-fund surplus was expected at the end of the current budget year.

While Zoettlein acknowledged that the 0.26 figure was conservative, he said it was what he thought the county could do reasonably without cutting department budgets. Rising property values and a home-building boom in Hernando in recent years have pushed up county revenues.

Next week, he will begin a series of talks with county department heads and constitutional officers about their budget wishes, and what commissioners want to see happen.

Line item by line item, they will have to figure out how to reduce budgets, Zoettlein said.

"I don't want to end up forcing one department to cut and balance for another," he said. "But this board directed me to back out a half of a mill of revenue and put it on the side. We have about six weeks to figure it out."

The current year's tax rate for the county's general fund is 7.24 mills. One mill produces $1 in tax per $1,000 of taxable property value. The 2005-06 rate was lowered by 0.1098 mills from the previous year.

The general fund accounts for $100.3-million of the county's overall $344.6-million budget. It pays for the budgets of constitutional officers, the road program and other operational services.

A final decision on the size of the millage reduction for 2006-07 will depend largely on how much constitutional officers, such as the circuit clerk and sheriff, ask for, Zoettlein said. He noted that those budgets increased by nearly 13 percent from 2004-05 to 2005-06.

Lower taxes, as Hayward and other residents have demanded, also would depend on property and construction values holding steady at last year's 20.6 percent increase, Zoettlein said. He said that while there's likely at least one more year of explosive growth ahead, it likely will subside.

And that would mean less money available for tax cuts.

The county still has needs it must meet, Zoettlein cautioned.

"With growth that allows tax cuts also comes infrastructure," he said. "We're going to need more roads, parks and libraries. Where's that going to come from? A sales tax?"

Commission Chairwoman Diane Rowden pointed out the growth in expenses for Hernando's public safety services during the past year. Both she and Commissioner Nancy Robinson took note of the need for increased law enforcement and jail capacity in a growing community.

"If you look at where the biggest increases come from, for public safety, you would have to cut that," Rowden said. "Can you cut that?"

Rowden also asked how cuts could be made with so many services offered to so many people needing them. What's important to one group of people could be expendable to another, she said.

Commissioners Jeff Stabins and Robert Schenck told Zoettlein they wanted county departments to start the budget process with cuts in mind. The 0.50-mill goal could be reached better that way, they said.

"It's like killing cockroaches," Stabins said. "We need to put a little more light in the house, and we can do it."

At the end of Tuesday's budget discussion, Hayward found herself surrounded by appreciative residents, many of whom cheered her on during the meeting.

"I think they got the point," she said of the commissioners. "I'm hoping they will wake up and take a genuine look at the budget. There's a lot of padding in the budget, and they need to get rid of that. It could make a big difference in the long run."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sppimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

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