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Plan would cap county spending by law

Hoping to provide property tax relief that people will actually notice, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Jim Norman is proposing a statutory cap on how much his government increases spending each year.

Norman is proposing to tie the increase in how much property tax money the county government spends to increases in inflation and population growth, rather than let it jump as property values spike, as they have in recent years.

The budget commissioners approved in September included a nearly 16 percent increase in spending on government programs paid for by property taxes, compared with the year before. Had Norman's proposal been in place, the increase would have been closer to 8 percent, which would have enabled commissioners to sharply lower tax rates.

"I think we need to be a leader in cutting the spending," Norman said.

Norman unveiled the proposal during an annual retreat Thursday during which commissioners set broad policy goals for the year. The proposal is still getting massaged and would need to go to a vote by commissioners early in the new year, but board members generally voiced strong support of the idea.

Ultimately, they would have to decide what spending to cut.

"Most people live on a budget," said Commissioner Brian Blair. "Why shouldn't government live on that same budget?"

County management and budget director Eric Johnson said he thinks Hillsborough would be the first local government in the state to voluntarily cap its own spending. Under Norman's proposal, the cap would become law.

A state committee studying tax reform has suggested imposing property tax caps for all local governments, and associations that represent those governments have strongly opposed them. Unlike the state proposal, Norman's allows some flexibility.

First, he would phase it in, so as not to hinder expansions of services that are already planned, such as new fire stations. It also would not apply to unfunded state mandates.

Norman would allow commissioners to exceed the cap on a case-by-case basis in times of emergency or other unexpected circumstances. But those exceptions would have to win approval by a 5-2 commission vote.

The cap only applies to property taxes, which make up about a third of the money Hillsborough County government spends. The county also gets money from fees, sales taxes and the federal government, among other sources.

But it has been rises in property taxes, driven by sharply rising property values in recent years, that have led to a revolt by citizens statewide. It has added to the pinch they already feel from rising property insurance rates.

Hillsborough commissioners lopped their tax rate by the largest margin in recent history this fall - and by a greater margin than most nearby governments. But residents still wrote to complain, because more than 20 percent average property value increases throughout the county still meant that most received sharply higher tax bills.

Commissioner Ken Hagan said when he pointed out the county's tax rate cut in response e-mails, he received no thank-you notes. He said commissioners shouldn't expect any if Norman's proposal goes through.

He said that unless other local governments, such as the school district and cities inside the county, embark on similar measures, rising property values could still cause overall tax bills to climb.

While saying he supports tax cuts, Hagan added, "I think we need to be intellectually honest in that there is no amount of tax relief we can provide that is going to satisfy the majority of the county."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

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