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COUNCIL SPRINGS SURPRISE TAX CUT

Now the city manager has to find how to make ends meet with about $80,000 less.

City officials thought they were all set.

In the midst of state-imposed budget cuts, officials had already approved a restructuring of the police and fire departments that would allow the city to cut the tax rate from 4.7 to 4.163 mills without facing a tough budget year.

The curve ball came Tuesday night.

That's when City Council abruptly - and unanimously - approved an even lower tax rate of 3.9 mills in the absence of the person who crunched the numbers for the budget: City Manager Jerry Calhoun. He's the one who will have to figure out how to cut an estimated $80,000 to meet that rate.

But council members were determined to cut taxes.

"I don't think we needed his input," council member Mark Hashim said Wednesday. "We are speaking for the citizens. His job is to fill requests."

Out sick and unable to attend the meeting, Calhoun sat at home waiting for a conference call from City Council approving the proposed rate of 4.163 mills, a figure that met a 7 percent rollback required by the state.

He never got that call.

Calhoun learned of the city's newly adopted tax rate of 3.9 mills from an employee who phoned him after the meeting.

"I was surprised, obviously, because nobody had mentioned it, just going by the last budget meeting we had," he said Wednesday.

Just as surprising were the council's calculations.

Hashim calculated that cutting the tax rate to 3.9 mills would require a $40,000 cut somewhere in the budget.

A mill produces $1 for each $1,000 of taxable property value. But Calhoun, reached at home on Wednesday, said lowering the rate to 3.9 mills requires cutting $80,000 from the budget, twice what Hashim estimated.

Hashim said Wednesday he isn't worried.

"Even if it's $80,000, it's up to Calhoun to find out how the city can save that," he said.

Calhoun's not sure how he'll meet City Council's mandate. Or if that means layoffs or cuts in services.

"They're going to have to tell me where they want to take it from," he said.

And city officials said Wednesday they weren't quite sure where the 3.9 mills goal came from, or why they chose not to lower the tax rate even further.

At Tuesday's meeting, council member Dale Massad said previous councils set the millage rate during the early stages of budget talks and never tried harder to lower it.

"That concerned me," Hashim said Wednesday. "I think he mentioned the number (3.9 mills) and we calculated it from there."

Massad didn't return phone calls on Wednesday.

Mayor Richard Rober said he's confident city officials will find ways to reach 3.9 mills.

"The five of us voted that way, and we can get it taken care of," he said. "I think 3.9 is doable."

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at cspencer@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

WHAT'S NEXT

Now, the details

- At the Aug. 14 meeting, City Council wants City Manager Jerry Calhoun to present three new budget proposals. The proposals would show City Council what the city's budget would look like with 30, 20, and 10 percent reductions to the 4.163 millage rate, the figure proposed by Calhoun before Tuesday's meeting. The council can lower the tax rate further but cannot raise it from the 3.9 mills adopted Tuesday.

- City Council also asked Calhoun put this year's budget in an easier to read format than the spreadsheet he provided during budget workshops.

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