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COUNTY MAY EASE ITS TAX BITE

More layoffs are planned, but there is good news for nonprofits.

Hillsborough County property owners may see their tax bills go down this year, based on a tentative vote by commissioners Tuesday.

Commissioners managed to make it happen without some of the losses in service that were forecast, thanks to creative financing, found money and more layoffs than previously projected.

"It's been difficult, but you've got to realize that people are having a hard time keeping their homes," said Commissioner Brian Blair. "And with property tax relief sometimes comes some loss of service.

"But thus far I don't see anything that will be noticeable."

Commissioners tentatively voted to lower Hillsborough's overall tax rate by 1.49 mills, almost as much as they cut their levy in the past 14 years combined. The cuts mean that a home in unincorporated Hillsborough with a $225,000 taxable value and a $25,000 homestead exemption would see its tax bill fall by nearly $300.

However, if a home or other property's taxable value increases, the savings could be offset. Overall, county spending will decrease 3.7 percent to $3.68-billion.

While the commission sailed through a number of big money decisions, the board got stuck when Commissioner Al Higginbotham proposed members trim their own expenses. He wanted commissioners to forgo their pay raises and scale back a recently increased boost to their monthly mileage reimbursements from $600 to $400.

Blair suggested Higginbotham was seeking atonement after recent news stories showed his family is entangled with a business owner with issues before the county.

"You've had ethics questions," Blair said. "I don't feel like being the scapegoat for problems you've had."

"I don't know where you're going with this, but it's regrettable," said Higginbotham, who made his suggestion for scaling back commissioners' pay and perks before the stories appeared.

"We should be strong enough, mature enough and competent enough to not make this personal," he said.

Blair subsequently apologized and commissioners ultimately voted to cut their travel budget by 10 percent and mileage reimbursement to $560. Commissioners also agreed that any of them who wishes is entitled to donate the pay raise to the county.

The commission made several moves Tuesday to balance its budget.

It freed up nearly $2-million for other county expenses by agreeing to eliminate 45 full-time parks jobs and replace them with part-time workers. Because of a hiring freeze since the spring, 22 of those jobs are vacant, but the decision means another 23 people will need to be laid off.

That takes the layoff total for commissioners to meet state-mandated property tax cutbacks to 160 full-time workers and hundreds more part-timers.

But there was good news. The county staff said it had miscalculated the county's annual subsidy for the Tampa Sports Authority and that the authority had cut some of its proposed spending. The changes gave the county an extra $782,000 to spend.

Commissioners used the money to restore some of the funding for several nonprofit groups that were facing cuts. But commissioners refused to restore spending for the county's education and public access cable television stations.

They also agreed to earmark a portion of communications tax proceeds to pay for Fire Rescue Department staffing, which will allow the county to proceed with plans for some new stations, notably a new central Brandon station.

The board also directed the county administration to seek creative ways to open new planned parks and libraries with either scaled down staffs or limited hours in the near future.

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

FAST FACTS

What it means

The proposed tax rate decrease cuts mean that a home in unincorporated Hillsborough with a $225,000 taxable value and a $25,000 homestead exemption would see its tax bill fall by nearly $300. But if a home or other property's taxable value increases, the savings could be offset.

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