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PLAIN FACTS ABOUT PROPERTY TAXES AND THE COUNTY BUDGET

There has been much discussion in our community recently about property taxes, the county budget and how Florida's tax reform legislation passed in July has affected Hernando County. Several issues have been brought forward which require factual responses by county government. We intend to provide those responses through regular communication with the public. If errors have been made, we will correct them, and where facts have been misrepresented, we will provide the accurate information.

The Board of County Commissioners' staff has collectively prepared the 2008 revised budget to comply with the requirements of the state legislation, i.e., rolling back the ad valorem tax revenues to 2007 levels, plus an additional 7 percent decrease. This equates to reducing the countywide millage rate by a little more than one mill. (One mill equals $1 of tax for every $1,000 of taxable property value. Example: With a countywide millage rate of 6.7655 and a taxable value of $125,000, the property taxes would be $845.69.)

To achieve the reductions in the revised proposed county budget, all capital improvement projects were eliminated, including several projects in the current year's budget, the pavement management program was reduced, the county's reserve for contingencies was reduced, departmental operating expenses were reduced and positions were eliminated. Included in the revised proposed budget is a 3 percent salary reserve proposed to be allocated as a 2 percent cost of living adjustment and up to 1 percent performance-related adjustment.

It is important to note there are some very significant county government costs that the Board of County Commissioners has little or no authority to control. There are various state-mandated services that carry with them expensive price tags for county government. Also, the operating costs of the county jail will increase by a little over $4-million next year due to new state laws and 2 percent growth in jail population per month. Further, the board has minimal authority over the constitutional officers' budgets. These include the sheriff, clerk of courts, supervisor of elections, tax collector and property appraiser. The Board of County Commissioners has requested the constitutional officers' cooperation in meeting our budget reduction needs, and they have been responsive.

In the next few days, citizens will receive their TRIM (Truth in Millage) notices. The notices will inform property owners of their 2007 taxes based upon the assumption that the proposed tentative budget is approved by the Board of County Commissioners. The Board of County Commissioners can only reduce the proposed budget at this point. It may not be increased.

Citizens will observe on their TRIM notice that there are other taxing authorities in addition to the county. The Hernando County School District, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and the cities of Brooksville and Weeki Wachee all levy taxes independently. The state's tax reform legislation does not apply to the school district.

Gov. Charlie Crist and many Florida legislators have promised that property owners will see significant reductions in their tax bills as a result of the millage rollback legislation, with even larger tax reductions if the "super homestead exemption" constitutional amendment passes in January. Even though the Board of County Commissioners proposes to reduce next year's total county millage rate by a little over 1 mill, the total proposed 2007 property taxes may not reflect as much of a reduction as the governor and legislators may have indicated. Here is an explanation.

The general fund (Board of County Commission's) millage rate decreased from 6.74 mills for the current year to a proposed rate of 5.84 for the upcoming year (note that the proposed millage rate is just slightly higher than the 1987 general fund millage rate). It should be noted that the Board of County Commissioners reduced last year's budget by 0.5 mill and the prior year's budget by 0.1098 mill.

While the proposed millage rates for the other taxing authorities also decreased, they are smaller in comparison with the general fund decrease. Changes in non-ad valorem assessments shown on your TRIM notice and an increase in your property value to which the millage rates are applied will also affect the total tax amount.

Looking ahead to the 2009 budget, due to the legislation's continuing annual millage cap, we must continue to contain costs and improve efficiencies regardless of any constitutional amendment. While the levels of service to the public were maintained in the proposed 2008 budget, it appears inevitable that levels of service will be reduced in 2009.

We welcome suggestions and comments from citizens about how we might improve our services. We are continuing to meet with various citizen groups to discuss these issues, and their input has been very helpful. We encourage you to attend the public hearings at 5 p.m. on Sept. 13 and 27 in the county commissioners' meeting room, Hernando County Government Center in Brooksville.

Gary Kuhl is Hernando County administrator. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

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