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EXCESS FEES LIGHTEN TAX LOAD BURDEN

The county says about $5.8 million will roll over, granting taxpayers a small break.

Late afternoon Wednesday, after a summer of budget cuts and tanking revenue, Pasco commissioners finally got a bit of good news on the day of the first public budget hearing:

Tax Collector Mike Olson was returning $3 million more in excess fees than expected.

Commissioners agreed to use the windfall, plus nearly $2.8 million left over from the $13.2 million generated by a higher tax rate, to deal with next year's budget - and provide property owners with a small measure of tax relief.

Small is the operative word: The $3.2 million would lower the proposed tax rate by about 15 cents of tax per $1,000 of taxable property value.

In the meantime, about 100 county workers are expected to see their names on a layoff list going out today. Even after commissioners restored millions of dollars in jobs and programs originally put on the chopping block, officials still expect layoffs.

Those workers can apply for a few vacancies, but officials expect at least half of them will be unemployed.

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Commissioners have been restoring proposed service cuts in recent weeks, and they continued to do so before the latest budget hearing. The largest one on Wednesday? In a 3 to 2 vote, commissioners voted to restore $300,000 for 18 outside social service agencies that saw their local funding slashed to zero.

Chairman Jack Mariano and Commissioner Michael Cox voted to support a motion by Commissioner Ann Hildebrand to restore the funding. Commissioners Pat Mulieri and Ted Schrader voted against spending the money.

The entire funding - about $381,000 last year - had been cut, and Wednesday morning, agency directors told commissioners that the cut was detrimental to their operations.

The loss of local funding was especially significant, they said, because the money leverages other grants.

Penny Morrill, director of the Sunrise women's shelter, said the $36,000 her organization had received leveraged about $164,000 from other sources. "It's not just the $36,000," she said.

Danielle Taylor-Fagan, who heads the PACE Center for Girls, said the cuts would worsen problems for the clients served by the agencies. In Pace Center's case, that means at-risk girls.

"These are lost citizens, and we don't want to see them further and further lost," she said.

Hildebrand, a retired social worker who serves on the board of a number of the agencies, said the local funding brought in "a boatload more dollars" but also carried symbolic weight.

"A community is judged on how well we take care of those who need the help," she said.

Mulieri said she could not support spending public money on the charities, in part because county employees getting laid off might wonder why the money didn't go toward saving their jobs.

"I don't feel comfortable giving away taxpayer money when we're laying off people and not giving them raises," she said.

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At the budget hearing Wednesday night, commissioners heard from people concerned both about the service cuts and the tax increase.

Jean Jakob, who owns a home in Wesley Chapel, said her proposed tax bill was going up $203 even though her market value is going down. She said she understood why - her assessed value inched up thanks to a provision of Save our Homes - but still thought officials should have done more to reduce tax bills.

"You guys have got to help us," she told commissioners. "People are hanging on right now."

More than a dozen veterans showed up to ask commissioners for additional money in the veterans office. Officials had proposed cutting the office of six workers down to two. Commissioners had agreed to fund two of the four who lost their jobs, but veterans urged them to restore all four positions.

One of those veterans was Tom Brown Jr. of Lutz, who said he didn't mind his tax bill going up a little.

"I've been enjoying the bill going down," he said. "I guess it's got to go up a little bit."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

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