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SCHOOLS NAIL DOWN TAX RATE

The approved property tax rate is 7.47 mills, which is lower than last year's.

Taxpayers will see a little relief this year on the biggest portion of their property tax bill.

The School Board approved a tax rate of 7.47 mills during a final public hearing on its 2009-10 budget Tuesday night. That compares with last year's rate of 7.77 mills.

The rate means a $747 bill for a $125,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption. A mill is produces $1 in tax for every $1,000 of taxable property value.

The rate is expected to bring in $74.8 million this year and is 12 percent less than the rollback rate, or the rate that would have brought in the same amount of money as last year, based on this year's property values.

"I think we're the only entity that has decreased what citizens have to pay," said board member John Sweeney, who was unanimously elected as chairman during the board's regular meeting a few minutes later.

Tuesday night's vote capped a fretful budget year for the district that turned out to be less grim than expected, thanks in part to property values that didn't sink as low as officials feared.

The tax rolls declined by 8.4 percent, a couple of percentage points less than projected.

Some $13 million in federal stimulus money also helped plug holes in the budget.

The board decided earlier this year not to levy an additional 0.25 mills allowed by the Legislature. Besides resistance to the notion of adding to the tax rate in a recession, chief financial officer Desiree Henegar warned that the district would not see the full benefit from the additional levy because the move would mean having to give back state education dollars doled out to compensate districts whose property values are lower than the state average.

The upcoming year's general fund for the school district came in at $164 million, about $3 million less than this year's.

The district has an unreserved general fund balance of $7 million, or about 5 percent of revenues. The state recommends at least 3 percent.

But the district will have to use about $2.2 million of that fund to hire teachers and staffers for 500 additional students who showed up beyond projections this year. And $3.5 million was set-aside to operate the new high school north of Weeki Wachee that opens next fall, Henegar said.

That leaves about $1 million in the rainy day fund, or about 0.74 percent of revenues, Henegar said. That's precious little, considering the state typically adjusts funding levels during the year, she said.

"We need to be very careful to keep that fund balance above the 3 percent level," Henegar said. "It's going to be difficult because we don't know what's going to happen with revenue levels from the state. We need to get through these next couple of years and save as much money as we can."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

School budget, by the numbers

2008-09 2009-10
Millage rate 7.479 7.779
Total budget, all funds $372 million $414.9 million
General fund expenditures $167.2 million $164.1 million
General fund balance $9.9 million $12 million
Unreserved/undesignated general fund balance $1 million $8.4 million
Source: Hernando County School Board

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