By blocking the county from showing on tax notices how much specific county services will cost, the state Department of Revenue is robbing the public of the chance to see how its money is spent.
That's the argument of the county attorney's office in an action filed this week seeking an administrative law judge's help to put into place changes approved by the County Commission last week.
On June 12, the commission voted to change the format of this year's TRIM notices, which are the preliminary notices property tax owners receive before government budgets and tax rates are set in September.
The past year's TRIM notice lumped the cost of all county government services on one line. The commissioners voted to break that total into three lines. One would show the cost of the sheriff's services. One would show general county services. The third would show the cost of the services provided by the other elected constitutional officers.
Through the last couple of years of budget shortfalls, county commissioners have struggled to fully explain to the public how much commission-controlled departments cost compared to the cost of law enforcement and other constitutional offices.
During that time, departments that the commissioners control have taken the brunt of the budget cuts. Commissioners voted for changing the TRIM notices to give taxpayers more transparency about who spends what without having to set up separate taxing districts for departments.
Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek organized a teleconference on Monday that allowed county officials to speak with the Florida Department of Revenue TRIM compliance section director James McAdams.
"During the call, director McAdams stated that the county could not subdivide its millage rate on its 2012 TRIM notices,'' the county's complaint states. "Director McAdams stated that the county could provide that information to the taxpayers on an insert to be enclosed with each TRIM notice, however the DOR reserved the right to approve any insert.''
McAdams then formalized that opinion with a follow-up email to Mazourek.
The county attorney's office argues that McAdams did not cite statutory provisions which prohibit the changes on the TRIM notice or provisions that give the Department of Revenue power to review and decide whether a flier can be enclosed with the notice.
"DOR's agency determination has the practical effect of shielding one portion of Hernando County's government, the Sheriff's Office, from greater budget scrutiny by the general public,'' the county argues. "In this manner, DOR has reduced the amount of 'sunshine' provided to the public and reduced the taxpayers' ability to participate in the process of millage setting.''
The county attorney also notes that Manatee County in 2011 broke out the county and sheriff's costs on its TRIM notices.
If DOR approved the notices in Manatee County and is rejecting Hernando County's use of the same format, that would violate the state law for making formal rules, the county argues.
While Manatee County did break the cost of the sheriff out from the other county departments on its 2011 TRIM notices, that won't happen again on Manatee County's 2012 TRIM notices because of the same concerns McAdams has voiced with Hernando officials, according to Cyndi Capps, assistant to Manatee County Property Appraiser Charles Hackney.
The issue would have to be resolved by the end of July for the county to be able to change the format of the Hernando TRIM notices, said John Emerson, Mazourek's chief deputy. The notices are sent out to property tax owners in August.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.