Hernando County voters could see property tax increase on 2020 ballots

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Hernando County School District Office, 919 N Broad St., Brooksville
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Hernando County School District Office, 919 N Broad St., Brooksville
Published May 22, 2019

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County voters could decide next year whether to raise their property taxes to help fund local schools.

School Board members last week asked district staff to work on plans for a potential ballot measure on the millage rate. The board has not formally approved any proposed measure, so the possibility of a tax vote is still up in the air, but the board discussed next year's elections — particularly the August primary — as a sensible time for such a vote.

A mill is a unit of property tax measurement equal to $1 for every $1,000 of a property's assessed value. The rate is largely set by the state, but school districts can ask voters to approve increases for operating expenses, as long as the local school board rate doesn't top 10 mills. The 2019 Hernando County School Board millage rate is 6.195.

A bump of one mill, if the School Board proposes that increase and voters approve it, would add an estimated $10 million to the School District's budget each year for the four years it would stay in effect. The district's estimated revenue for the 2019-2020 year is about $179 million.

A one-mill increase would cost a homeowner with property valued at $150,000 an additional $106.88 in taxes annually, or about $9 a month.

The taxing idea arose during a budget update at the May 14 School Board workshop. Kendra Sittig, the district's budget director, noted that county property values rose by about $400 million last year, but the school board millage rate went down, as it has nearly every year since 2011.

District estimates show revenue increasing year-over-year, but expenses rising even more.

District superintendent John Stratton said he worries about that trend. Maintaining the status quo will be hard at this rate, he said, and it would be impossible to improve the district.

"If we don't raise revenue somewhere, we are cutting somewhere," Stratton said. "And we historically ... have cut and cut and cut, and we have just now as a district been able to add some things back."

School Board member Jimmy Lodato and board chair Susan Duval emphasized the need for transparency in proposing the millage increase. Voters need a clear idea of where the extra money would be used before they head to the polls, they said.

Stratton agreed, but said getting specific on operational plans might be tricky.

"(With) capital (expenses, such as buildings and repairs), we can define our needs now and generate a list," he said. "Operational, we can define quite a bit, but also, over the next four years, we don't know what changes. For example, mental health and security wasn't as big two years ago as it is now."

An informational campaign would need to come before any proposed millage increase, Stratton said. That gives some urgency to planning for a vote, even with the primary election more than a year away.

District officials could produce informative materials on the proposal, School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said, but advocacy for the measure would have to come from an outside group, such as the Hernando County Education Foundation.

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Hernando County voters may have more than one taxing decision to make next year. The Board of County Commissioners — which is staring down its own budget deficit — has discussed a sales tax increase to fund the county's capital projects, but hasn't settled on a solution for replenishing its general fund.

Voters across the state have been willing to shell out for schools, passing several local educational funding measures last year.

Even tax-skeptical Hernando County voters could pass a millage increase, Lodato said in an interview.

"I think if it's explained properly, I think it has a good chance of getting the people to think about it a lot more carefully," he said.

Contact Jack Evans at Follow @JackHEvans.