Hillsborough’s budget preview: No new deputies or fire stations

A pandemic-influenced financial forecast leaves no room for added public safety spending.
An early Hillsborough County budget forecast shows no funding for new fire stations nor additional deputies.  Here, a  Hillsborough County Fire Rescue fire engine is pictured at the scene of a motor vehicle accident in Brandon in 2018. [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]
An early Hillsborough County budget forecast shows no funding for new fire stations nor additional deputies. Here, a Hillsborough County Fire Rescue fire engine is pictured at the scene of a motor vehicle accident in Brandon in 2018. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published May 13, 2021|Updated May 13, 2021

TAMPA — Hillsborough County is going to scrimp on planned public safety expansions in the coming year, according to its early budget forecasts.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister is forgoing plans to hire 59 new deputies, and the county won’t be building new fire stations in 2022 despite a backlog of two dozen needed stations highlighted in a fire rescue master plan.

That information came Wednesday, as Hillsborough commissioners got their first look at the pandemic-affected finances that will be used to compile the proposed county budget.

Despite rising residential real estate prices, the state is forecasting less robust numbers for commercial appraisals because of business losses due to COVID-19. The result is a projected increase in the property tax rolls of less than 3.5 percent, according to state estimates, down significantly from the 9.1 percent jump in values last year.

That would translate to just under $31 million in new revenue to the county, or a 72 percent drop from the current year’s budget.

Much of the new money is expected to be eaten up by inflation, rising costs of retirement benefits and health insurance, and a continued $10 million commitment to affordable housing, leaving insufficient dollars for new deputies, fire stations or transportation improvements.

It marks the second consecutive year that Chronister delayed a planned multi-year hiring blitz. In 2018, the sheriff’s office said it wanted to fill all of its vacancies and add 53 more positions annually over a five-year period.

“This does come with some sacrifice as there is a need to address the significant growth in population and to address the (Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office) deputy-to-citizen ratio,” Chronister said in an April 28 letter to commissioners accompanying his budget requests for 2022 and 2023.

The sheriff said his agency has 1.3 deputies per 1,000 residents while the national average, according to the FBI, is 2.1 officers per 1,000 people.

Likewise, the county has two fire stations under construction in Riverview and Brandon, money for which was included in the current budget. But projections shown to commissioners Wednesday included no new fire stations in the next several years even if the commission approved small tax rate increases. The county’s updated fire rescue master plan said the county should build 24 new stations by the end of the decade to meet growing demands.

Related: Firefighters, union officials call for 30 new fire stations as population grows

The county charges a fire impact fee of $335 per new single-family house and $313 per 1,000-square-feet of commercial/retail space — modest amounts compared to transportation, school and utility impact fees that total several thousand dollars each. Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp wondered if the county should increase the impact fees, though she acknowledged the fees can only be used for construction and not the ongoing personnel costs to staff the stations.

The current county budget is slightly less than $7.1 billion, but the meat-and-potatoes portions are the two general funds. A billion-dollar general fund covers all of the county, and a second fund of $565 million pays for services for residents outside the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.

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The countywide tax rate currently is 5.7309 mils. A mil is equal to $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value. A home assessed at $250,000 would generate $1,146 in taxes to help pay for the county jail operations. human services, affordable housing, pet resources and other services, plus the costs of the constitutional officers.

Property owners in the unincorporated portions of the county also pay a tax rate of 4.375 mils, or $875 on a home appraised at $250,000. It covers sheriff’s patrol operations, fire rescue, code enforcement, public works and other services.

The county has said it lost nearly $70 million in revenue from declining sales, tourist and fuel taxes in 2020 because of the pandemic, but that could be replaced by the $285.9 million allocation to the county in the American Rescue Plan Act. Rules for what that money can be spent on were released earlier this week, and county staff said they have not yet determined exactly how the county might use the dollars.

County Administrator Bonnie Wise is scheduled to release her recommended budget in mid-July and two public hearings are slated for September. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.