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Brooksville rolls back tax rate to fund status-quo 2016-17 budget

BROOKSVILLE — The Brooksville City Council has unanimously approved a status-quo spending plan for 2016-17 that includes a small decrease in the property tax rate but a significant increase in the fees paid for fire service.

After two public hearings earlier this month, the council accepted the tax rate known as the rollback rate, which at 6.6426 mills is slightly lower than the current year's rate. The 2016-17 rate amounts to $6.64 per $1,000 of appraised taxable property value in taxes to support city services. When applied to higher property values, the rollback rate will bring in the same amount of tax revenue as the current year.

The city originally advertised raising the rate to 7 mills to be sure no last-minute financial needs popped up, but council members said all along that they did not want to approve the higher rate.

"It is a status-quo budget, with very limited changes or increases in staffing/wage levels and/or operating costs,'' according to City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha's budget memo to council members. "Capital outlay and investment within the General Fund is at a very minimum.''

Norman-Vacha noted that the budget "has required difficult decisions to limit service delivery levels in order to align with our continuing flat or slightly increased revenue sources. Once again, we have prepared the budget for fiscal year 2017 ever mindful of our continued fragile economy.''

Norman-Vacha told council members that the budget "stays the course" for the city while focusing on economic improvement, the Brooksville Main Street Program and arts, culture and recreation.

The budget also includes one-time $200 bonuses for city employees.

The city's approved general fund budget is $7,263,693, a decrease of about 1 percent over the current spending plan. The overall budget, which includes all city spending, is $43,974,323, approximately $279,000 more than this year.

Norman-Vacha noted in her memo that general fund staffing levels have remained constant or declined since 2013 and stand in the new budget at roughly 61 full-time equivalent positions. That is one less than the current year, with the position of business development coordinator being eliminated. That was done to provide funding for the Brooksville Main Street Program.

There was little discussion of the overall budget and tax rate at the public hearings, but that was not the case with proposed fire fee increases. Council members expressed reluctance to raise the fees, but had no other ideas for how to meet Fire Department obligations, which included unexpected costs associated with retirements as well as needed capital improvements.

Several residents voiced concerns about the increases — specifically the portion of the fee charged per lot.

The council agreed to increase each of the two parts of the fee paid by Brooksville residents. The portion attached to property values will increase from 80 cents per $1,000 in value to 85 cents, an increase of 6.25 percent. That portion reflects the shared benefits and costs of providing fire protection services and facilities.

The second part, a flat fee per parcel, will rise from $100 to $125, a 25 percent increase. That fee reflects the Fire Department's readiness to serve based on maintaining a continual state of preparedness.

City property owner Robert Buckner voiced strong opposition to the flat-fee increase and has complained about the fee before.

"I think it's a little bit high and grossly unfair for vacant land parcels,'' Buckner said.

He brought forward a sampling of tiny parcels where owners would be paying a huge percentage of their value to meet the new fire fee cost. He also said that, in his mind, the per-lot fee pushed the overall tax burden above the state limit for certain properties.

Buckner noted that, on small lots, "there is low service demand. It's very rare to have a need for emergency services at a vacant lot.''

Norman-Vacha noted that Buckner's argument has long been with the structure and methodology of the fees, which have been upheld as valid.

"I still think it's the right methodology,'' she said. "Everyone should pay something.''

She noted that the city could take another look at specific properties for which the $125 fee didn't make sense.

The new fire fees will generate approximately $714,302 in revenue compared to the old rates, which would have generated about $609,427.

The 2016-17 budget year begins Oct. 1.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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