BROOKSVILLE — Having already held the line on spending for county departments, and uncertain how much property tax revenue it will have for the coming year, the Hernando County Commission has tentatively said no to a tax rate increase that would allow Sheriff Al Nienhuis to beef up services.
During its first public hearing on the 2016-17 county budget Tuesday evening, the commission also decided to forgo spending $275,000 to remove tussocks from Hunter's Lake in Spring Hill. Instead, commissioners voted to restore $252,000 for other community projects, including Chinsegut Hill, the Florida Blueberry Festival, the Brooksville Main Street Program, the Hernando County Fair, the Small Business Development Center and the Community Outreach Grant Program.
After Property Appraiser John Emerson noted that he was unsure about challenges to tangible tax collections, which might not be resolved for months, commissioners said they did not want to face having to lay off dozens of county workers if anticipated revenue did not come through. There would be time later in the budget year to reconsider Hunter's Lake and also $226,000 to tear down unsafe buildings, they decided.
Nienhuis had sought an increase of $1.7 million in his budget to help fund a new detective, a new canine deputy, a new mental health worker, a new animal services officer and some public service technicians who could respond to calls that did not require a full-fledged deputy. During Tuesday's hearing, he maintained that each of those positions was needed.
But that was not enough to sway commissioners, who voted 4-0 to hold the line on the current tax rate and not grant the 4 percent millage increase that Nienhuis' proposals would have required.
Frequent government critic Anthony Palmieri chastised commissioners for putting off the discussion of important budget topics until Tuesday's public hearing.
"I am really very, very disappointed with the way that this year's budget has been handled,'' Palmieri said.
He noted that he thought the commissioners should talk about how they initially were proposing to raise the millage rate.
Before casting his vote, Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he was not sure the money would be there to cover all of the county's expenses and he was not willing to lay off 30 county workers to balance the budget.
"We're reducing our cost for the sake of the taxpayers. ... I'm not going to vote for a millage increase this year,'' Dukes said.
County budget manager Pam Lee said there were some expenses in the budget that the county was obligated to add, including a 19.5 percent increase in health insurance costs — which amounted to $612,000 for departments under commission control, not counting the sheriff — along with $1.2 million for a new county employee wellness center, including $454,000 out of the general fund, and $114,000 in negotiated pay increases. There also are increases in the budget for indigent care, inmate medical expenses and juvenile expenses.
Expenses that the county decided to defer include replacement of 45-year-old air-conditioning systems, 30-year-old roofs, 25-year-old fire alarm systems, new parking lot overlays, new playground equipment and new library materials.
If ultimately approved by the commission, the general fund tax rate would remain at 6.9912 mills, or $6.99 in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value. For the owner of a house with a taxable value of $100,000, the tax to support the county's general fund would remain at $699.12. The county will still have to advertise that rate as a tax increase because, combined with a slight rise in property values, it is expected to bring more money into county coffers.
The tentative overall county budget was set at $399,219,825, approximately $2 million less than what had been proposed with the sheriff's additions. Lee noted that the overall budget numbers for the county came in between the 2014 and 2015 totals, plus mandated increases over which the county has no control.
The final budget hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sept. 20 in the County Commission chambers in downtown Brooksville. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.