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Pasco commissioners weigh priorities to cover unexpected budget gap

DADE CITY — Pasco County commissioners have a $900,000 budget hole they need to patch.

Library and park users could be the losers. So, too, could be households and businesses served by Fire Station 37 in Land O'Lakes.

Until this week, the commission didn't know it owed the county Tax Collector's Office $500,000 in fees and the state Department of Juvenile Justice $390,117 to correct a billing error.

Adding to the confusion, the Pasco Sheriff's Office asked the county for an additional $98,700 to pay for new security systems at the county courthouses.

Given the new expenses, it's likely commissioners will not be able to extend library hours or eliminate fees charged at county parks. Also, a rescue crew planned for Station 37 could be on the chopping block.

The commission already has increased its tentative 2015-16 property tax rates for the general fund and the fire district by nearly one-half mill to a combined 9.4112 mills, or just less than $9.42 of tax for every $1,000 of taxable value. The tax rate can come down before the start of the Oct. 1 fiscal year, but cannot go higher.

Commissioner Mike Moore said he was "disappointed" about having to fork over additional funds to the tax collector and to the state.

"I was surprised, obviously we have to rethink some things," Moore said. "I'd rather use the funds for more community projects that benefit the entire community, but unfortunately there's nothing we can do about that."

County budget writers did build in a payment to the state for juvenile justice, but didn't expect it to be quite so large.

The county and state split the costs associated with housing juveniles who are charged with crimes while they await trial. The state assured county officials that Pasco's portion would remain the same as last year, said Heather Grimes, the assistant county administrator overseeing the budget.

It turns out, though, the state incorrectly billed the county about $400,000 less last year than it should have.

The county also budgeted less than required to cover the roughly 2 percent commission the Tax Collector's Office charges for collecting county property taxes. County budget writers used last year's numbers in the calculation. But with an increased tax rate proposed for the coming fiscal year, and with property values up by more than 4 percent, the Tax Collector's Office will collect more taxes, and a greater commission.

The discrepancy wasn't apparent until the Tax Collector's Office published its own budget, which included the number.

"We budgeted something, but it was an educated guess," Grimes said.

Commissioners considered their options Tuesday, and floated the idea of eliminating new code enforcement officers the county plans to hire. Ultimately, it proved more popular among commissioners to abandon the extended library hours, the elimination of the park fees and the rescue crew, at least for now. Nothing will be decided until commissioners finalize the budget in September.

Moore supported keeping the code enforcement positions on the table. He said code enforcement needs to be integral to the county's future if it hopes to hit "premiere" status — the county's stated goal.

"If it's not, it's just not going to happen," he said.

But Commissioner Jack Mariano disagreed, prioritizing public safety.

"I was very surprised they talked about pulling (the rescue crew) off," Mariano said. "I don't think that's a good trade."

To make matters more complicated, commissioners will need to decide whether to grant the Sheriff's Office request to fund new X-ray machines at the courthouses. Grimes said the request should have been included in the sheriff's original budget submission, but that budget only included a request for funds to replace metal detectors at the courthouses.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 226-3446 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

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