Pasco commissioners cool on fire tax hike

Stung by rising costs from all directions, taxpayers urge county to scale back tax rate
Pasco County Historic Courthouse in Dade City
Pasco County Historic Courthouse in Dade City [ Times (2006) ]
Published Sept. 6

Zephyrhills resident Chris Stebbins had a suggestion for Pasco County commissioners at the first public budget hearing this week. Instead of hiking up property taxes, he said the county should cut its costs and tighten its belt because “that’s what we’re expected to do.”

He blamed the county’s rampant growth for increasing costs on property owners, saying that despite rising values and revenue, the county still isn’t keeping up. “It’s outrageous,” Stebbins said.

He wasn’t alone. Commissioners heard pleas from several property owners seeking a tax reduction as inflation, rising insurance rates, the tax burden of rising property values and other expenses are challenging some residents to keep up with the cost of living.

While Pasco County has proposed keeping most portions of the tax bill at the current rate, the proposal would increase the fire tax by 27.5% in an effort to catch fire services up with unmet fiscal needs. To increase by that amount, all five county commissioners would have to agree, but Commissioner Seth Weightman has not been on board.

At Tuesday’s budget hearing, Commission chairperson Jack Mariano also urged County Administrator Mike Carballa to take another look at that increase before the final public budget hearing on September 19.

In July, county budget director Robert Goehrig explained how fire department revenue isn’t sufficient to keep the department’s reserve at the recommended 16.7%, a level suggested by the Government Finance Officers Association and approved by the commission several years ago. He recommended increasing the fire tax from 1.8036 to 2.3 mills. A mill is $1 in tax per every $1,000 of appraised taxable property value.

While the tax is only a small part of the overall tax bill, roughly increasing the cost just 50 cents per $1,000 in property value, it adds up. It would tack on an additional $150 to the tax bill for a $350,000 home with a homestead tax exemption.

When Goehrig first presented that fire tax plan, he talked about providing fire funding to get the department through the next five years. But since then, new Fire Chief Anthony Perez has recommended cutting $9.5 million in spending, including some large equipment and non-firefighter personnel costs.

Pasco's new Fire Chief Anthony Perez was introduced to county commissioners in July.
Pasco's new Fire Chief Anthony Perez was introduced to county commissioners in July. [ Pasco County ]

That would mean the proposed tax increase would keep fire services on stable financial footing for 10 years instead of five.

Weightman said he was concerned that the county keeps “moving the goal line” and that people already facing insurance costs and other inflation impacts “can’t wait four or five years to see some relief.”

Mariano said he wants to see a lower tax rate proposal more in line with the five-year plan. Carballa said he would provide options for commissioners for their final budget hearing.

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Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said the county has to reach the right balance and has shown itself to be conservative in the past. As the county learned from training deputies and then seeing them leave to work in Hillsborough County where they could make more money, she said, losing firefighters in the same way doesn’t make financial sense.

She also said that “to kick the can down the road also puts our citizens’ health at risk.”

Commissioner Ron Oakley said he would like to hold the line on taxes too, but with the county’s booming growth, soon services would suffer and “our citizens deserve good service.”

The tentative budget keeps the overall tax rate at 7.6076 mills, which is $7.61 in tax per $1,000 in appraised taxable property value. For a home appraised at $350,000, the tax bill to support general county services would be $2,282.

The final certified property value calculation showed values increased countywide by 16.5%, which will generate an additional $49 million in tax dollars over the current year’s budget.