During the marathon Pasco County Commission final budget hearing last month, elected officials were bombarded with one tale after another of how rising costs are evaporating the financial security of local residents, especially those on a fixed income.
After hours of stalemate over how to cut the budget to offer some relief, commissioners reached a slightly reduced final tax rate. But they also agreed that it was time to revisit a previous idea to increase the homestead exemption for senior citizens, a tax relief measure many of the surrounding counties have already approved.
This week the commission gave its blessing to move forward with that idea, scheduling a public hearing in early December to formalize an expansion in the exemption for permanent Pasco residents 65 and older. They would have to fall below an annual income limit, which is currently an income of $35,167 or less. Pasco commissioners could have chosen any exemption amount up to $50,000, and they opted for the maximum.
The means the county would lower the estimated value of a primary residence by that amount for the purpose of calculating its tax bill. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have implemented the same program, though Pinellas caps the exemption at $20,000, said County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder.
Commissioner Seth Weighman asked if the commission could alter the exemption amount in the future if financial conditions change, and Steinsnyder said they could. But, he said, “there might be some political ramifications” taking it away after granting the full amount.
Pasco County Property Appraiser Mike Wells Jr. told commissioners that he would be happy to do the work necessary to make the exemption happen, although it would require extra help.
“I believe it’s the right thing to do with everything that’s going on,” he said.
Residents would have to apply annually for the extra exemption, he said, providing income information to confirm they were still eligible.
County Administrator Mike Carballa estimated that the county would lose about $3 million annually in general fund revenue once the new exemption was approved.
The new exemption was also supported by tax collector Mike Fasano, who has spoken in favor of the idea in the past and was attending the meeting to do his annual duty of returning unspent money to the county at the end of the fiscal year. He told commissioners he had estimated that he would return $2.4 million, but was instead returning $3.6 million.
But while he was ready to give the county a check for that amount, he asked if commissioners would be willing to distribute the unspent funds to the constitutional offices, which lost funding at the end of the September budget hearing when the commission granted the small tax rate decrease.
While the county general fund has a reserve, which Carballa used to absorb the hit from the tax rate reduction to general county services and employees, the clerk of court, supervisor of elections and the sheriff had no such cushion. Commissioners unanimously voted to divvy up those extra funds from Fasano’s office to those constitutional offices.