TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners cast dire warnings Thursday of a looming budget crisis if Florida voters approve a statewide property tax cut next year.
"We're going to face a $30 million reduction in our budget as a result of the additional homestead exemption," Commissioner Ken Hagan said before voting against new money for transit.
"We're headed into uncharted territory," Commissioner Sandy Murman agreed.
"I won't be here," retiring Commissioner Al Higginbotham said. "But you know how serious that's going to be."
Yet, moments later, the commission approved a small property tax cut for 2018 that will lower county revenues a year before the potential hit to their budget.
In practice, the tax cut commissioners approved Thursday will amount to pocket change for most homeowners. Across the county, homeowners will pay a millage rate of 5.7913, or $5.7913 for every $1,000 in assessed property value. Last year the rate was 5.7926.
The deduction will save the entirety of all Hillsborough taxpayers about $100,000. With property values on the rise and as new home construction continues, county property tax collections will increase 4.65 percent next year and many taxpayers will likely pay more in property taxes in 2018.
But the tax cut, which Hagan acknowledged was "symbolic in nature," is nevertheless a sign that the Republican-led board is unlikely to offset an expansion of the homestead exemption with a property tax increase.
Last year was the first time in 23 years that commissioners didn't lower the millage rate at least a little.
"It is important that during good economic time and bad, that we show our commitment to tax reduction," Hagan said, "and let the public know that we are fiscally conservative and prudent with their tax dollars."
The approach is in stark contrast to how the city of Tampa is preparing for a possible homestead expansion. Last week, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn proposed the first property tax increase since 1989, in part because of the $6 million the city could lose from an expanded exemption.
Under existing law, the first $50,000 of a home's value is exempt from property taxes. Florida lawmakers decided to ask voters in a 2018 referendum whether to increase the homestead exemption to $75,000.
"This Legislature is hell-bent on doing whatever they can to limit local government and to hamstring our ability to do what we do better than they do, which is provide services and do it as a reasonable (cost) with a reasonable number of employees," Buckhorn said when he presented his budget.
Commissioners will finalize Hillsborough's millage rate when they pass the county budget in September, but the rate cannot be increased above what was approved Thursday.
Unincorporated residents pay an additional $4.9587 for every $1,000 in assessed property values. Residents of the three cities in Hillsborough pay a separate additional property tax that goes to those governments.
Commissioner Les Miller, the only no vote on the seven-member commission, was dumbfounded by how little money the rate reduction would actually save people.
"Total?" he repeatedly asked county budget staff.
Meanwhile, the board also approved $5.6 million for 24 commissioner-initiated projects in the 2018 budget.
The largest, and most contentious, earmark commissioners approved was $2 million for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.
After lengthy debate, the commission on a 4-3 vote said HART, which operates the county's bus system, can have the money but will first have to explain to commissioners how it intends to spend it.
Commissioner Pat Kemp hoped commissioners would support a recurring $2.35 million annual investment in HART to expand some of the most utilized bus lines. She settled for the one-time payment after it was clear she did not have the votes.
HART recently announced it had to cut service due to a decrease in ridership and a deficit.
"We really need to step up to the plate now," Kemp said. "This is really a small down payment in the investment we need to make in this community."
HART CEO Katharine Eagan told the Tampa Bay Times that, depending on how it's allocated and what commissioners want, the money could be used to increase the frequency of Route 34, a popular bus line that travels Hillsborough Avenue between 56th Street and Town 'N Country, and expand service on the growing Route 46, which connects downtown to Brandon.
Commissioners also gave $121,000 to the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association, $250,000 for a baseball field in Temple Terrace and $400,000 for the Southcoast Greenway Trail.
Contact Steve Contorno at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.