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Commission adopts $3-billion budget

The spending plan includes increased funding for firefighting and a 14 percent raise for county employees over two years.

Published September 19, 2003

TAMPA - With little debate and even less public comment, Hillsborough commissioners passed their first $3-billion budget Thursday.

Well, technically $2.96-billion, an amount that will climb to $2.97-billion in the second year of the two-year overall spending plan.

Unlike some other area governments, commissioners were able to increase overall spending by about 6 percent compared to last year, while still reducing the tax rate. That's largely due to continuing robust growth and escalating property values.

The debate was notable this year for a sharp increase on spending on firefighting, as well as a combined 14 percent average raise for county employees over the next two years.

The spending on firefighting is part of an effort to improve response times to emergencies in unincorporated parts of the county, where the population is growing faster than in areas closest to the city of Tampa. And the pay raises are part of an ongoing effort to raise worker wages to compete with those paid for comparable jobs outside county government.

"I believe this budget represents a significant commitment by the county government toward providing basic government service to its citizens" including in important areas such as law enforcement, fire protection and in neighborhoods, said County Administrator Dan Kleman. "And it does so with a reduction in the millage rate for the ninth year in a row."

Commissioners voted 6-1 on the budget, with Pat Frank opposed due to some last-minute add-ons she said should have been judged more closely against other needs. Commissioners voted unanimously to approve an overall tax rate of 13.0205 mills for residents in unincorporated Hillsborough County, a .02-mill reduction from last year.

The new rate means that a resident of unincorporated Hillsborough County who owns a home valued at $125,000 and claims the $25,000 homestead exemption would pay $1,302 for the county part of their property tax bill.

While not initially planned as part of this year's budget debate, commissioners voted earlier this summer to double the communications tax on services such as cellular phone use and cable television from 2 to 4 percent. The increase is expected to raise revenues to the county by an estimated $11.4-million annually by 2005.

At least half the additional money raised will be used for a projected need for as many as 20 new fire stations. Commissioner Ken Hagan opposed the increase in the tax.

The two-year spending plan passed Thursday already will pay to bring another five fire stations on line, on Chapman Road, Country Place, in Northdale, River Oaks and Tampa Shores.

There will be three new libraries: in south Brandon, in southern Hillsborough County and upper Tampa Bay, as well a replacement of the Westgate Library.

Additional money will help pay for the sixth phase of the Falkenburg Road Jail and repairs at the Museum of Science and Industry. A new Children's Museum would get $500,000 and there is a $1-million contribution to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Cross Creek Boulevard will get a $1.8-million widening.

About $1.2-million will be set aside in each of the next two years to shorten waiting lists for programs helping the elderly and poor.

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