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Higher taxable value shapes county's budget
A Times Editorial
Published June 3, 2005
Hernando County's constitutional officers submitted their budgets for the coming year on Wednesday and, with the exception of one, they all are asking for more money than they did last year.
The constitutional officers account for about $34-million of the county's $96.8-million general fund operating budget. But when you examine the budget more closely - deducting the constitutional officers' $34-million, about $18-million in reserves and $10-million already committed to expanding the county jail - the constitutional officers actually make up about 50 percent of the county's proposed spending plan for fiscal year 2005-2006.
County budget officer George Zoettlein provided the following breakdown:
Clerk of the Court Karen Nicolai is seeking a 4.7 percent increase in her $1.8-million budget. That's about $83,000 more than last year.
Property appraiser Alvin Mazourek's proposed budget is up 6.9 percent over last year. That's about $161,000 more, bringing his total budget to $2.4-million.
Tax collector Juanita Sikes' budget is up 22.9 percent, or $437,000 more than last year, for a total of $2.3-million. That increase is misleading, though, because Sikes' office is a fee-based operation. Her budget is going up only because the county's taxable value is going up. She will return almost all of the additional money to the County Commission at the end of the year, making her increase "a wash," Zoettlein said.
Sheriff Richard Nugent's proposed budget contains a double-digit increase. The Sheriff's Office takes a huge chunk of the county budget; last year the sheriff spent $26.7-million. He is asking for $2.8-million, or 11.8 percent more this year. The bulk of the added expenses, Nugent said, are for personnel services, such as pay raises, insurance and retirement payments. But it also includes money for 26 new employees.
Finally, Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams also has a double-digit difference in her budget request. However, hers goes in the other direction. Williams' budget is only about $1-million, but she says she can get by on $193,000, 16.2 percent less than last year.
Spending by the constitutional officers is only one part of the county's budget picture. Zoettlein and County Administrator Gary Adams won't be able to present the entire budget until Property Appraiser Mazourek submits his final estimate, due in mid July, of how much the county's taxable property value increased last year.
However, an early estimate Mazourek submitted to the budget office last week predicts the taxable property value will increase 12 percent, from $6.3-billion to almost $7.1-billion.
If that number holds - and Zoettlein says Mazourek's estimate "usually is conservative, so it probably could go up" - the county is on pace to collect more than $50-million in property taxes next year.
It is difficult for most residents to relate to such staggering numbers. It may be an even bigger challenge for those who remember when property in Hernando County was almost ridiculously inexpensive and the county's operating budgets were six figures.
What does it all mean?
The good news is that the county's economy grows more viable every day, and property owners are realizing huge gains in their investments.
The bad news is that even if the property tax rate stays the same, most people will pay more in taxes.
The worse news is that the growth in population is putting a proportionate demand on the services government provides, and the extra revenue still won't be enough to meet that need.
The constitutional officers' proposed budgets are indicative of a trend that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. That's why it is more important than ever for elected officials to be sensible stewards of the money with which they are entrusted.