tampabay.com

Residents won't forget ill-timed drop in tax rate

By JEFF WEBB
Published September 10, 2006


Remember the Committee of 25? That was the diverse group of volunteers appointed by the Hernando County Commission to study the budget and weigh the infrastructure needs facing the county for the next decade or so. The members' job was to set priorities and suggest a way to pay for the improvements.

They met nine times over six months and, with the exception of failing to advise the commission about how to foot the bills, completed their assignment.

The committee recommended that the commission scale way back on building more parks. It advised the commission to renovate the old Brooksville Regional Hospital and use it for county offices and to convert the existing government center into a judicial complex. And, the committee members counseled, cut the operating budget by 10 percent.

Most of those recommendations came after extended debate, motion upon motion and vote after vote.

But the one thing that the committee agreed on from start to finish: This is not the time to lower taxes. The daunting cost of infrastructure improvements needed to keep up with growth and the increased demand on services - at least $250-million and perhaps twice that much - absolutely precludes lowering the property tax rate, the committee warned.

On Thursday, a majority of county commissioners told the Committee of 25 what it could do with its well-considered advice:

Never mind; we know better.

Over the objections of the committee's chairman, Len Tria, and vice chairwoman, Linda Prescott, the County Commission voted to lower the property tax rate by one-half mill.

But they weren't the only ones whose opinions were disregarded by Commissioners Nancy Robinson, Jeff Stabins and Tom Hogan Sr. The three also rejected the advice of County Administrator Gary Kuhl and budget director George Zoettlein, who warned that a half-mill decrease would deplete the county's reserve fund in four years and still not pay for even a fraction of what is needed.

Why would those commissioners do something so seemingly reckless?

In a word: politics.

In Hogan's case, it's about worshipping at the altar of partisan philosophy. It is no surprise that the most powerful nonelected Republican in the county supports lower taxes. And, because he was appointed to the commission in August by the governor to serve an unexpired term, he's going to be on it only until November. So, he can operate with the luxury of knowing that he won't be around to clean up the mess that this vote will make.

In Stabins' case, it's about being torn between his fiscally conservative thinking and a well-intentioned, but terribly misguided, theory that cutting budgets and lowering taxes will restore the public's trust in government. Face it, Commissioner, if the tax rate were cut by half, folks would still complain that the government doesn't spend its money wisely, and they still wouldn't trust their elected officials to always act in the public's best interests.

And, in Robinson's case, it's about doing what she thinks is necessary to get re-elected in November. She made the motion to lower the property tax rate Thursday, and it will be expedient for her to remind voters that she proposed the largest millage reduction in the commission's recent history. Having been on the commission for 12 years, she knows full well the adverse effect that this will have on the county's finances.

The deal will be sealed at public hearings later this month. The average property owner in Hernando County will realize $36.09 in savings.

Thanks, commissioners.

Next time we average types are sitting at a traffic light and waiting through two cycles to make a left turn onto a road so we can dodge some potholes, we'll think about whether the 9 cents we saved that day is worth it.

We'll think about it again when a hurricane is on the way and we're looking for a special needs shelter to take our elderly, infirm relatives.

And we'll have plenty of time to ponder the windfall you have bestowed upon us as we wait in the hot sun for an open field so our kids can play ball at the park.

Maybe then we'll tell you what you told the Committee of 25:

Never mind; we know better.

Jeff Webb can be reached at webb@sptimes.com or 352 754-6123.