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Tax rate puts heat in budget hearing

The County Commission takes its first look at the budget since voting to keep the tax rate the same. Stay tuned.

By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published September 14, 2006


INVERNESS - For many Citrus property owners, this year's tax bills could be higher than ever.

And commissioners are considering the largest proposed budget in the county's history.

That could make for a volatile mix at today's hearing, when the County Commission is slated to take its first look at the budget since the group voted unanimously in July to keep the tax rate at 8.145 mills.

Commissioners can vote today to lower the millage rate, but they cannot raise it.

One mill equals $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessed, nonexempt real property.

That means that the owner of a home assessed at $150,000 who takes the standard $25,000 homestead exemption would pay $1,018.13 in taxes to the County Commission with this year's proposed rate. That would generate $94.5-million in property tax revenue for the county.

Last year the county received $70.5-million in property tax revenue. If commissioners decide to maintain that level of revenue, exclusive of construction, the rollback millage rate would be 6.3305.

That means the owner of a home assessed at $150,000 with a homestead exemption would pay $791.31 in taxes to the County Commission.

The proposed $223.9-million county budget includes 52 new county staff positions and 26 new jobs for constitutional officers.

Assistant County Administrator Tom Dick has said the proposed positions and other items on the budget aren't a wish list, but concrete needs the County Commission and other elected officials have discussed.

If commissioners decide to lower the millage rate, line items in the budget will be on the chopping block.

Public opposition to this year's proposed millage rate has been mounting since Citrus property owners began receiving their truth in millage notices from the property appraiser last month.

That's when Property Appraiser Melanie Hensley's phone started ringing.

With building and real estate sales booming, the value of taxable property in Citrus jumped more than 33 percent to $11.6-billion in the past year, Hensley said.

Higher property values often translate into higher taxes.

Hensley said Wednesday that her office has fielded countless phone calls and received 1,958 written inquiries about residential property value assessments. That number is about three times as large as it was last year, she said.

High local property taxes coupled with concerns about gas taxes and insurance cost, she said, has them fed up.

Commercial property owners are concerned, too. The state law which caps property tax increases at 3 percent does not apply to businesses.

In a letter which will be distributed at today's meeting, Hensley advises property owners to speak out to local officials.

"The taxing authorities have the ability to lower the millage rate, which would in turn lower the amount of tax you will pay," she writes. "Having said that, which service would you like for them to cut from the budget? This is the question you must ask yourselves."

Hensley's phone wasn't the only one that started ringing when TRIM notices went out this year.

C.J. Dixon, president of ERA American Realty & Investments and ERA Suncoast Realty, started hearing complaints from customers.

People are worried, he said, and they're "leaving in droves."

Their concerns prompted Dixon to start an organization called Overtaxed Citizens, on the Web at www.runawaytax.com.

Along with others from the group, Dixon plans to address county commissioners today.

"The leaders of our community need to take note that there's a lot of folks that can't make it under this tax situation," he said.

He said commissioners should bring the millage rate as close to the rollback rate as possible.

"I understand they may need to go 5 or 10 percent above it. There are some real projects that need to be done here. We've let the county slip for a little while," he said. "But if you try to do it all in one year, you're creating a bigger disaster."

Members of the Citrus County Council - an umbrella group for local organizations - also plan to speak out.

"How can we keep accelerating and growing the government at those rates and expect the property owners to be able to sustain that? It's just ridiculous," Morris Harvey, the group's fiscal watch committee chairman, said Wednesday.

Today's meeting is the first of the commission's two public budget hearings in September. The next meeting is Sept. 26.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 860-7309.