tampabay.com

Officials get earful in Hernando, Citrus

Residents turned out in force at local government meetings to let officials know they want lower tax rates.

By ASJYLYN LODER and CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published September 15, 2006


Angry, fed up and fearful, hundreds of Hernando and Citrus residents crowded into their county meeting rooms Thursday to plead for property tax relief.

Like local governments throughout the region, Hernando and Citrus officials found themselves pinched between a cooling economy and the hot anger of overburdened property owners.

They responded with what many homeowners would consider minor cuts to the millage rate.

The Hernando County Commission voted 3-2 to give preliminary approval to a one-half-mill cut - 50 cents for every $1,000 in assessed value. The average homeowner will save $36.09. Final approval of that rate would come at the budget hearing Sept. 28.

With a 4-0 vote, the Citrus Commission gave preliminary approval to a one mill reduction, adopting a rate of 7.145. The final budget hearing is set for Sept. 26.

Over the last two years, tax bills skyrocketed along with property assessments. Local governments enjoyed steep increases in revenue.

In Hernando, more than 100 people jammed the commission chambers. Some carried signs that read "Cut the Fat" and "We are here for one reason: Tax Relief."

Nancy Robinson, a four-term Republican incumbent facing re-election, spearheaded a controversial move to lower Hernando County's tax rate by half a mill.

The vote to lower the millage rate came after nearly 30 people lined up, some near tears, to give the commission a piece of their minds.

Linda Hayward, a horse farmer turned antitax activist, gathered more than 11,000 signatures on a petition urging the county to cut the millage rate.

Elsie Howell said she had to decide between buying a loaf of bread or paying her taxes.

"It's a disgrace," she said.

Joseph Jordan demanded, "Where do I cut? Do I not eat? Do I quit taking medication?"

Spectators applauded demands for a 1-mill cut or more. The crowd booed one woman who stood up and spoke against the tax cut.

Lisa Hammond said she felt like "Daniel in the lion's den" when she told the commission a tax cut endangered the county's financial health while offering no meaningful relief.

Hernando Commission chairwoman Diane Rowden said she had more than 30 e-mails and phone messages from residents who were against the cut.

But Hammond was one of only four people who spoke out while more than 25 people urged the commission to lower taxes further.

The one-half-mill cut would cost Hernando County $4.7-million next year, said George Zoettlein, county budget director.

To pay for it, the county would take $2.2-million out of reserves, reduce spending by $462,056 and take $300,000 out of the county's capital improvement fund.

Hernando commissioners did decide Thursday night not to remove money from the budget that would allow the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District to continue to do its own dispatching of 911 calls.

In Citrus on Thursday, the meeting got personal when a shouting match erupted between audience members and two county commissioners.

One speaker, waving pieces of paper in the air, said property values on some parcels owned by commission Chairman Gary Bartell and Commissioner Dennis Damato had decreased.

Bartell said that was incorrect. Damato said the appraised value of one piece of property he owned had decreased, but so had the value of surrounding property in the neighborhood. Boos from audience members nearly drowned out their defense.

The outburst came after more than two hours of impassioned speeches from dozens of residents.

To make his point, Milton Whitson, an 85-year-old retiree from Homosassa, planted pill bottles on the podium.

High taxes, he said, prevent the county's elderly residents from paying for the medication they need.

Jeanne Derosier's voice trembled as she addressed the board.

"You are on a budget. Live within the budget," she said. "If I can't afford to have my hair done this week, I don't.

"We're mad as hell," the 60-year-old Beverly Hills resident said, pumping her fist in the air before she stormed out of the meeting room. The crowd cheered.

Leaders of the newly created Overtaxed Citizens group circulated a petition and handed out fliers.

Commissioners had not voted on whether to reduce the millage rate by late Thursday evening, but they told residents they plan to scale back spending and return money to taxpayers.

"We're going to do whatever we can to lower the millage rate and make government affordable," Bartell said at the beginning of the hearing.

Elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area, St. Petersburg's City Council heard from many angry residents on Thursday night, but refused to lower the previously agreed upon millage rate.

In Tampa, the City Council agreed to a minor cut in the rate, the first decrease in two decades.