Plan sets separated tax to pay for sheriff

No additional tax is coming. Rather, the existing general fund tax would be split.

Published February 22, 2007

Diane Rowden's dubious theory goes like this: that people wouldn't mind paying taxes if they knew how the government was spending their money.

To make tax bills more "transparent," the second-term commissioner proposed splitting the County Commission's largest tax between the board and the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.

That doesn't mean county property owners won't foot the $30-million tab for the Sheriff's Office. Instead, the county would create a separate tax to pay for it.

"When it comes to the budget issue, I really, truly believe we could be more accountable to the public if they could see the whole pie, and the pieces, and how they fit together," Rowden said.

She quickly emphasized her respect for Sheriff Richard Nugent and said any change will require his input and approval.

Nugent warily said he had serious concerns, and that he needed more details. "The taxpayers are paying for it no matter what. To me, it's a shell game."

The possible change will be discussed at Tuesday's meeting.

Last year, the County Commission faced angry crowds demanding tax cuts, mirroring protests across the state. Rowden said much of the criticism heaped on County Commissioners is unfair. The board, by state law, has to fund constitutional officers like the sheriff but has little control over their budgets.

Her plan could cut the county's general fund tax rate nearly in half. To pay for the sheriff, a new tax category would be added.

County Administrator Gary Kuhl said, "I think it's really about accountability and the fact that our county commissioners are being held accountable for something they don't have authority over."

Property owners pay a handful of different millage rates set by the County Commission, School Board and other agencies. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of taxable assessed value.

The general fund millage - the County Commission's largest - is 6.74 mills. It pays for staff salaries, roads, building projects, as well as the five constitutional officers, explained county budget director George Zoettlein. It generated more than $63-million last year.

The Sheriff's Office consumed $30-million, the equivalent of 3.125 mils, Zoettlein said.

Rowden said a split would help the County Commission control its budget, and make the sheriff more directly accountable to the public for his costs. But, she said, no county commissioner plans to micromanage the sheriff or to use the split as an excuse to increase general fund taxes.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352754-6127.