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Sky is falling, but spending isn't

Commissioners worry about tax rhetoric coming out of Tallahassee.

By DAVID DECAMP
Published February 25, 2007


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NEW PORT RICHEY - Taxpayers might be alarmed by what was not discussed at Tuesday's County Commission meeting.

The governor's tax-cut proposal would cost county government millions in annual revenue, commissioners were told.

Up on the dais, hand wringing began.

We'll have to raise property taxes.

Or cut services.

Commissioners complained about the state ordering counties to take over services without giving them any money to do it.

They lauded themselves for cutting the budget last year - even though what they really did was reduce the increase.

But at no time did any commissioner suggest that county government could be more efficient.

Commissioner Ted Schrader could have spoken for most of his colleagues when, days later, he told a reporter:

"I'd like someone to point out where the waste is," Schrader said.

That attitude chafed Republican activist Gary Willner of Trinity.

"The thing that bothered me," he said, "was they didn't talk about what they could cut."

For the record, Willner stood at the podium last year and lauded commissioners' handling of the budget.

* * *

Last week's discussion about the possible loss of property tax dollars comes after a decade in which county government enjoyed rapidly increasing revenue.

Since 1998, the county has collected 38 percent more per resident in property taxes. And, keeping in mind that property taxes are less than a fifth of this year's total budget the rest coming from sales and gas taxes, utility bills, impact fees and other fees county spending on a per capita basis has risen 76 percent during the decade. The Times adjusted both figures for inflation.

Gov. Charlie Crist's proposal to double the homestead exemption would reduce the county's $1.1-billion budget by less than 2 percent.

However, budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said the cut would be tough. Other county funds, such as impact fees, can only be spent in certain ways. The actual effect would be a 10 percent cut in the county's property tax revenue - the pot of money that pays for policing, libraries and maintaining parks.

Pasco also has been criticized for not investing enough to meet demands from growth. Now, commissioners said, the county could be hamstrung in its efforts to catch up.

All of which prompted the first reactions from county officials:

This could be DEVASTATING.

Commissioner Jack Mariano complained about the state mandates for the county to pay for courts and other justice programs. Mariano said he wants those to stop before a tax-cut plan could be supported.

"The cost of running a government and providing the services that people expect is very expensive," Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand said afterward, noting demands to add services like recycling have risen. "All those things cost money, and those costs have continued to go up."

Not so fast, says Florida TaxWatch. The Tallahassee group, generally regarded as fiscally conservative, found that local governments have raised taxes and money faster than personal income has increased.

TaxWatch spokesman Harvey Bennett said local officials have some legitimate fears that inequities among taxpayers would only shift under the governor's tax cut proposal.

But, Bennett said, their defense of their spending doesn't add up.

"Unfortunately, like kids in front of a Christmas tree, they've not seen three presents under the tree. They've seen six or seven," Bennett said. "Some of those things just aren't mission critical."

Pasco Republican Party Chairman Bill Bunting, who urged a deep tax rate cut for this year, echoed Willner.

But in a nod to the uncertainties of the effects, Bunting - a Crist fan - said he couldn't support doubling the homestead exemption without a guarantee that all homeowners would pay at least some taxes. He said he needed better projections of revenue given Pasco's growth.

In 2007, Pasco has budgeted to collect $180-million in property taxes, which is $29-million more than last year. Still - thanks to the Save Our Homes cap that limits the tax increases on primary residences - many homeowners will pay less in county taxes, not including property taxes for schools, special districts or mosquito control.

New construction and higher values on nonhomesteaded property - inequities Pasco officials cite in the tax proposals - helped allow the county to cut its tax rate and gather more money.

And there's another threat to the county's intake of property taxes.

Republican leaders in the Florida House have unveiled a plan that would ultimately end property taxes for homeowners and increase the sales tax 2.5 percentage points. The dent in Pasco's spending is uncertain, but the county would lose money.

Not that they are discussing how to efficiently do that - yet.

David DeCamp can be reached at (727) 869-6232 or ddecamp@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 24, 2007, 21:45:19]


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