Hillsborough: Spending climbed, but is it frivolous?

As real estate values have risen, local governments have enjoyed climbing property tax income. Lawmakers in Tallahassee say they’ve overspent. Cities and counties say they’ve met their constituents’ needs. A Times analysis looks at just where Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa have spent your tax money.

Published April 15, 2007

TAMPA -- Hillsborough County commissioners bill themselves as penny-pinchers, regularly bragging about cutting property tax rates for 14 consecutive years.

But a St. Petersburg Times analysis shows that Hillsborough has increased spending on a far greater scale than its neighbors, thanks to skyrocketing property values that outpaced tax rate cuts.

Those neighbors: Pinellas County and the cities of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa.

In fact, among those governments only Hillsborough County spent more than twice as fast as the population and inflation grew from 2000 to 2005. The pace continues.

"I hope this serves as a wakeup call to the entire board that we have got to focus on being better stewards of the public's tax dollars," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair, who helped push for the board's largest-ever millage rollback last year.

The property tax windfall has enabled unprecedented expansion of some government programs and departments. County leaders say they are simply trying to keep up with residents' unrelenting demand for more parks, more fire stations, more everything.

"In order to be responsive to the citizens, it costs," said County Administrator Pat Bean. "This county is making a concerted effort to be fiscally considerate of our taxpayers and fiscally responsible."

Law enforcement illustrates some of the challenges. The Sheriff's Office, by far the county's biggest expense, has been adding roughly 22 patrol deputies every year, as well as school resource officers, court bailiffs and jail guards to deal with overcrowding. Spending has increased 77 percent between 2000 and 2007, to $348.3-million.

Staffing ratios for patrol deputies already lag national averages, said Chief Deputy Joe Docobo. And the office is losing ground on reaching that target.

The sheriff is planning to add 63 patrol deputies each of the next five years. By law, commissioners must give him the money he requests.

"The sheriff certainly understands his obligation is twofold," Docobo said. "It's to be a good steward of the public's money and at same time providing them a safe environment to live."

Commissioners do have control over what they spend on firefighting and emergency rescue. And they have been particularly aggressive on that front.

The community investment tax, a sales tax passed by voters in 1996, plus a new communications tax on things like cell phones, is helping pay for two new fire stations a year after studies showed woeful emergency response times. Property taxes largely cover salaries, and a fully equipped fire station, with fire engine and ambulance, requires 21 people to operate around the clock. Price tag: $2.2-million annually.

Costs have climbed 55 percent for each full-time employee countywide, thanks to generous raises and sharp spikes for health insurance. Each Fire Rescue employee now costs 69 percent more with pay and benefits than seven years ago, at about $100,000.

"We have to stay competitive in the job market," Chief Bill Nesmith said, explaining the increased pay and perks.

Money also goes to staff new places to play. From 2000 to 2005, the county opened or expanded more than two dozen parks or recreational programs, helping propel the need for 58 new hires. The parks operating budget, which comes mainly from property taxes, is about $49-million this year.

"These are facilities that the public is demanding and continues to demand," said parks, recreation and conservation director Mark Thornton. "And as soon as we build these facilities, we're at capacity."

New buildings mean bigger utility bills that are rising for everyone. New fields need to be mowed. New offices need phones and computers, and the costs to keep them all humming comes substantially from property taxes.

The budget for the county real estate department, which pays most of the utility bills, oversees construction projects and helps maintain them when they are built, rose 74 percent from 2000 to 2005. Information technology spending is expected to reach $25.7-million this year, up 136 percent since 2000.

The county is setting aside $25-million in property taxes for transportation work that it didn't spend in 2000. It's also spending millions more than before to repair roofs, replace ballfield lights and do other maintenance.

"I think there was a recognition on the part of the administration, the public and the board that we needed to take care of our existing assets," said Mike Kelly, director of real estate. "In fact, that ought to be a bigger priority before we build new stuff."

The county estimates that it will pay for up to $70-million annually in requirements from the state. And it has experienced triple-digit increases in insurance and pension costs since 2000. They are projected this year to run a combined $63.6-million from the general fund, where most property taxes flow. And that figures excludes costs for 3,488 Sheriff's Office employees.

Still, Commission Chairman Jim Norman says, the county must do more to ease the burden on taxpayers beyond modest rate cuts. He won board approval to tie future spending to population and inflation growth.

He also is scheduling a discussion of possible cuts.

"I recognize the problem, hearing the outcry from the public, and I'm working to address it," Norman said. "There are going to be some tough choices."

Had his cap been in place this year, it would shaved $35-million from county spending.

Times researchers John Martin and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.