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Many voters misguided on Amendment 1
Set your assumptions aside and take a closer look at the facts, the property appraiser urges.
By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
Published January 27, 2008
Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek wants voters to read up before they vote Tuesday.
BROOKSVILLE -- Splashed across prime-time television screens, Gov. Charlie Crist urges voters to say "yes" and lower their taxes.
Residents weary of taxes, insurance and gasoline prices are mesmerized by the message, even if they don't know all the details of Amendment 1 on Tuesday's primary election ballot.
At stake is the choice between the strong public push for tax reform and the loss of millions of dollars in tax revenue that currently fuel services provided by Hernando County and the city of Brooksville, as well as educational dollars that build schools, buy buses and pay teachers.
While there has been little organized effort on either side of the issue locally, statewide the governor and various business interests have urged passage in hopes of spurring the economy and providing tax relief.
Groups from the public sector have urged a "no" vote to preserve public safety and other government-provided services, as well as to protect education funding.
Hernando County Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek has heard all the arguments. In recent weeks, he has spoken to various community groups, and he hears the rhetoric repeated back to him regularly.
What he hasn't heard is a lot of understanding by residents of just what Amendment 1 would mean for Hernando County. He said he wants voters to be informed before casting their ballots.
Much of the confusion surrounds the assertion that Amendment 1 "doubles the homestead exemption," Mazourek said.
Actually, it can add another $25,000 for homesteaded properties valued at more than $75,000, but not on the portion of the tax bill that pays for schools, which is about half the typical tax bill. Properties valued under $50,000 would see no additional exemption.
Hernando County has about 7,700 homes that don't meet the $50,000-or-above value at which the added exemption kicks in. Across the county, there are about 75,000 homes, and about 53,000 are owner-occupied, or homesteaded.
Mazourek said residents should understand that how they vote will have consequences and that some government services could be reduced or cut if the required 60 percent of voters approve the amendment statewide.
Reaction to that idea has been mixed, Mazourek said. Some people voice concern about losing services while others point out that they don't use the services and would not miss some of them.
"We're trying to do the best we can to inform these people," Mazourek said.
Big hit to the budget
Local government officials are watching Tuesday's vote carefully. Approval of the measure will send all of them back to their budgets to make some significant cuts in spending for the 2008-09 fiscal year.
Using available preliminary estimates, passage of the amendment could cost Hernando County government $7-million next budget year.
In Brooksville, the price could surpass $163,000. Hernando school officials anticipate that passage of the amendment could cost $13.2-million over the next five years.
No plan is yet in place for trimming Hernando County's budget, according to George Zoettlein, director of the county office of management and budget.
Last year's state-mandated reforms, plus tax reductions voted on by the County Commission, reduced the county's overall budget by about $9-million.
County officials have been warning that additional tax revenue cuts could bring some tough choices later this year because some costs cannot be easily reduced without affecting services.
"We've still got our jail contract to pay for. We still have our public safety to provide," Zoettlein said.
Brooksville officials are continuing to look at a variety of cost-cutting measures. The City Council will soon consider consolidating the city's emergency dispatching with the Hernando sheriff's for a savings of about $200,000, according to City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha.
The city is also considering contracting out some of its human resources functions and could make some changes in its sanitation program. City jobs that come open continue to be scrutinized as well, Norman-Vacha said.
While the governor has said schools would be insulated from much of the impact of Amendment 1, Deborah Bruggink, chief financial officer for Hernando County schools, has her doubts.
Numbers she has seen could put losses at more than $3-million in capital dollars for building and maintaining schools and another $10-million for operating expenses over the next five years.
"That's certainly going to change the way you do business," Bruggink said.
While there is a line item in Crist's proposed budget to replace the lost money for schools, it's millions of dollars less than what is estimated will be lost. It is not a sure thing that the line item will survive the budget process, Bruggink said, and it is not promised into the future.
Add to that the fact that the 2008-09 school year is when schools must meet class size requirements at the classroom level, rather than by school or district average. Each new teacher adds more than $50,000 in the cost of salaries and benefits to the district's budget.
Bruggink said any cuts that must be made would likely be in support services, rather than in the classroom.
"You're going to try to do it as far away from the classroom as you can," she said. "Ultimately, you have to provide the education for the kids."