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Budget surplus to aid repaving

Property tax relief is proposed, but one commissioner warns the surplus is less than 5 percent of the budget.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- Hernando County residents will get relief in the area of roads and perhaps taxes from a $2.9-million surplus discovered when closing the books on fiscal 1999.

The county's high-demand residential road repaving program won $1-million of the find, boosting its total to $4.2-million this year. Commissioners also directed the administration to take advantage of the surplus this year by planning to reduce the property tax rate by as much as 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value next year.

For the owner of a $75,000 house with a $25,000 homestead exemption, that would mean a reduction of $12.50 in property taxes if the home were assessed at the same value as the previous year. However, that amount could be reduced or erased if the assessment increases. Also, the county rate does not include taxes set by the School Board, municipalities or special tax districts.

The administration might be able to make the rate reduction work if it is planned in advance rather than pushed at the last minute, Commissioner Nancy Robinson said, taking a dig at Chairman Paul Sullivan's eleventh-hour attempt to cut the rate a year ago.

Commissioner Bobbi Mills agreed, adding that the surplus came to less than 5 percent of the 1998-99 budget, so major cuts might not be wise.

"We actually came out really tight," Mills said. "There's not much playing room."

Commissioners spent less than 15 minutes discussing the surplus, which caused consternation a week ago when it first came to them as a consent agenda item. They postponed their consideration to this week, saying the item should be part of the publicly advertised agenda and not tucked into the consent agenda, which generally gets limited discussion.

They focused Tuesday on funneling as much money as possible into the repaving program, which several residents clamored for in public comments and in private correspondence to the commission. County Administrator Paul McIntosh originally recommended putting an extra $500,000 toward the roads but said the Department of Public Works realistically could handle up to $1-million more of work.

"Anything beyond that could not be completed before the rainy season begins, making it difficult to complete road work beyond that amount," McIntosh said in a memo to the commission. He reiterated that point during the discussion.

To get to that total, the commission deleted $402,000 that was originally recommended for a new Animal Control center. It pledged instead to set that amount aside in its budget next year, a change that Deputy Administrator Dick Radacky said should not hurt plans to begin building by August.

The commission also peeled $125,000 off the $450,000 that McIntosh had suggested be set aside for expected legal bills from outside counsel Bruce Snow. McIntosh said the bills likely could be renegotiated.

Several commissioners raised concerns that Snow's bills were piling up and said they wanted all invoices scrutinized and then the appropriate payments made. Commissioner Pat Novy said she had raised questions about Snow's bills more than a year ago with little result, and Robinson said the outstanding fees should have been settled months ago.

The rest of the $2.9-million will be spent as follows: $1.1-million for an emergency services communication tower, $400,000 for emergency services contingency, $25,000 for protective barriers in the government center, $10,738 for health services, $325,000 for legal services, and the remainder for general contingencies and cash flow.

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