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Commission shies from tax

Commissioners have mostly abandoned the idea of a 1-cent sales tax, proposed in February, as several of them explore other ways of paying for big projects.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001


INVERNESS -- The idea came out with a bang in February, when commissioners first discussed the possibility of a 1-cent sales tax increase to pay for utility projects, a new radio system for the sheriff and perhaps a new high school.

But the talk of a tax increase has faded to a whimper over the past few months, as several commissioners have quietly explored other ways of paying for the county's needs.

"Sometimes it's too easy for the government to say let's do that (raise taxes), rather than look at the creative ways that we have to do it in the private sector," said Commissioner Josh Wooten, who owns a used car dealership in Hernando.

While the school system weighs its own options, individual commissioners have been looking into the possibilities of raising county utility fees, increasing law enforcement impact fees or scaling back county projects.

The chances that the commission would back a sales-tax proposal at this point are distant, if not dead.

"I don't see us moving forward with any tax," Commission Chairman Roger Batchelor said last week.

"I think we are going to have to just look at other ways we might be able to come up with funds needed on a piecemeal basis," he said. "I'm not going to support any sales tax referendum at this point, and I'm not going to support any (Municipal Service Benefit Unit or Municipal Service Taxing Unit). I think it would just be a negative impact on the citizens of this county, and I don't see that happening."

At their goal-setting session in February, commissioners asked staff to estimate how much money could be raised under several taxing options and present the information at a workshop. County Administrator Richard Wesch sent an April 19 memo to commissioners showing that:

A 1-cent sales tax increase would raise $7.3-million a year.

A Municipal Service Benefit Unit that taxed each property $25 a year would raise $3.75-million annually.

A Municipal Service Taxing Unit that levied a one-third mill on every property would raise $1.7-million a year.

But Wesch said he got the impression from individual commissioners that there was no need for a workshop to discuss any of these taxing options further.

"While I'm hesitant to speak on behalf of the commissioners, probably the sense of public opinion they have been gleaning since the goal-setting session on an additional tax and other levies has led them away from that course of action," Wesch said.

The public response to the sales tax idea ran the gamut. The editorial board of the Citrus County Chronicle endorsed a sales-tax increase early on, while the two dozen civic groups represented by the Citrus County Council said they could not support a sales tax unless commissioners exhausted all other funding options first.

Voters shot down proposed 1-cent increases in 1992 and 1997 referendums, and commissioners knew it wouldn't be an easy sell the third time around.

Back in February, Commissioner Jim Fowler suggested broadening the tax's appeal by giving half of the revenue to the county for its utility projects and splitting the other half between the sheriff and the School Board.

Fowler has been on vacation for the past two weeks and could not be reached for comment on his views now.

But his fellow commissioners have said that even if the revenue were shared with the sheriff and the schools, most voters would be reluctant to support a tax increase.

"I was never completely convinced that this sales tax thing would go over. We all know what's happened in the past," Batchelor said. "The possibility of adding the schools and the sheriff might have given us maybe a little more support than we've had in the past, but I'm not at all certain that could be sold to the public."

"There are other revenue sources we probably ought to look at," Commissioner Gary Bartell added. "It's a delicate balance between providing all the services the citizens of this county want and doing what the citizens can afford."

Commissioner Vicki Phillips said she also supports looking at other revenue sources first, such as revisiting the 12-year-old county utility rates and increasing the 1988 law enforcement impact fee. But Phillips said that doesn't take taxpayers off the hook; it just changes the way they would be charged.

"The bottom line is, it doesn't matter what you call it, it's going to be a tax, and the taxpayers are going to be the ones to pay for it," Phillips said.

Although the projects on the table come with considerable price tags -- $44.5-million in utility projects, $14.5-million in requested projects from the sheriff, and at least $30-million if a new high school is needed -- commissioners believe they can spread the cost of those projects over the coming years without turning to a new tax for an influx of cash.

"If I thought public safety or education was in jeopardy, I would advocate a sales tax," Wooten said. "But I'm not convinced of that yet."

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