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Citizens push for lower tax rate

A proposed budget calls for an increase of 5.3 percent. A final public hearing is set for Sept. 25.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001


DADE CITY -- Pasco County residents who attended a budget hearing Monday night offered some words of advice for their elected officials: Take the belt in a few notches.

The response from county commissioners appeared to reassure much of the crowd: Give us two weeks and we'll shed a few inches.

About 30 people attended the 45-minute budget hearing in Dade City that outlined the $530-million county spending plan to take effect Oct. 1.

County budgeteers propose raising the property tax rate from 9.13 mills to 9.614 mills, or $9.61 for every $1,000 of assessed property.

The owner of a $100,000 home, minus the $25,000 homeowner's exemption, would see his taxes increase from $685 this year to $721 next year. That's an increase of 5.3 percent.

It was that advertised tax increase that drew the ire of several speakers at the hearing. Typical was the opinion of Marvin Carter.

A Zephyrhills retiree, Carter wondered why the county couldn't live on the 1 percent to 2.5 percent increase in living expenses he alloted himself.

"Everybody else seems to need 10 percent to 100 percent," Carter told county commissioners.

George Kelley, who lives in rural Dade City, questioned what he was getting for his taxes. He said ambulances, fire trucks and other county services are thin on the ground in his part of east Pasco.

"Yet we are taxed at the same rate of people who are living in Wesley Chapel," Kelley said.

Buoyed by a tax base that grew about $1-billion this year to nearly $11-billion, Pasco is expected to collect more than $9-million in new property taxes next year. But as county officials took pains to explain Monday night, higher spending will consume all of that. And then some.

Big increases proposed for 2001-2002 include a $3.4-million hike for the Sheriff's Office and across-the-board 5 percent raises for county employees.

Keeping the tax rate the same will require trimming about $7-million from the budget. Commissioners assured residents that further cutting of the budget will continue until the final public hearing, in New Port Richey on Sept. 25.

Commissioners already agreed to delay spending $2-million to buy new voting machines, a purchase forced upon Pasco when the state decertified punch-card voting.

"This rate will be as close to the existing rate as possible," Commissioner Pete Altman assured Tuesday's crowd.

People such as David Rowan of New Port Richey will be watching to make sure commissioners keep their word.

Rowan pointed out that with the economy slowing, inflation at 2.4 percent and interest rates falling, the county would be hard-pressed to justify large spending hikes.

"What I'm asking for is some more fiscal responsibility on behalf of the board," Rowan said.

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