Attended the County Commission budget public hearing Thursday evening, because that’s what I do.
The public part of these meetings is usually somewhat predictable. When taxes are going up, folks complain. When they are kept in line, the public tends to stay home content.
I expected the former. Property taxes are rising 13.6%, a pretty hefty jump after eight years of little or no increases.
Politics showed up instead, in the form of a sheriff who, for some reason, decided to keep the foot on the pedal against commissioners after they pretty much promised him much of what he wanted just a month ago.
His ploy fell flat. Commissioners, who may have engaged in debate about taxes had the public complained, instead united and were even a little insulted that Sheriff Mike Prendergast would try such a maneuver.
“It seems like there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Chairman Ron Kitchen Jr. said in the understatement of the night.
I don’t want to get too much into the weeds here. I think you get the drift.
The tax increase includes hefty pay raises for sheriff’s deputies and 911 dispatchers. Once the sheriff fills vacant positions, he can ask the county commission for more.
They negotiated all this in July. Why the sheriff thought it necessary to keep beating the drum is a mystery, other than he has a well-earned reputation in Citrus County as someone who does not play well with others.
Prendergast’s challenge is that he doesn't really have an advocate on the County Commission, like former Sheriff Jeff Dawsy had with then-Commissioner Joe Meek, for example. Those two thought alike, they were friends, and Dawsy could usually count on Meek’s support.
Prendergast doesn’t have that now, though that’s likely to change. Not-Quite-Yet-Commissioner-Elect Diana Finegan attended and sat with the sheriff’s folks. Unlike the July meeting, Finegan did not offer her views on the matter.
But she’s clearly in the sheriff’s camp. Her campaign literature featured photos of Finegan posing with uniformed sheriff’s deputies. She spoke up on the sheriff’s behalf in July.
Prendergast had no such Finegan on the commission at the time, so the pleas of his followers for more money fell on, well, I wouldn’t call it deaf ears because, as Kitchen pointed out, they already had this chat six weeks ago.
So Thursday’s budget hearing was less traditional — “Don’t raise my taxes!” — and more political — “Don’t raise my taxes but give the sheriff what he wants!”
Other thoughts from my notes:
—”Not a full room.” Anytime a tax hearing doesn’t result in dozens of people yelling at them, it’s a good day for commissioners. Thursday was a good day.
— “Diana didn’t speak.” Barring a fiasco, she’ll be in office in November. It would have been nice to hear her suggestions on how to give the sheriff more funds without raising taxes.
— “13 percent over rollback.” Let me explain about rollback. Property taxes are based on a math formula that combines the millage with the taxable value of your house. Rollback is the millage they would need to bring in the exact same amount of money.
It’s called a rollback because taxable property values generally go up every year, meaning more money coming in even if the tax rate stays the same.
So 13% over rollback is, essentially, a 13% tax increase. The fact that no one showed up to complain is an encouraging sign that maybe the public is trusting this county commission some, particularly with two new commissioners coming on board.
That’s my tax report. The final public hearing is Sept. 27. Set your clocks.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.