Remember a few weeks ago, when I dazzled readers with a running diary during the Ozello glampground public hearing?
OK, well maybe I’m the only one who remembers the “dazzled” part, but I do recall that we all enjoyed this spontaneous writing style.
So, I figured, the final County Commission budget hearing is an excellent time to roll it out again.
For one thing, the kind of crowd I’d expect on a proposed 18% tax increase didn’t show up. No crowd showed up. I counted three people who didn’t work for the government in attendance. Did folks not get their TRIM notices?
I read Sound Off and Citrus County residents gripe about their property taxes. It’s what we do. Logic follows that more than a few would show up to give commissioners what-for on such a huge tax bump.
But they didn’t and that kind of shot my diary idea out of the air. I tried doing it with just the few folks who complained and the board debate that followed, but it read like a diary of my loser high school days.
“6:22 p.m.: 16% of spending gives the county enough reserves to survive two months in an emergency with no money coming in. To secure 45 days would require 12% of spending set aside for reserves. Doesn’t answer the question about the bond rating, though.”
See what I mean?
Falling back to an old standby, random thoughts:
— This was the first budget for the current board makeup and County Administrator Steve Howard. It went…OK. There wasn’t much talk about community priorities and I didn’t hear a thing about strategic planning.
Commissioner Rebecca Bays, the 30,000-foot thinker on the board, said she hopes the county starts planning five years ahead during the budget process. With population and growth trends, Bays rightly reasons the county should be able to accurately forecast expenses and tax revenue.
And for all the rhetoric of the last two weeks about last-minute cuts — “We’re going to take an icepick and a scalpel to the budget,” Howard said — the opposite happened. Not only were there no significant cuts from the tentative hearing two weeks ago, the county added expenses by accelerating the rollout of a pay plan and increasing the road resurfacing budget more than expected.
The result is a 17.8% property tax increase. That is a mighty, mighty number.
— Commissioners Diana Finegan and Jeff Kinnard voted against the tax increase.
Both were opposed to the pay bump which sets the minimum county hourly pay at $14.50. Kinnard said the board had agreed to a three-step process to bring minimum hourly pay to $15 — first $13, then $14.50, then $15 — and moving the second step up a year adds $900,000 that commissioners didn’t count on.
Finegan also said instead of a tax increase, the county could take money just this one time from reserves. That’s millions of dollars just sitting there! Her suggestion seemed to have some support but Kinnard pointed out it’s not only bad policy, but also misleading to taxpayers.
“To give the illusion we’re saving the public money is not the way to do this,” he said.
— Supposedly, this is the last of the big tax hikes. Supposedly, a nice friendlier way to fuel the government is coming down the road.
The county hired a consultant to tell commissioners how they can bring in the same amount of money in different ways. County governments began this trend about 20 years ago to combat the growing number of exemptions that left many properties completely off the tax rolls. Annual fees, which generally have no exemptions, tied directly to specific services are the way to go.
I certainly hope more goes into this than just bait-and-switch. The last time the county tried this — remove a tax, replace it with a fee — citizens saw their stormwater rates go through the roof and the county’s standing in the community took an unnecessary beating.
Any conversation about taxes, fees, and the like, without taking our community’s makeup into play, is just babbling about money.
— Chairman Ruthie Davis Schlabach, summing up the budget process: “We need to take care of our employees and we need to take care of our roads. And we need to make sure citizens are taken care of.”
That about takes care of it. Enjoy your day, friends.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.