Tax hike is a test of political will
Let’s talk about taxes. As in, going up.
The county commission set a tentative tax rate Tuesday of 8.2458 mills, which is the math calculation that determines what someone pays in property taxes.
If commissioners stay the course, it’ll be the first significant increase in millage, other than cost of living, in at least 10 years. The rate will be the highest since 2017.
County commissioners, particularly Ron Kitchen Jr. and Scott Carnahan, are generally loath to raise taxes for any reason. I realize that’s popular but it’s not exactly smart planning.
The tax increase is directly tied to services that citizens say they want:
— EMS. When the county took over emergency medical services from Nature Coast EMS in 2021, it did so with a warning: This is going to cost more to operate. Well, here it is. The county is adding about $2.5 million in new taxes for EMS.
— $2.5 million for road resurfacing. Boy, there’s a big one. Every single year the county goes looking for loose change in the sofa to increase the miles of residential streets for resurfacing.
The idea here is to bump the millage each year for five years so that the county will raise enough annually to get the roads on a regular repaving cycle. Frankly, I have a bit of a hard time following this one, but that’s the nature of this residential road resurfacing gig.
By the way, expect commissioners to throw out the sales tax carrot-stick during budget public hearings in September. Commissioners and the staff talked Tuesday like a sales tax referendum was all but a done deal. It isn't. At all.
They’ll follow this approach: This property tax increase for roads will disappear if the sales tax is approved. See this for what it is: Politics, not policy. Commissioners are looking for an easy way out on this road repaving nightmare, and cramming a sales tax onto the 2024 ballot without any real thought about whether this is the best use of an extra penny tax is foolish.
That said, this property tax idea for roads seems like a smart move for the county, right? It should end the mish-mash funding plan to resurface neighborhood streets.
— Baker Act facility. It’s been near or at the top of our county priority list for the last five years. LifeStream has invested its own money and is lining up the state funding. This additional portion of the tax raises $1.2 million a year for the county buy-in.
— Sheriff’s pay raises. A very productive two-hour discussion Tuesday morning led to a compromise on the sheriff’s budget that all sides seemed happy to accept: Pay raises for sworn officers and emergency dispatchers, bringing their salaries competitive. And a pledge from commissioners to consider adding new sworn positions once the sheriff fills the 13 vacancies he now has.
Considering the heavy public pressure Sheriff Mike Prendergast placed on commissioners to pass his budget, one would think he’d be out trumpeting this plan. He basically got what he wanted, just not all of it right now.
(Click here for the PowerPoint that went with the budget discussion. Another stellar explanation from budget director Colleen Scott.)
There you have it. A tax increase broken into four areas that the public has shown a keen interest in supporting.
So the public will be totally onboard, right? Of course not!
This may be one of those, “great idea, bad timing” type of years. All four of those categories are top priority in the big scheme of things. But on an immediate level, so is inflation, grocery prices and recession talk. People are paying very close attention to what’s coming out of their bank account.
But we’ve got to separate rhetoric from reality. Unrelated to the budget, the county commission on Tuesday raised the Beverly Hills beautification MSBU from $9 to $15. That’s per year. A $6 annual increase.
The way some people talked, it sounded like the county was stealing medicine from Beverly Hills residents so that the street medians could look pretty. If we’ve got people with margins so tight that 50 cents a month pushes them over the edge, well, the county has a much larger problem.
We’ve got wants. We’ve got needs. It takes more money to pay for them. In the coming months, commissioners will learn which takes priority.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 35 years.