NEW PORT RICHEY - Pasco commissioners got an earful Tuesday from taxpayers opposed to a proposed county budget that calls for an 8-percent property tax hike plus a 5-cent gas tax increase.
Commissioners said their email inboxes are also overflowing since County Administrator Michele Baker presented her $1.6 billion budget. The budget includes the higher gas tax, though commissioners have not voted on it yet, and raises for county employees. State mandated retirement increases added $4 million to the budget.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to set the combined fire and millage rate at 8.9 mills - nearly 8-percent higher than the current tax rate. A mill equates to $1 per $1,000 of taxable value.
Commissioner Henry Wilson voted against the millage rate, though he supported raising the fire tax rate. "I still think there are ways we can be more efficient," he said.
Assistant County Administrator Heather Grimes said the higher tax rate would cost the owner of a $150,000 home with homestead exemption an additional $66 a year. Commissioners can reduce it further before the final adoption in late September, but they can not increase the rate again.
Peter Hanzel implored the commissioners not to raise taxes at all. "Pasco is a great place to live and it's kind of like living in paradise," he said. "But I see this big dark cloud on the horizon and that cloud is higher taxes."
Julann Roe said the increases were unreasonable. "I do not feel obligated to pay for any wage increase for any county employee," she said. "I do not feel obligated to pay for your retirement, either. Save your own money for your own retirement."
"The public is not your slush fund," she continued. "Stay within your means because we don't want anymore taxes."
A few speakers supported the plan to give employees their first raises in six years, some even said they'd be willing to pay higher taxes. But Chairman Ted Schrader said the overwhelming public response was opposed to higher taxes.
He suggested making a few changes to the budget - utilizing reserves to pay the one-time $540,000 expenses for merging the county's emergency 911 operations with the sheriff's office and cities of Dade City and New Port Richey.
Schrader also said the county should anticipate that the Pasco Tax Collector's Office would not be in a position next year to buy property or start construction of new offices in central and east Pasco. Longtime Tax Collector Mike Olson, who died suddenly in June, had planned to build the new offices in 2014. He had notified commissioners that he would be returning roughly $1 million in excess funds to the county, rather than the $3.5 million he returned in previous years.
Gov. Rick Scott has not appointed a successor to Olson yet. Schrader said the new tax collector may choose a different course of action. Even if the new tax collector follows through on Olson's plan, it's unlikely he or she would be in a position to spend the money before the Oct. 30 deadline.
"It's my understanding that unless the tax collector has contracts or plans to spend that money, by law it has to be returned to the county," Schrader said. "The difference is $2.5 million. I think we need to write the tax collector's office and demand they return that money to the county."
He said those two items would allow the county to trim $3 million from the budget, but acting Tax Collector Eileen Ferdinand said Schrader's estimate is a bit high. "In my estimate, at most I expect the excess fees to be $3.2 million," she wrote in a letter to Schrader Tuesday afternoon.
Joe Russo, vice president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 4420, said he was disappointed that commissioners unanimously adopted the fire millage since it only includes funding to give firefighters a 1.5-percent pay raise. All other county employees would get 3 percent raises.
The county and union are in the middle of wage negotiations. "We are not going to accept anything that gives us less than other county employees," Russo said.