BROOKSVILLE - County commissioners held their first of two budget hearings Tuesday and tentatively approved a $386 million budget for fiscal year 2013-14 and a general fund tax rate of 6.91 mills.
That is down from what was proposed two weeks ago when the board was considering a 7.0 mill hike. But it is still an increase from the current general fund tax rate of 5.9 mills and, unless it is lowered at the second and final meeting Sept. 24, would mean the average taxpayer will see just under a 5 percent increase on their annual tax bill, assuming the value of their home remained the same.
A mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 in taxable value.
Commissioners said the tax hike was necessary to help close a $9.2 million shortfall.
County Commissioner Wayne Dukes said it makes more sense to reduce the size of government instead of passing the problem along to taxpayers who are trying to make ends meet in a down economy.
"I'm a little bit concerned," Dukes said.
Dukes said he was upset that the elected constitutional officers and department heads did not reduce their budgets enough to make up the deficit.
County Commissioner Diane Rowden said government has cut as deep as it can without compromising resident services.
The board considered a variety of revenue-raising options Tuesday and once again instructed the elected constitutionals to take a harder look at their submitted 2013-14 budgets between now and Sept. 24.
Assistant County Administrator for Budget and Business Development George Zoettlein said using reserves to prop up the budget is no longer feasible because they are depleted.
He said the board can no longer rely on cash reserves because the county has depleted them to balance previous budgets and are now at bare minimum.
The county has bottomed out on its balance forward cash, he said.
A severe drop in property values again put county commissioners in a bind. More than 71 percent of parcels in Hernando County have property values of $50,000 or less.
The county has cut its personnel in half since 2008 and now has about 180 employees. The board has been resistant to lopping off any more jobs for fear of compromising services.
In his budget memo to county commissioners, County Administrator Len Sossamon said these are challenging times for Hernando County and it is essential to implement his recently completed long-term strategic plan for growth.
"All areas of government must be focused on in the same direction and work together to ensure that the county stays on the approved track," he wrote.
During this next fiscal year, Hernando County "is faced with the ever-increasing costs associated with doing business, such as rising insurance costs, fuel prices and increased commodities prices," Sossamon wrote.
Hernando County, he said, has limited funding resources and, like most governments, "must continue to review programs and services for efficiency and necessity."
The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
The final budget hearing will be held at 5:01 p.m. Sept. 24 at the Hernando County Government Center, 20 N. Main St. in downtown Brooksville.