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Reserves tapped to alleviate tax increase in first of two county budget hearings

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On Sept. 12, 2023, the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) hosted the first of two budget hearings. At the county commissioners’ meeting in late July, the BOCC set the maximum millage rate for the General Fund to 6.9912 for fiscal year 2023-2024. The result was a zero increase in millage from the previous year. The motion passed 4-1, with all but County Commissioner Jerry Campbell approving it. The final public budget hearing will take place on Sept. 26 at 5:01 pm. 

What exactly is a mill? Simply put, a mill is equal to 1 dollar of tax for every 1,000 dollars of a property’s assessed value. The millage rate is determined by the taxable value of said property.

At times during the meeting, impassioned pleas were made in an effort to decide the best course of action when deciding the budget. Throughout the meeting, it became clear that board members and citizens did not want the budget to balloon any further. The question became how to do that. Unsurprisingly, it was an arduous, time-consuming discussion. The hearing lasted over four hours between the board’s deliberations, citizen input, the hour-long recess, and the final decision.

During the hearing, Hernando County Budget Director Toni Brady presented a budget that included an 11.66 percent increase in taxes with a 6.9912 millage rate as well as the tentative Five-Year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for fiscal year 2024-2028. Following various discussions between the board members and citizens, the decision was ultimately made to reduce the budget by .2915 mills, resulting in a 6.6997 millage rate for the General Fund. 

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“The General Fund includes the Clerk of Court, Property Appraiser, Sheriff’s Office, Supervisor of Elections, Tax Collector, and programs and services provided by the BOCC such as emergency management, animal services, parks and recreation, facilities management, libraries, health and human services, economic development, veterans services, code enforcement, planning, zoning, extension services, administration, and more,” stated a press release from the Hernando County Government.

As a result, 8.6429 is the proposed total millage rate for fiscal year 2023-2024, as that is the rate used to calculate Hernando County’s property tax. The historical millage rate has been decreasing every year following 2019 and would continue to do so under the proposed budget. Despite the millage decrease, tax revenues are increasing as the rollback rate is 8.0033. The rollback rate refers to the rate that would produce revenue equal to the previous year’s rate.  

Last year’s property tax levy yielded $114,465,010. Under the proposed rates approved on Sept. 12, the expected yield is $128,400,080.

After the original proposed budget was shown to raise taxes, County Commissioner Steve Champion and other board members delved into what could possibly be cut to mitigate increases in other areas. One such cutting discussion revolved around the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO). As the proposed budget accounted for an increase of $8.1 million for the HCSO, Hernando County’s Sheriff, Al Nienhuis, came before the board to emphasize the importance of maintaining this raise for the good of the county and his office. According to the sheriff, HCSO has over 200 fewer deputies employed per capita at his office than in most other counties in Florida, and his employees work long hours because of this.

According to the 2022 Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Sheriff’s Office ratios, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office has 1.28 officers per 1000 people. Full-time officers employed by sheriff’s offices statewide are 1.68 officers per 1000 people. 

“We have about 1.3 deputies per 1,000 people,” Nienhuis stated in early 2023. “Currently, the average statewide is about two and a half deputies or police officers, depending on the jurisdiction per 1000 people. 

“So because we have 200,000 people in the county, we could actually add about 200 deputies and still be about average.”

However, the figure provided by FDLE is 2.42 law enforcement officers per 1,000 people, which includes all sheriff’s offices, police departments, state agencies, schools, and ports. 

The comparison of 1.3 HCSO deputies per 1000 people and 2.42 law enforcement per 1000 people is not a fair comparison to make since the latter statewide number includes all law enforcement, not just the sheriff’s office. 

If you look at the breakdown by county, Hernando is ranked 54 out of 67 counties. The nearby counties of Pasco (1.00) and Sumter (1.16) are lower, while Citrus (1.3) is higher.

In his letter to the Board, Sheriff Nienhuis cites minimum wage hikes, higher salary offers, hiring bonuses, historic inflation, and the county’s substantial growth rate for the need to increase personnel funding. The budget includes a major case sergeant, a major case detective, six patrol deputies, and a forensic technician. He states that impact fees will cover startup costs for these positions.

Mandated costs in his budget include retirement rate increases of $2,668,796, which is 3.84% of the budget increase from FY 2022-2023.  

While HCSO’s budget continues to grow, there has been some revenue generated from the auctioning of decommissioned Sheriff’s Office vehicles ($225,000); cost savings from the establishment of a digital forensics lab ($276,308); roughly $1 million in savings from 81,372 hours of labor by inmate work crews on projects throughout the county (calculated at $11 per hour plus FICA); over $3.4 million in revenue (Oct 2021-Sept 2022) from housing inmates from other jurisdictions, which pays for 23.5 positions to support jail operations.

“If I have to cut my proposed budget, which includes some raises for those people, we are sending a strong message to those individuals,” Sheriff Nienhuis said at the Sept. 12 Budget Hearing. “We will probably start losing those individuals. The reason that we can do such a good job is because we have very good people, the reason we are able to do it much less expensively than other counties in the state of Florida.”

During citizens’ input, citizens lobbied not to raise taxes and to lower taxes if possible. They implored board members to cut frivolous projects wherever possible and discussed grievances about taxes being raised on their properties for various reasons. Some of these examples included the raising of taxes due to their home’s location (such as Hernando Beach). Other property values were raised because homes in certain neighborhoods are being bought up by property “flippers.” One citizen was aggrieved because taxes on their home were raised due to these flipped houses simply existing near hers.

Proposals by both citizens and board members were not able to be adopted due to amounts being allocated to specific projects, among other reasons. Instead, they found another area to cut—the reserves. The minimum reserve rate is set at 18.5 percent, but the members wanted to keep the current rate of 25. The board eventually agreed to reduce reserves to 23 percent, but Commissioner John Allocco urged the rest of the board that they should work to raise the minimum reserve rate in the future.

“We have the power to fix this,” County Commissioner Steve Champion said. “We have the power to reduce the burden. I understand that we have wish lists. I understand that there’s needs in the community. There’s roads that need to be done. There are some things that need to happen, parks, etcetera. I get it, right? But, at the same time, this is not our money. This is their money.”

The board will reconvene for the second hearing on Tuesday, September 26, to finalize the budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year. For interested or concerned citizens who wish to follow along, the meeting will begin immediately after 5:00 PM and may be viewed live at www.HernandoCounty.us/WatchNow.

Board of County Commissioners Final Budget Hearing 9/26/2023  5:01 PM 

20 N. Main Street Brooksville ;John Law Ayers Commission Chambers, Room 160

Resources:

FDLE Statewide Ratios

HCSO Proposed Budget

FY 2024 Final Public Hearing Presentation

Rocco Maglio contributed to this report.

Austyn Szempruch
Austyn Szempruch
Austyn Szempruch is a Graduate with Distinction, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. He's written numerous articles reporting on Florida Gators football, basketball, and soccer teams; the sports of rugby, basketball, professional baseball, hockey, and the NFL Draft. Prior to Hernando Sun he was a contributor to ESPN, Gainesville, FL and Gator Country Multimedia, Inc. in Gainesville, FL, and Stadium Gale.
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