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THE ISSUE: The county budget.
OUR OPINION: Pushing problem down the road.
Citrus County taxpayers will not see a big cut in services this next year.
And most won’t see any increase in their property tax bill.
Despite the collective despair expressed earlier in the budget year by county officials, the decrease in the taxable value of property will not create critical shortfalls.
Instead of cutting services, the county will be able to balance its budget by using some of its reserves; accessing some legal funds not needed at this time; and raising the millage rate.
Since this is an election year, County Administrator Brad Thorpe’s plan will inevitably be called a tax increase by challengers. But it is not.
The county will actually spend less money next year than it is spending this year. According to Thorpe’s report, the county’s spending will drop from $234 million in the current fiscal year to $222 million next year.
The taxable value of property in the county decreased 3.7 percent over the past 12 months. Because of that, the millage rate levied against the taxable value was increased from 6.9 mills to 7.1 mills to raise basically the same amount of tax dollars.
The only residents and businesses that will see their taxes rise are the lucky few whose property has not lost value as quickly as the average property owner.
While we understand the tax formula, most of the politicians in the county spent a decade ignoring our warning that they were drastically raising taxes while keeping the millage rate flat. When property values were soaring, county government was reaping millions of new dollars each year and the politicians smugly told taxpayers that they were holding down spending. They weren’t.
Instead, they were acting like drunken sailors with their newfound riches.
Now they are suffering from the reverse trend; decreasing property values means a higher millage number is needed to raise the same amount of funds.
In their defense, most of the elected officials and administrators today were not sitting in the same seats six years ago when the problem was being ignored.
Going forward, the moving of funds will help the county avoid program catastrophe in the near term. But there does not seem to be any reason to believe the trend of decreasing property values will stop. Unless there is a significant change in the state’s stalled economy, the county has just delayed by one year the inevitable. As our elected officials move to approve this year’s flat budget, they should begin plans to look at the reductions that will be necessary in the following year.
You can only raid reserves and legal funds so long before you run out of money.
There are services provided by the county that are a luxury and should be stopped. It will take some strong leadership to identify those cuts — because every service supported by a tax has a constituency that will complain about reductions.
The larger dilemma facing the county involves the nuclear plant at the Duke (Progress Energy) site near Crystal River. If the new owners at Duke decide to decommission the nuclear plant, Citrus County will face an economic disaster.
Hundreds of residents will lose their jobs; unoccupied homes will flood the market; and the decreased value of the Crystal River energy site will create a huge tax dollar shortfall that will be felt in every town in our community.
County officials need to look to the future and recognize that the basic structure of what government now does is going to have to change. Those are tough choices and cannot be kicked down the road forever.