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Final city budget hearing scheduled
Residents have one more chance to weigh in on tax rate increase
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LARGO – Residents will get one more chance to express their opinions on the proposed millage and budget for the next fiscal year Thursday, Sept. 20, 6 p.m., at City Hall.

The proposed tax rate is 4.99 mills. The current rate is 4.55 mills. After revisions, the tentative proposed budget totals $137.9 million.

Under state law, the City Commission can set the final millage rate no higher than 4.99 mills, but they can lower it. The rate was used for the notices of proposed property taxes mailed Aug. 20.

Here are some questions and answers pertaining to budget from city reports and officials’ comments at public meetings:

Q: Why is the city proposing a millage increase?

A: City officials said the rate is being proposed to prevent further budget and service level reductions in future years.

Tax revenue continues to decline, triggered by taxable property values decreasing more than 31 percent over the past five years.

The city has either lowered or held the line property taxes for the last five years. The revenue that will be generated with the property tax increase will be less than that of 2009 levels. They also said that other revenue sources have been declining or not growing in the last five years.

Property tax revenue was $17.65 million in fiscal year 2007 as compared to $15.44 million being proposed for fiscal year 2013 with the tax rate of 4.99 mills.

City officials say they have implemented reductions in their operating budgets since 2008, initially responding to state property tax reform and in recent years to the recession and the subsequent slow recovery.

Q: How would an increase in the property tax rate to 4.99 mills affect my taxes?

A: Next year’s tax rate may affect property owners differently, depending on whether the property has received a homestead exemption and whether the market value for it has gone up or down.

Under examples provided by city officials the average homeowner would pay $42 more annually in city property taxes. The scenario is based on the property having a homestead exemption and a taxable value of $60,559. The total city taxes would be $303.

Under another example, an actual property on East Bay Drive with new commercial construction, the owner of the property with a taxable value of $4.3 million would pay $21,787 in property taxes next year, an increase of $1,498.

Q. What reductions have city officials made to balance the budget?

A. City officials have cut $2.5 million in its operating budget. The reductions include the equivalent of 22.23 full-time positions.

No funding for raises is included in the budget, at a savings of $615,000. Instead of pay increases, 32 hours of personal options days will be given to employees not represented by a union.

Among the positions that are affected are the vacant assistant to the city manager position, which has been eliminated at a cost savings of $82,900; grant administrator position, eliminated at a savings of $63,400; and the vacant neighborhood coordinator position, eliminated at a cost savings of $61,700; and the vacant human resources analyst position, eliminated at a cost of $80,100.

Three firefighters’ positions that serve western Largo, Belleair Bluffs and Belleair will be eliminated at a cost savings of $238,000.

Q: What fee increases are expected?

A: Several fee increases are projected in the general fund or operating budget.

The business license tax would increase by 3 percent. Center Cultural Center fees would increase by 50 cents. Adults softball fees would increase by $35 per team. Monthly swim team fees would increase by $5.

Nonresident membership fees would increase by $4 per year. These revenue increases are expected to generate $120,200.

A stormwater utility rate increase will generate 15 percent additional revenue.

Q: Are there any plans to close the Southwest Pool?

A: Though the pool has come up in some discussions, such as staffing levels, no city commissioner has said at any commission meeting that he or she is in favor of closing the pool. The proposed budget includes $343,300 to fund the pool operations.

Q: What are city commissioners’ positions on the budget and tax rate?

A: Six of the seven commissioners voted in favor of the proposed budget and tax rate at the Sept. 4 meeting.

At previous meetings, some commissioners have spoken in support of the need to increase the millage rate to maintain services.

Commissioner Robert Murray said he has heard numerous comments from residents about the benefits of city amenities, such as the Highland Recreation Complex, which is being rebuilt. Mayor Pat Gerard expressed similar comments.

“As much as it’s harder to pay a few more bucks in taxes, these are the times when the people need the services we provide. Not just police and fire, but recreation and all the other things we do,” Gerard said.

Commissioner Curtis Holmes, who voted against the proposed budget and tax rate Sept. 4, said at a previous commission meeting that taxpayers are about to get “nickeled and dimed to death because of the cumulative aspect of other local governments raising the millage rates.”

He also said that it’s not his goal to “remove all the joy from the city of Largo,” but to make sure that citizens are adequately protected by public safety services.
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