Commission cuts projects to lower budget, millage rate

Hernando County Commission Chairman Steve Champion tries to find a way to cut the budget more.

BROOKSVILLE — James Hall bought a house in the area in 2021, and sometimes goes back north, where he has another home.

Like many newcomers to Florida who have bought homes, he found the property value of the new place reset to its actual value, without Save Our Homes protection and homestead exemptions that would limit his property taxes and tax increases.

Other new residents told the Hernando County Commission of “sticker shock” when they received “Truth in Millage” notices telling them what their taxes would be for the coming year.

Sindra Ridge said the assessed value of her home was $70,000 when she bought it, and now it’s valued at $389,000. She’s also upset that voters added 1 mill for the schools years ago, declaring that it’s not fair that non-homeowners can vote a tax increase for homeowners.

Dawn Lessig said her home’s value went up $133,000, and her tax bill rose. She’s retired and on a fixed income, she said.

“We need you to work for us,” she told commissioners. “It’s all hitting us hard. I feel like I’m going to be living behind the CVS with the homeless.”

Commission Chairman Steve Champion was sympathetic and decided to take action, but he and other commissioners noted that Realtors are obligated to tell homebuyers that the value of the house they buy will reset to its fully appraised value and that the taxes the previous homeowner paid will be lower than what they pay.

The first hearing on the county’s budget turned into an effort to find things to cut in the county’s budget to get a 6.99 millage rate, a process that County Attorney Jon Jouben said is backwards, but Champion insisted on proceeding.

He said he’s not an advocate of “defunding the police,” but he thought even the sheriff could find places to cut the rate of growth in his department. 

Sheriff Al Nienhuis was in attendance, and said he takes hits for problems such as traffic violations and is worried he might lose deputies to the Florida Highway Patrol, as the governor is pushing for them to get pay increases.

An audience member mentioned the new Sheriff’s Office vehicles he’s seen, and Nienhuis pointed out that they have gotten a few new cars, but other cars are pushing 200,000 miles. 

If he could, Nienhuis said, he’d add 200 deputies to the force; as it is, he’s adding a traffic deputy, a marine deputy for the Weeki Wachee River and a few community policing deputies.

He asked for a 9% budget increase, the sheriff said, with 85% of his budget going to people and state-mandated and contract pay raises, benefit hikes and retirement costs.

When it comes to budgeting, “We don’t have reserves,” Nienhuis said. “We have to start over every year.”

Commissioners went around and around on possible cuts, and Commissioner Jeff Holcomb said he heard the citizens and was frustrated himself. Like others, he had homesteaded property and his taxes were going down, he said.

The debate centered around a combination of cutting a few capital projects and then taking money from reserves. Champion advocated cuts to the constitutional officers’ budgets and Commissioner Beth Narverud advised a combination of project cuts plus taking some funds from reserves.

“I’m sure we could do that,” Champion said.

“It’s not ideal, but it’s a compromise,” Narverud said.

Jouben warned that they’d have to set the budget before setting the millage rate.

County Administrator Jeff Rogers said the panel had funded the Pine Island dredging for $250,000 and the Hunter’s Lake project for $650,000.

Cutting those two projects and the contribution to TBARTA would mean they’d need $1.8 million more to cut, and the projects wouldn’t get done.

“If you guys don’t want to do it, don’t do it,” Champion said. “Vote for what you want.”

The commission recessed for 17 minutes while Budget Director Toni Brady worked the numbers, and when they came back into session the decision was to cut Pine Island dredging and the Hunter's Lake tussock removal. Money from cut from capital reserves.

The total budget would be nearly $662 million.

The motion to approve the budget passed 5-0.

The revised millage rate would be 6.9912 for the general fund, 7.56% over the rollback rate, .1102 for county health, .8091 for transportation trust; .1139 for stormwater management MSTU (Municipal Service Taxing Unit) and .9100 for the EMS MSTU.

That passed 5-0.

The next public hearing for the budget will be at 5:01 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 27.

Commissioner John Allocco closed with a parting shot at the School Board, noting that they didn’t challenge their budget.

“I’d like to see them cut something,” he said. “We’re cutting everything else except for educating the kids.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct cuts from the budget.