Residents tangled with Sumter County commissioners Friday over a 25 percent tax rate increase in this year’s budget.
Commissioners gathered at a workshop meeting to review next year’s proposed budget, which could include a 4 percent rate decrease.
The proposed budget would cut the tax rate to the rolled back rate of about $6.43 per $1,000 assessed valuation, down from this year’s $6.70. The rolled back rate is the rate needed to collect the same amount of tax revenue on existing development as the prior year. New construction can bring in more revenue.
Last September, residents packed two public hearings to protest the rate hike and pledged to unseat three commissioners up for election next month. Don Burgess, Al Butler and Steve Printz are seeking re-election in the Aug. 18 primary.
County Administrator Bradley Arnold said then that the rate hike was needed due to the cost of building roads in the Villages of Southern Oaks development south of State Road 44 and the cost of repaving Buena Vista and Morse boulevards in The Villages. He said the road building costs would not be recouped until homes are built in the development.
The tax rate hike remains a hot election topic.
Gilbert Windsor of the Village of Bonita used a lollypop analogy to describe last year’s hike and this year’s smaller rate cut.
“The rollback is like a lollypop,” he said. “You take five lollypops from a child and give back one. That’s what you’re doing to the county.”
Windsor, who left after the public forum portion of the meeting, told commissioners on his way out: “Good luck with the funny math you’re doing.”
When Gary Search, a challenger candidate for commissioner, brought up the 25 percent rate hike, Commissioner Doug Gilpin called it “political hogwash.”
Gilpin said an analysis showed that the increase in actual tax bills was far less than 25 percent.
“None of the people in this room had a 25 percent tax increase,” Gilpin said. “A person can say what they want. That does not make it true.”
Search responded that his tax bill went up 28.4 percent.
Commissioners are elected at large. Other candidates include Craig Estep, Oren Miller and Daniel Myslakowski. Pete Wahl and Jerry Prince are running as write-in candidates, which some people say is an attempt by the Developer to manipulate Florida election law and exclude 45,000 Democratic and independent voters from casting ballots.
The tax rate is only one factor in a property owner’s tax bill. Another is property valuation or assessments. A tax bill can go up even with a rate cut if the property assessment rises.
Assessments are based on sales of comparable properties. Sumter County Property Appraiser Joey Hooten said assessments have been rising about 5 percent to 6 percent over the past few years.
Commissioners bristled when Search said the rate hike was the result of poor expenditure planning and fiscal irresponsibility.
“We’ve had 12 years of decreasing millage rates until this year,” said Commissioner Al Butler. “That is our pattern.”
Printz said the 25 percent hike is misleading.
“This county budgets for its needs,” he said. “There’s not a discussion that says we’ve got to get to a number.”
Arnold said the rollback rate of $6.43 will be the maximum rate for next year and commissioners can reduce it further if they wish. A final vote on the budget will be in late September. The next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.