What a difference a year makes for Sumter County commissioners.
A year ago, they faced hundreds of angry residents protesting a 25 percent property tax rate increase in the county’s 2019-20 budget.
On Tuesday night, no members of the public showed up at the first of two budget hearings. The audience consisted of two reporters, two commissioners-elect and a county staff member.
Three commissioners, ousted in last month’s primary election, cast their last votes to approve the tentative 2020-21 budget. Final budget adoption will be Sept. 29 after a second public hearing.
Next year’s tax rate of about $6.43 per $1,000 assessed valuation is at the rollback rate and a 4 percent decrease from last year’s rate of $6.70. The rollback rate is the amount needed to collect the same level of taxes from existing property as the prior year.
The $241.7-million tentative budget also is about 4 percent less than last year’s adopted budget of $252.2 million.
“This is pretty tight going into the next fiscal year,” said County Administrator Bradley Arnold.
Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sumter County’s economic activity remains strong, Arnold wrote in a budget letter to commissioners.
Over the past year through July 1, The Villages added 2,606 homes and another 398 homes were built outside The Villages. The county added 172 commercial buildings with 1.5 million square feet of business space, including the Brownwood Hotel and Spa and Center for Advanced Health Care north of State Road 44.
The latest estimates show the county population is up 10 percent from a year ago to 141,422.
“(The Villages) continues to be the fastest growing metropolitan statistical area in the United States based on percentage of growth,” Arnold said.
The Villages also is developing the Gov. Rick Scott Industrial Park and with seven facilities under construction, including a Daily Sun printing plant.
Arnold said Sumter County’s biggest challenge may be a $2.4 million reduction in state shared revenues over two months and an estimated $6.1 million reduction in other state shared revenue and local sales taxes.
Recent service consolidation with municipalities, such as the assumption of emergency dispatching for Wildwood, means the county carries the heaviest burden for public safety and costs have gone up 16 percent.
Next month, commissioners will consider whether to consolidate Sumter County’s two fire districts into one and in the future may consider raising the fee for fire protection from its current annual rate of $124 per parcel.
The budget adds 11 new positions, bringing the county work force to 714 employees. The Sheriff’s Office is the largest department with 360 employees.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Steve Printz indicated he is pleased with the budget.
“The county is in excellent condition given all of the things that have gone on and the impact of COVID-19,” he said. “Our growth is a good thing and bodes well for the future.”
Commissioner Doug Gilpin said as a result of the county’s growth, there now are good jobs for young people.
Two decades ago, the only jobs were in agribusiness or with utility companies.
“Kids now can come back and work in Sumter County,” he said. “It’s really because of the steady growth and dynamic economic change that The Villages has brought.”