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County holds line on tax rate

BRADENTON — Even though there is an anticipated $1.6 million shortfall in revenue from the last estimate, the Manatee County commissioners approved Thursday a tentative property tax rate at the same level as last year.

The commission voted unanimously to keep the tax rate for the operating budget at $6.2993 for every $1,000 in taxable value of property to pay for about 38 percent of the $496.9 million proposed budget for 2009-10.

For a house assessed at $275,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption, a property owner would pay $1,574.83 in property taxes.

This tentative tax rate cannot be increased when the commissioners approve the final budget at two public hearings in September, but it can be lowered.

Because there was concern about Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube and other public safety departments being able to meet their obligations with the reduced budgets, Commissioner Larry Bustle said it may be necessary to set a higher rate until the commission hears a report about the sheriff’s office budget when Steube appears before them Aug. 18.

Bustle suggested setting it at what is called the rollback rate, which would generate the same amount of revenue as last year, and if the money is not needed, the commission can always reduce it in September.

“It would be prudent to set a millage rate that would give us flexibility if there is public outcry to increase the public safety budget,” he said.

Jim Seuffert, director of the county finance department, said the rollback rate, which is $6.9607 per $1,000 of assessed taxable value, would provide the county with $19.6 million in additional funds.

Commissioner Donna Hayes said she could not support an increase over last year’s tax rate.

“This will be more money out of the taxpayers’ pockets,” Hayes said. “We just have to tighten our belts.”

In the end, all the commissioners agreed to keep the tax rate the same as last year.

The commissioners also approved about a penny increase to 10.9 cents for every $1,000 in assessed property value to pay for the debt service on a bond the voters approved several years ago for the purchase of environmentally sensitive property.

Residents living in the unincorporated portions of the county also will pay an additional 61.09 cents per $1,000 in assessed property values, the same as last year, for the Municipal Services Taxing Unit fund, which pays for services residents outside of the municipalities receive.

In May, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker’s proposed budget was $33 million less than the current year’s, based on a decrease of estimated revenues expected from the deflated real estate market.

To balance the budget, Hunzeker reduced the county workforce through layoff, elimination of vacant positions, and retirements of about 100, and a 5 percent across-the-board cut in department spending.

After receiving final figures from the Manatee County Property Appraiser’s office, the commissioners had to decide if they wanted to find another $1.6 million in cuts or to use some of the $13.5 in the Budget Stabilization Fund and other revenues.

The commissioners decided to dip into the stabilization fund.