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Manatee County commission approves sheriff’s surtax

BRADENTON — The Manatee County Commission approved a surtax to help fund the sheriff’s office, though individual commissioners disagreed about whether the action should be called a tax increase.

Commissioners voted 4-3 to place a .1-mill property tax increase on TRIM notices that will inform taxpayers of their obligation in late August. By state law, the tax rate on TRIM notices can be lowered during the budget process but not raised.

The sheriff proposed a $92.2 million budget for the next fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 2011, about $263,000 more than the current year, to pay mostly for three additional court bailiff positions.

The surtax would cost $15 for the owner of a $150,000 home. It is expected to raise $2.2 million for the sheriff’s department to cover a Florida Legislature mandate for an increase in the state pension fund and other budget shortfalls.

“I think this is a step in the right direction for us to keep the level of service we’ve been providing,” Sheriff Brad Steube said after Thursday’s meeting.

Commission Chairwoman Donna Hayes and commissioners Carol Whitmore and John Chappie voted against the surtax. They said a millage increase will unfairly burden taxpayers struggling through the economic downturn.

But other commissioners, led by Joe McClash, said many property owners won’t see an overall tax increase because their property valuations are projected to decrease.

The commissioners approved an overall millage rate of 6.3993, the same as last year plus the .1-mill sheriff’s increase. The county is expecting a $24.5 million, or 13 percent, shortfall in property tax revenue this year.

The county’s $468 million budget must go through two public hearings, scheduled for Sept. 8 and 16, before final approval.

Also Thursday, Steube responded to a letter Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston sent to Hayes asking that city residents be exempted from the sheriff’s surtax because their taxes fund municipal law enforcement.

Steube told commissioners that several sheriff-funded services — including the helicopter, K-9 unit, bomb squad and transportation units — are used by other area law enforcement agencies, including the Bradenton Police Department. Jail and bailiff staff also are paid through the sheriff’s budget, he said.

“We don’t charge them for any of those services, but we provide those services,” Steube said. “It would have been nice if he (Poston) had given me a call to tell me that was going to happen, but he didn’t.”