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Sarasota Wednesday, Sep. 20, 2017 2 years ago

County: No tax on public utilities

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Without levying the tax that would raise $5.4 million in its first year, commissioners are planning to dip into the economic uncertainty fund until they can make departmental budget cuts in the beginning of fiscal year 2018.
by: Cassidy Alexander Staff Writer

The County Commission has dropped plans for a 5% tax on public utilities such as gas, water and electricity for residents in unincorporated parts of the county.

Commissioners struggled for months with balancing the budget, while trying to add to the county’s savings and maintain service levels and taxes.

Earlier this summer, the board voted not to raise property tax rates, going against staff’s initial recommendation. At Monday’s public hearing, commissioners heard from several residents who said the utilities tax would affect most those least able to pay.

“I don’t like the idea of having an increased tax, but I don’t know where we go from here,” Commissioner Charles Hines said. “If we don’t, we were presented with options at our last meeting to make some difficult cuts … This is reality.”

At an August meeting, the commission asked to see options for cutting department budgets instead of raising tax rates, but it decided to move forward with the public service tax. In its first year, the public service tax would have raised $5.4 million for the county, and more than $11 million in following years.

With the decision to forego the tax, that money would have to come from the county’s economic-uncertainty fund, which holds about $5.4 million. Staff recommended the commission approve the budget without the utility assessment, and re-evaluate cuts in the first quarter of fiscal year 2018.

However, County Administrator Tom Harmer cautioned against the idea that there will be much to cut within those budgets. During the recession, department budgets were cut to a minimum, and they have not increased except to accommodate projects the commission wanted, Harmer said.

“There really hasn’t been any staff-initiated increases in the general fund since I’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve kept them at their levels and asked them to be as creative as possible … The directors, I think, have done a good job of living within those means when they were cut to what was considered a minimum service level.”

Ultimately, the commission voted to use $5.4 million from the economic-uncertainty fund rather than levying the public service tax. The commissioners plan to trim the budget after the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

“Just because it’s in the budget does not mean it can’t be cut,” Commissioner Alan Maio said.

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