LARGO -- The Largo City Commission's first round on approving a millage rate and the 2005 budget last Thursday was a study in agony as commissioners wrestled with the prospect of charging Largo folks more for their government.
An increase of one mill in the tax rate was approved, 4-3, but only with great reluctance. Two of the four who voted for it -- Harriet Crozier and Gay Gentry -- did so with great wringing of hands.
Pat Burke and Jean Halvorsen, the other two who favored bringing the millage rate to 4.75 for 2005, did so with aplomb. Their pragmatic view was that the world goes on and prices go up.
The three opposed -- Mayor Bob Jackson and Pat Gerard and Charlie Harper -- were willing to go along with an increase, but wanted it to be something short of the dreaded full mill.
What hurts is that there was a tax increase last year that broke a string of 11 years of no change in the rate. It seemed that a tax rate of 3.4 mills, that is, $3.40 of taxes on every $1,000 of assessed value on property ($125,000 residence, less $25,000 homestead exemption, paid $3.40 times 100; $340), was the standard.
Now, if the 4.75 rate holds up at the second hearing that begins tonight at 5:01 p.m. that Largo taxpayer with a home valued at $125,000 is going to pay $475 in taxes, a 39.7 percent increase from two years ago. Ouch!
That tricky 5:01 p.m. meeting time is a function of the law. For one thing, the millage rate and budget hearings are being held on a Thursday instead of Tuesday, when meetings are usually held because the law says the city can't meet on the same days as the Pinellas County Commission and the School Board on these matters.
The law also says, as Henry Schubert, assistant city manager advises, that the meeting cannot begin before 5 p.m.
But the 5:01 p.m. starting time drew fire from a former commissioner and community activist who e-mailed the mayor and commission Thursday protesting that starting time.
Ernest Bach said it was "not a time convenient to citizens who may wish to attend this meeting. . .most people are just leaving their jobs and must travel during the height of rush hour traffic to get to their destination."
Bach was joined in his protest by Terry Cypher, a former Largo resident and activist who wrote Bach -- "I am somewhat surprised that you still think that you or anyone else in the City of Largo can affect any influence on this group of people (the commission). It should have been very clear after the ‘03 election that the people of Largo do not care or possibly do not think that their voice makes any difference. This can be seen by the 5 p.m.meetings. They are designed to keep the average person from attending."
In addition to an increase in the ad valorem rate, the city recently posted a raise in fees for sewer, sold waste and drainage.
Largely ignored in the whole budget process have been the recommendations from the Finance Advisory Board which suggested deletions, delays in spending on certain times and some modifications in the approach to spending.
Those 11 years of no millage increases were the salad days that have turned into dross -- the sentiment from Burke was that there should have been small incremental increases in those years.
What plagues Largo right now, one observer noted, is growing pains and "the mayor and commission are like parents with a teen-ager -- they want to do the right thing, but aren't sure what that is."
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