Broward County

Broward County commissioners may raise tax rates and cut services

Taxpayers, you'll see it in the mail soon, if you haven't already. Broward County commissioners are poised to raise the tax rate that pays for general county services for the first time in 12 years.

What's not in your tax notice is this bad news: County services will get worse.

Library hours will drop. Bus service will decline, but you'll need an extra quarter to board. Public buildings won't be cleaned as often. A family counseling program will be stripped of county funds. Public parking at the county's downtown garage, where people park at night to see movies at the nearby Riverfront complex, will close.

Those are some of the proposals in the county's grim budget, made worse by the fact that this is the third or fourth year of cuts in some key services, such as transit. Declining property values — the basis for county taxation — tilted the county budget, and services are sliding off the table. Next year is not expected to be much better.

The county's $3.6 billion total budget billion is vast. But details that are tiny in relation to that — like the $1.4 million to be saved by reducing mowing at parks, cutting staff there and not opening as many shelters and bathrooms — can produce significant public outcry, commissioners said.

The tax rate and budget are still subject to change until September, but commissioners could see their decisions won't be easy.

"In the toughest of times, we need the most services,'' Vice Mayor Sue Gunzburger said, objecting to cuts in family counseling.

"The less people we can lay off … the better we're going to be as a community,'' Commissioner John Rodstrom said, hoping county administrator Bertha Henry can find jobs in the government for up to 150 workers facing layoffs. Remaining employees will take five unpaid days off, again.

"I just know it means a lot to parents and the community to have parks,'' Commissioner Al Jones said, as commissioners talked about cuts at the parks.

"The citizens of Broward told us that they value libraries,'' Commissioner Kristin Jacobs reminded her colleagues, as they face proposed cuts in county-subsidized public hours at Nova Southeastern's library and at the main library in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

The same struggle to serve the public while money is tight is playing out in city and county halls everywhere. Politicians are hesitant to raise taxes at a time when so many people are jobless and depending on government more than ever.

Tuesday's meeting was a workshop; no vote was taken. But commissioners set the ball in motion for a tax rate hike two months ago, setting a total tentative rate — including taxes that pay off voter-approved debt — of roughly $567 for every $100,000 of taxable property value, up from $538 last year, a 5.3 percent increase.

Even with the higher tax rate, the county's property tax collections would decrease $64.2 million to $738 million because of the declining tax base.

The impact on property owners varies, depending on whether their property values went up for taxation purposes. Anyone whose taxable value stayed the same or went up would get a higher tax bill. That would include many longtime homesteaded homeowners. You can check your taxable value at the Broward Property Appraiser's website, at http://www.bcpa.net.

County estimators said bills would stay the same or go down for about 65 percent of property owners.

Property taxpayers will be advised of local governments' preliminary tax plans in notices that go out this month. The notices alert the public to hearings, where they can attend and speak.

The next county budget workshop will be held on Aug. 31. After that, at public hearings on Sept. 14 and 28, the county budget and its accompanying taxation will be determined and approved.

Brittany Wallman can be reached at bwallman@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4541.

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