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The Levy County Commission expressed shock that it drew only one taxpayer to a public hearing on special assessments on Tuesday evening in the commission meeting room.
It was a sharp change from two years ago when the hearing was held in the larger Courtroom A at the County Courthouse to accommodate the people objecting to increases in special assessments and any increase in property taxes.
"I guarantee you I am surprised by the turnout," said Commissioner Chad Johnson of Chiefland (R-District 2) told Milton Fortner, owner of Rosewood Iron Custom Cycles & Repair on State Road 24, the only person to show up and speak out against the assessments.
"I own a business that's currently starving," Fortner said. He was objecting to the fire assessment on his 3,300 square-foot building goingfrom $300 this year to $395. "Why don't you make it fair for people going through hard times."
"The law doesn't allow us to do that," Commission Chair Danny Stevens of Williston (D-District 5) said as he and the commissioners attempted to explain the system of assessments.
Before the evening was over the commissioners voted to increase EMS and fire assessments, keep solid waste and road maintenance assessments the same and set a tentative property tax millage.
After several failed motions ranging from 8.4212 to 8.0614 to 8.25, the commissioners unanimously voted to tentatively set the property tax millage at 8.0614, up from the current 7.4212.
One reason the commissioners went with the rate is that it will raise, on average, the same amount of money for the general fund. "I am not going to vote to raise anyone's taxes. People can't afford it. I can't afford it," said Commissioner Marsha Drew of Yankeetown (R-District 3).
"If you set it at 7.4212 you will have to cut more on the budget," said County Clerk Danny Shipp.
The millage, which will be finally adopted after a public hearing in September, cannot go any higher, but could drop in the final vote.
Assessments are levied because little to no property taxes are paid into the general fund on a sizable number of properties. In order to ensure everyone pays a fair share of the cost of providing for the EMS and fire services, the assessments are levied on every parcel of property in the county.
"If someone doesn't have a property valued at over $50,000, they're not contributing," said Johnson. The reason is that property owners can claim up to $50,000 in homestead exemptions, thus not paying any tax on the first $50,000 of the assessed property value.
Johnson also said under the old method of just charging a flat fee on everyone Walmart in Chiefland paid the same amount as Fortner's business.
Stevens said there were two ways to collect the money — through higher property taxes or by special assessments.
"My idea is to get anybody who isn't paying taxes," Stevens said. "You're picking up the taxes for properties that aren't contributing," he told Fortner.
Even then, the commissioners said, the assessments approved Tuesday night will not support fire and EMS. Both will need money from the general revenue fund. The income for the general revenue fund has declined for the past four years due to decreasing property values and property tax revenues. In the last year property values have dropped 5.8 percent.
"If we don't raise the assessment you'll have to pay more to pay more in taxes," Commissioner Drew said. She cited one business in Yankeetown that would see its assessments work out on a daily basis as going from 47 cents to 63 cents.
But Fortner was unswayed. "You talk about fair for all but it's not fair for all.
"Yes, these amounts do hurt business," Stevens said. "The county has argued that since Day 1."
But if the county were to continue using property taxes to pay for the services, there would be another unfair situation, he noted. "You end up with having one-third of the people in the county paying 90 percent of the bills in the county," Stevens said.