County commission holds the line on tax rates, but taxes may still go up for many

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Posted July 27, 2020 | By Bill Thompson, Deputy Editor

Marion County property owners won’t see higher tax rates for next year.

That, however, doesn’t mean they won’t see higher tax bills.

The County Commission has completed the bulk of its work on the county’s proposed $629.3 million spending plan for 2021.

The board recently spent four days hearing roughly 40 county agencies and local nonprofits plead their fiscal cases.

Ultimately, a simple message came through: the base property tax rate, also known as the millage, will remain at the current rate.

“The maximum millage rate is the current millage rate for this year. That’s it,” Commissioner Carl Zalak said as the workshops concluded on July 16.

After the board’s regular session on Tuesday commission Chairwoman Kathy Bryant said commissioners were being prudent in the face of the rapidly increasing COVID-19 numbers.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen with our economy and our county, and we’re going to keep the millage flat out of an abundance of caution,” Bryant said.

“And this commission has always been conservative in that regard anyway.”

Commissioners got some help with the decision to hold the line on the tax rate. The budget benefitted from a healthy 7.8 percent increase in property values for last year – as the total value of all the property in Marion County topped $20 billion.

As a result, although the main tax rate stays constant, property owners might see higher tax bills because of increased property values.

Yet in order to hit their target commissioners must shave $1.8 million in spending for next year.

The budget discussion did not start that way.

The board began combing through the budget on July 13 with a modest property tax increase on the table.

The proposed fiscal year 2020-21 budget featured boosting the millage paid by all county property owners by 23 cents, or 5.2 percent, to $4.65 per $1,000 of taxable property.

At that rate, the owner of a home in Marion County valued at $100,000 for tax purposes, for instance, would pay $23 more in property taxes for 2021.

That recommendation also would have translated to an additional $11 million in revenue in the new budget, which kicks in Oct. 1.

Yet the proposed 2021 rate would have been the highest since 2007, when commissioners set the millage at $4.57 per $1,000 of taxable value.

The proposed budget also included a slight tax hike for the special tax district that funds the Sheriff’s Office’s operations. That tax applies only to property owners in unincorporated Marion.

Sheriff Billy Woods sought an additional 12 cents per $1,000, or a boost of 3.2 percent.

At a workshop last Wednesday, County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes presented commissioners a plan to cut $2.3 million. He said any additional funding left over once the board met the goal of a flat property tax rate could be funneled into reserve accounts.

At the session, commissioners did not take action on any specific cuts. They will revisit that by Aug. 4, when the state-mandated property tax notices are sent to county property owners.

While the details must still be hashed out, as things stood on Wednesday, the commission could keep the base millage constant, provide most county workers a raise and ax the sheriff’s proposed tax increase as well.

Under the plan, staffers for the County Commission, tax collector, elections supervisor and court clerk would see 3 percent raises, while sheriff’s workers would get 1 percent, as requested by Sheriff Woods.

Those under Property Appraiser Villie Smith would not see a pay increase because Smith’s proposed budget did not include one, Commissioner Bryant said.  

Bryant added that the tentative plan would put the revenue for raises in escrow until April 1, when the board and the other constitutional officers will revisit whether conditions warrant paying them.

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