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Higher property tax bills arrriving in mailboxes

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of October 17, 2013)

All residents of Indian River County, including those on the island who pay the lion’s share of the freight, are getting their new annual property tax bills this month – and they’re likely to be quite a bit higher than the last five years.

The County Commission has approved a 5.6-percent increase in the general fund millage rate and a 15 percent increase in the emergency services rate that pays for fire protection and ambulance service.

The millage rate is the percentage of property value the county charges property owners each year to fund government services.

The higher tax rate will add about $65 to the property tax bill of a homeowner with a $200,000 house covered by a homestead exemption, according to County Administrator Joe Baird.

On the island, where the median home price is around half a million, the average tax increase will be approximately $200 per year, except in Indian River Shores where it will be less because the Shores funds its own emergency services.

The bump will help pay for higher retirement fund contributions mandated by the state, a 3 percent raise for most county employees and small budget increases requested by the Sheriff, Property Appraiser and Supervisor of Elections.

Baird had asked for a property tax increase to reduce the amount of money the county would have to take from its reserve funds to pay for ongoing operations in the upcoming 2013-14 fiscal year.

The county had not raised the millage rate in a number of years despite increased demand for more government from a reviving economy and increasing population.

“We are at a point now where we need to set the millage rate at a level where it will cover the cost of services we need to provide,” Commissioner Peter O’Bryan said, noting that even with the increase the millage rate would still be lower than it was in the middle of the last decade, because the Commission reduced it several times during the property boom.

Sheriff Deryl Loar had asked for his full $1.8-million funding increase, noting that his deputies have not had a pay raise in seven years

Baird said the next fiscal year’s $254-million budget is down a whopping 46 percent since fiscal year 2006-07, when the Commission had approved a total of $472 million in expenditures.

He said the county continually cut its budget and employee count during the recession, and now has 259 fewer fulltime employees than it did in fiscal 1990-91, even though the county’s population has increased by 50 percent.

The emergency services fund millage rate has been increased by 15 percent because that fund reserve is nearly exhausted.

Some equipment is in dangerously dilapidated condition, county officials have said.