LEESBURG — Smithville City Attorney Tommy Coleman pulled no punches when assessing the impact a deep cut in the small municipality’s share of local-option sales tax funds would have.
“The city of Smithville is amenable to reductions (in funds) based on certain criteria,” Coleman said at a meeting of a special joint Lee County-Leesburg-Smithville committee selected to come up with an “equitable” split of LOST funds. “But an immediate hit (of the magnitude being suggested) kinda knocks them off the map.”
Coleman, Smithville Mayor Jerry Myrick, and Leesburg representatives Jim Quinn, the city’s mayor, and Bob Wilson, the longest-serving elected official in the county, did most of the talking during the Monday morning meeting called to seek a consensus on the split of the 1 percent tax collected in the county. County officials have said each percentage point is equal to around $35,000.
The governments of the three county entities currently split LOST funds at a 70.94 (Lee County), 17.50 (Leesburg), 11.56 (Smithville) rate. With budget emergencies facing all three, the county — whose unincorporated area is home to 87.7 percent of Lee’s population and collects 96.8 percent of its property taxes — is looking for a larger piece of a pie that has gotten considerably smaller during the ongoing recession that still has the region in its grip.
Officials in Leesburg and Smithville, however, say the loss of a considerable amount of LOST money would leave them with an unwinnable choice: cut services or raise taxes.
“What I see happening is the cities of Leesburg and Smithville drying up,” County Commissioner Dennis Roland said. “If we increase taxes or cut services, the people are eventually going to move out.”
Roland and fellow County Commissioner Rick Muggridge argued over the quality of services provided by the county to citizens in its small municipalities.
“Consider the property owners in Smithville and the northern part of the county,” Roland said. “They’re paying taxes to essentially subsidize the quality of life for the people in the southern end of the county that we don’t see on the northern end.”
Muggridge replied, “I appreciate what you’re saying, but I disagree vehemently. To say that one (area of the county) gets any more service (than another) is not true.”
“You’re living in a fantasy world,” he said. “You might see a deputy ride by your neighborhood once a day, but where my mother lives (in northern Lee County), she might not see one but once a month.”
Muggridge, who had previously suggested a “starting point” for distribution percentages of 94 percent for the county, 5 percent for Leesburg and 1 percent for Smithville, said the county considered “the intent of LOST” when trying to determine an equitable split.
“I believe the intent of the state Legislature was to give equal relief to the property owners in the county,” he said. “The LOST funds in Leesburg (for example) relieve the tax burden of citizens there by 20 percent. People in the unincorporated part of the county are getting 2 1/2 percent relief (with their LOST split).”
Coleman disagreed with Muggridge.
“The law does not provide a clear-cut path to your argument,” Smithville’s attorney said. “The county actually has broad discretion in distribution of funding; it can give a larger portion to one qualified subdivision for the purpose of service delivery.
“I’m not ready to buy into your notion of equal distribution.”
Myrick, meanwhile, said the citizens in his community feel abandoned by the county government.
“Smithville used to at least be considered some kind of way,” he said. “It seems y’all are just trying to forget about us now. Even with the little we do get, the county will hold onto it for so long before we see any of it.
“For example, Livingston Road was approved for improvement; the money is there, and yet you haven’t broken ground. And, yes, you built the new fire station near Smithville, but it was approved back around 2001. It took eight or nine years for you to build it.”
None of the representatives offered suggestions of a split for consideration, although Wilson did say he’d like to see Leesburg get a 15 percent cut of the taxes. Muggridge suggested considering a split similar to the one agreed to by all three entities for Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax VI: 86.24 for the county, 10.63 for Leesburg and 3.13 for Smithville.
The group decided to hold its next meeting July 16.