Leesburg residents who worked so diligently to get city commissioners to reduce their taxes got snookered this week.
City commissioners were poised to raise property taxes above the rate that would have brought in the same amount as the previous year and also increase rates of each of the city's utilities — electric, water, sewer, gas and Internet service — by a little more than 1 percent apiece.
But more than 300 residents jammed the community center and made them back down.
Or did they?
They thought they did. But what seemed like a victory turned sour when the math of the situation became clear. Here's what happened:
Officials in Leesburg, the second-largest city in Lake County, often boast of their modest property tax rate of about $4.32 for every for every $1,000 of taxable property value.
What commissioners never mention is that their utility rates are so high that the profits pay for roughly half of the city's services — far more than property taxes do.
City Manager Jay Evans started Monday's festivities with a mind-numbing, hourlong review of options from which commissioners could choose. Of course, those were the options Evans wanted them to see. He didn't present the ones he didn't like.
And there were a lot that he didn't like. Consider that Clermont, with 9,000 more people, somehow intends to manage with a mere $16.8 million, 30 percent less than Leesburg.
Still, Leesburg commissioners clung to the idea of raising the tax rate to $5.125, and they concentrated on an option that would have increased utilities by 1.08 percent.
Nearly two hours into the meeting, and after four attempts to get a budget failed, Commissioner Lewis Puckett commented: "We're losing people in here by talking them to death, and I knew…that's what was going to happen. And we can't come up with a budget."
It certainly seemed that way.
Residents were fed up. Here's a sample of their comments:
Caroline Van Dyken, a local businesswoman, said she was concerned about the excessive cost of many items, including $100,000 for restrooms for female firefighters at Station 62 on Griffin Road.
"We could build the women a whole other house outside the fire station for that," she quipped.
Uh, yes, we could.
Bill Jarvis, owner of an air-conditioning business who organized the opposition, plopped down the signatures of 1,721 residents and 301 businesses gathered in just a few days: "Why do we need a TV station? A lot of things are necessities, but some are luxuries."
Nobody even bothered to answer his challenge.
Bill Yandell, 30-year resident and owner of a medical-supply business: "Now, every time we want a cut in taxes, all we get are threats from the administration — 'we're going to cut out this or that.' I'm tired of it.
"You're replaceable, just like anyone else," he warned.
The comments went on and on, and commissioners, with the exception of Bill Polk, ignored them. That is, until they realized that no budget with raises in both property taxes and utility rates was going anywhere. That's when Commissioner John Christian proposed a "compromise" that passed.
Commissioners left the property-tax rate the same, which because of falling property values will generate less in taxes during the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, but raised utility rates by 1.20 percent. Poor Evans, who fought like crazy to keep his tax increase. His insomnia must have been dreadful. Certainly, he was awake laughing all night when he realized what sort of "cut" he would have to take.
The original proposal would have brought in an extra $234,880 from the property-tax increase and an additional $927,325 from utilities, for a total of $1,162,205.
The increase of 1.20 percent on utilities will bring in $1,036,472.
By the miracle of subtraction, it becomes apparent that citizens managed to force commissioners to cut a whole $125,733 — that's half of 1 percent — from the $24 million budget that staff demanded.
This bogus "compromise" is really a tax increase — and a hefty one. It's the equivalent of every man, woman and child in Leesburg paying $47.11 more next year than they did this year.
So, not only did the zealous residents fail to persuade city officials to cut the budget, they're stuck with a power tax hit next year.
Lritchie@tribune.com Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake