BRADENTON - County Administrator Ed Hunzeker told commissioners at Thursday's budget reconciliation meeting that they had to move again to balance the county's budget.
The July 1 report from the Property Appraiser showed another decline in taxable value, Hunzeker said, to nearly $28.24 billion from nearly $31.27 billion last year, which meant that the budget deficit had grown to $3.3 million.
His advice, which the commissioners accepted, was to balance the budget with $1.6 million that had been set aside for budget adjustments; taking a bit more than $1 million from the county's budget stabilization fund; and taking $686,000 from reserves in other programs. This will leave the county with $12.5 million in its budget stabilization reserve.
"Because we do not want to recommend at this time cutting more programs, possibly eliminating more positions, what we want to do is extend a little further the use of these reserves," said Jim Seuffert, the head of the county's Financial Management Department. "That would make up for this loss without either having to increase the tax rate and without having to reduce programs further."
Most of the meeting was devoted to going through budget items that commissioners had questioned during the June workshops on the county budget. Commissioner Donna Hayes again questioned the free trolley service on the islands while her district, which includes Lakewood Ranch, lacks bus service. "And they're willing to pay for it," she said, in contrast to those on the island who have protested having fare boxes to collect fares on the trolleys.
Commissioners also heard about programs in the capital improvement program that they have questioned.
Millage rate stays the same
Hunzeker told commissioners that they had to establish the maximum tax rates so TRIM notices can go out next month. The School Board voted Wednesday night to raise its millage to the rollback rate of 7.541. That rate could fall between now and the final decision, though.
He said he was recommending that commissioners hold the line and keep the millage rate at 6.2993. The rollback rate is 6.9607.
But Commissioner Larry Bustle tried to make a case for taking the tax rate to the rollback rate, which he was told could bring in $19.6 million in additional money. Of course, said Seuffert, at the final hearing he could bring the rate back down to 6.2993. Still, it would be seen as a tax increase, and people react to that strongly, he said, even if the rate came down.
"My question to the board is, then, wouldn't it be prudent to set some millage rate that gives us the flexibility to actually go through the discussions through the next few weeks or maybe several weeks and once again our public information officers can clarify to the citizens that we have not increased taxes, that we are perhaps not even proposing to, but we do reserve the flexibility of having some of those dollars to work with," Bustle said. "Let's say that there's a public outcry to fund Public Safety. We would not have available to us the millage rate option.
"So what I'm suggesting is, let's maybe consider a millage rate that's perhaps someplace between the current rate and the rollback rate, and that will give you maybe $10 million worth of flexibility. And then when we finally settle in on the millage rate, we'll always have the right to go down to the current rate. So that's what I'm proposing that we consider."
But Hayes disagreed with Bustle's reasoning. "This is going to be more money out of the taxpayers' pockets," she said. "With the current economic issues out there, I just cannot support increasing this millage this year. This has to be a year when we just have to tighten our belts, stand firm on this and do whatever we can."
It's not the time to put more burdens on the taxpayers when they're losing their jobs and facing foreclosure, she added.
"I'm not one that supports tax increases anyway," she said. "I just feel this is a very bad time to entertain anything in that direction."
Commissioner Joe McClash said the budget has contingencies, and noted that after the public hearings in June there was no public outcry. "We do that now so that we don't get to September and people get hit with a surprise," he said. "We also have 12 and a half million dollars of budget stabilization and what that is, is your money as county commissioners, and you can do what you want with it. What we're planning on doing with this budget is we're putting that away so hopefully next year if we need to use that money for budget stabilization, we can do so without having to hit the taxpayers.
"I am adamantly opposed to increasing the tax rate for any more money than we have to."
These are hard times, McClash said, and the commissioners need to help people out.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she too was opposed to raising the millage rate. "I don't have one person telling me they want to pay one penny more this year," she said. "In fact, they told me, 'Don't you dare raise our taxes.' "
Unfortunately, people are going to get hit with a tax increase because of the School Board's decision, Whitmore said, so the citizens aren't going to be happy and will probably blame it on the County Commission.
"I think we should do everything we can to make sure that that doesn't happen on our end," she said.
Commissioner Ron Getman asked how much taxes have been cut in the past couple of years.
Seuffert said that taxes in the past three years have been cut $50 million to $60 million. Taxpayers without homestead exemptions will see their taxes go down because their property values have gone down. For those with exemptions, their values might go up due to Save Our Homes and they might get a tax hike.
"I think what Commissioner Bustle has stated has merit," Getman said. "But we've also been given a clear mandate by our public to reduce the taxes, and I think it's our responsibility to deliver on that mandate."
Commissioner John Chappie said he agreed with Getman.
Commissioner Gwendolyn Brown told Bustle she agreed with those who spoke against his proposal. "The times are just not there for that at this point," she said. "It would give you more flexibility and you would have more money, but I think even with $10 million you would to specifically kind of specify how you would use that money because at this day and time, how are you planning to justify that?"
The county has already made cuts and lost employees, Brown said, and others have been moved and are making less money. "I cannot concur with that at this point," she said.
The motion to authorize the millage rate then went up for a vote, and it passed 7-0. Public meetings on the budget will be held in September.
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