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County Commission asks for more choices before agreeing to higher tax rate

Not interested in a millage rate increase, commissioners asked to see what cuts to departmental budgets would look like.

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  • | 2:41 p.m. June 22, 2017
  • Sarasota
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After hearing a proposed budget from the county administrator, the County Commission asked staff to come back with more options, including one that does not involve raising the millage rate.

“We need to know ‘what if,’ ” said Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo. “There’s only a choice to be made if choices are presented.”

Two days into the workshop, in which county departments and constitutional officers presented their proposed budgets for the coming fiscal year, commissioners sent County Administrator Tom Harmer and his staff back to the drawing board. Harmer’s staff proposed a budget that involved levying a 5% public service tax for residents in unincorporated areas, and raising the tax rate by 0.1 mills for the whole county.

Increasing the millage rate by 0.1 would generate $5.2 million in fiscal year 2018. For a property with a taxable value of $200,000, this would amount to $20 a year, or $1.67 a month.

They were instructed to bring back an alternative plan that kept the proposed 5% tax on utilities, gets rid of the millage rate increase, and looks at more cuts to governmental departments.

For every department that suggested an increase in its budget, the commission wanted to see a plan that included 50% cuts to whatever increases were proposed, as well as a look at what the operational repercussions would be.

“What would it look like if you only got half of that increase?” Caragiulo asked. “Is it mass hysteria? Is it things on fire? Is it chaos? Give us some options.”  

One of the commission’s original requests of Harmer was that service levels remain the same, meaning, for example, that public libraries not have to close on Mondays to save money, or the landscaping crews maintain their schedule of grass mowing. Now, however, the commission is asking that staff members look at where they can trim in their budget in order to hopefully not increase the millage rate.

“Adjusting a millage rate when I’m not completely confident that we’ve analyzed expenses to the degree that I think we should makes me a little uncomfortable."

Some commissioners were more open to raising taxes if it meant departments didn’t have to slash their budgets, and potentially fire full time employees.

“The depression is now over, and to make those efficiencies they fired people,” Vice Chair Nancy Detert said. “We’ve already walked through that valley of tears, and now we’re in the good times.” However, Caragiulo affirmed he would hope to see projects cut from staff budgets, not personnel.

One of the biggest dilemmas the commission is facing is whether or not to take preventative action this year to build up the county’s reserves, or to go forward another year without implementing as many taxes up front, essentially putting the problem off.

Adding to the issue is the construction boom in the county — though residents can look around and see a lot of new buildings, there is a delay in when the county sees tax revenue from the influx, meaning it can’t yet be counted on for revenue. Some commissioners would rather wait for that money to start coming in than tax residents now.

On July 13, the County Commission must vote to set a maximum millage rate for the next fiscal year. If they vote for the maximum to include the 0.1 mill increase Harmer suggested, they can still choose to lower it later, or they can vote to set it as is, and no longer have the option to raise the millage rate moving forward. The commission seems to be leaning away from increasing the millage rate, with some commissioners opposing it based on precedent, and others hoping for a single solution to the question of raising taxes, rather than two.

“Adjusting a millage rate when I’m not completely confident that we’ve analyzed expenses to the degree that I think we should makes me a little uncomfortable,” said Commissioner Mike Moran, which Commissioner Al Maio later echoed.

The next budget workshop will be in August, where Harmer’s staff will present an alternate plan to the commission.



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