The Board of County Commissioners took the first step forward on a new budget by standing in place on a key number.

 

The Board of County Commissioners took the first step forward on a new budget by standing in place on a key number.

During a special meeting Tuesday, commissioners unanimously approved maintaining, at the least, the current millage rate and instructed staff to undertake nearly $400,000 in cuts to the tentative budget.

The current millage rate is 7.2442.

A mill is equal to $1,000 in appraised tangible property.

At least the county had numbers to work with.

The Gulf County School Board had to wait until this morning to take up their budget numbers for the just-begun fiscal year.

Final numbers for the Florida Education Finance Program, which funds public schools, are set in Tallahassee by the Florida Legislature, which did not finalize them until a special session last month.

The district, which had received two revenue draws based on projections, was still waiting the first of this week for final numbers from the Florida Department of Education.

For the BOCC, maintaining the same millage rate will not mean no tax increases, however, as Commissioner Ward McDaniel pointed out.

Rising values will mean that the millage multiplier will translate into a higher tax bill for many property owners in the coming year.

The mill is worth approximately 9 percent more this year to the BOCC than last.

“People are still going to pay higher taxes even if we stay with the old number,” McDaniel said.

The damage, however, will not be as bad compared to the increases contained in a tentative budget presented Tuesday.

It is an annual exercise in the BOCC meeting room.

Department heads and constitutional officers submit requests for the coming fiscal year, which begins for the county in October, and the board whittles, or charges staff with whittling, that initial budget.

This year, county administrator Don Butler said, the budget requests amounted to an increase in spending of $1.4 million, which if met would require commissioners to increase the millage rate by nearly a quarter of a mill.

Even at the current millage, Butler said, staff would have to cut more nearly $382,000 from the tentative budget.

Commissioners Freddie Whitfield made the motion to maintain the current millage.

The millage rate must be submitted to the property appraiser by Aug. 4.

Once a tentative rate has been submitted, it can not be increased during the final stages of the budget process, which will end the second half of September.

Commissioners could still reduce the millage, but they can not raise it beyond the 7.2442.

Whitfield noted a study that showed that Gulf County ranked in the top 25 percent of the nation’s counties in terms of overall tax burden, taking into account property taxes and sales taxes.

The quarter mill increase proposed in the tentative budget, he added, was better off in people’s pockets.

“Our taxes are high,” Whitfield said. “I’d rather give a quarter of a mill back to the people.”

The budget, as presented Tuesday, includes a 3 percent across-the-board pay increase for employees, following a similar increase last year, as well as maintaining current spending for all non-departmental expenditures.

Those dollars go to entities such as the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society, the Gulf County Libraries and a handful of other organizations.

The current budget included no increases in such spending, said Michael Hammond, the deputy county administrator.

“I wish we had enough money to give everybody what they want but that’s not reality,” said Commissioner Phil McCroan.

McDaniel said, and his fellow commissioners agreed, that staff should get cracking on making cuts to the budget.

“I want staff to bring back a balanced budget,” McDaniel said. “That’s what we need to do.”

Hammond said one major spending item, a new information management system for the Gulf County Sheriff’s Office, will be reduced after Sheriff Mike Harrison was able to arrange paying for the system in installments.

The first public hearing on the budget will be held 5:01 p.m. ET Tuesday, Sept. 12.