The Board of County Commissioners set a tentative millage rate last week that was over four-tenths of a mill higher than the current millage.
Remaining in the budget to this point is a 5-cent increase in county gas taxes as commissioners aim to lessen the property tax burden from the Public Works budget.
Taxing bodies have until Aug. 1 to submit a tentative millage to the Property Appraiser. The tentative millage is the number on the Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices property owners receive, though it does not necessarily reflect the millage rate finalized in September.
The tentative millage rate is 6.9936, up .4328 mills.
A mill represents $1 for every $1,000 in assessed property value. For the BOCC, each mill is worth roughly $1.3-$1.4 million.
Earlier in the week commissioners made a lengthy series of cuts to the proposed budget, which essentially represented a wish list from department heads and constitutional officers.
Entering last Thursday’s special meeting the tentative millage rate was up just over a quarter of a mill before commissioners, by a narrow majority in one instance, made adjustments and additions.
The adjustment was downsizing revenue estimates out of EMS.
Sherry Herring from the Clerk of Courts said she believed an estimate of $916,000 in revenue for EMS, which operates on run costs, was optimistic.
“I believe that revenue estimate is too high,” Herring said.
She recommended, based on history, that commissioners carve $200,000 off that number.
Commissioners decided, at least for now, to bump the millage to accommodate the reduction in revenue projections.
County administrator Don Butler said staff is still looking at the EMS budget for potential cuts and that proposals are due next month on privatization of ambulance service, either of which could mitigate the revenue adjustment.
There is also an ongoing thorn for commissioners in the EMS budget – the failure of Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf to compensate for ambulance runs from that hospital to another facility.
Discussions between the BOCC and Sacred Heart officials have gone on for some 18 months, Commissioner Ward McDaniel said, without a resolution on those types of ambulance runs.
“We have an institution that uses this service that doesn’t want to pay us,” McDaniel said. “We don’t owe it to them. It’s not right for us to foot the bill.”
County staff is recommending approaching the citizen board overseeing disbursement of the half-cent sales tax dollars collected to address care for the indigent and underinsured to take out $70,000 for this year and an equal amount for the coming year.
Sacred Heart has argued before that very health board that sales tax collections are below projections found in an agreement between the hospital and county implementing the sales tax and that the hospital will lose some $6 million this year, county attorney Jeremy Novak said.
Commissioners, by a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Tan Smiley and Carmen McLemore dissenting, also added $40,000 to the budget to hire a GIS consultant to begin the demographic study required to begin bringing the county into compliance on districting.
That is the first step suggested by a consultant if the BOCC seeks to bring back countywide voting.
Last month consulting attorney Michael Spellman recommended the GIS study, by an independent GIS expert, to study of the county’s demographics, urging the BOCC to take steps toward bringing the county into compliance with state laws on counting inmates as part of the population.
Commissioners also expressed a desire to lobby for a legislative change to that mandate of counting inmates in state prisons within the county as part of the population.
The BOCC, despite an Attorney General opinion on the issue, has ignored the mandate.
“We are out of compliance with state law,” McDaniel said.
Spellman said he would only be comfortable pursuing countywide voting, if the BOCC chose to pursue it, if the county was in compliance as far as district boundaries.
Not only does the BOCC not count prisoners, but district populations are out of balance compared to the federal and state mandate that district populations be within 10 percent of the average of all five.
District 2, for example, has a population 15 percent higher than the mean while District 4, the county’s “majority-minority” voting district, has a population nearly 30 percent below the mean, McDaniel noted.
Compliance with state law, Spellman said, was essential for entering a federal courtroom to amend or overturn a federal decree mandating single-member districts.
“At some point we have to redistrict,” said Commissioner Warren Yeager. “It is part of what we are responsible to do. We’ve got to bite the bullet.”
McLemore argued that there was no point expending money until a resolution on the inmate question was found by legislative fiat.
“Until we get it cleared up with the inmates … we should leave that alone,” Smiley said.
Commissioner Joanna Bryan said voters had “spoken” on their desire for countywide voting and that three commissioners, indicating she, Yeager and McDaniel, “ran on the issue.”
“We need to move forward on this,” Bryan said.
*Commissioners also voted 4-1 (Bryan dissenting) to leave $46,750 in reimbursement money from the former Gulf County Economic Development Alliance, Inc. in the reserves for the new county-operated economic development.
Bryan noted that was in addition to a budget of more than $187,000 for the department – three times the amount the BOCC had budgeted for the EDA during the current year.
The amount is more than double the full-year pledge to the former Economic Development Council prior to the formation of the EDA.
“Why would we fund this amount for economic development?” Bryan wondered. She had earlier in the week asked that the proposed economic development department budget be pulled from a meeting agenda for additional analysis.
“We’ve cut important services to the people of our county,” she continued. “We cut a lot of things that important to the people in the county.
“As you know I was against our taking back economic development. Government can’t carry the full weight of economic development. There has to be private (participation).”