The budget presented to the Board of County Commissioners last week included a lengthy wish list.
Commissioners began Monday snuffing out those wishes.
The BOCC was presented last week by its budget committee with a budget that would see expenditures increase by more than $2.6 million, a 27 percent increase from the current year and representing a 1.7 millage rate hike compared to this year.
“It is not going to be an easy year,” Clerk of Courts Becky Norris.
By the end of a special meeting Monday commissioners had closed the gap but remained looking at a budget that will demand a tax increase.
Commissioners also tentatively approved a 5-cent increase to the county gas tax.
One significant concern is the amount of cash carry forward in the budget, those dollars that are intended as a kind of rolling reserve into which commissioners have dipped over recent years to “plug holes” in the budget in order to avoid raising millage rates, said county administrator Don Butler.
However, those funds, after being used consistently since 2010, have dropped by 30 percent this year, Butler said, representing $1.5 million-$2 million.
“At some point with us cutting budgets I knew that number would come down,” said Commissioner Warren Yeager.
Cash carry forward was $5.8 million in each of the past two years – this year it is $4.169 million, with $3 million that is restricted by obligations to maintain cash carry forward levels for reserves and the county capital fund as recommended for county government.
“There is not a lot of money left to plug into this year’s budget,” Butler said. “It is going to be tight this year.”
Not included in the budget as currently crafted are dollars for pursuing recommendations made by consulting counsel on redistricting and any loan agreement with the Port St. Joe Port Authority.
Butler said the BOCC was also hamstrung in some areas – such as the landfill and EMS – due to shortfalls in revenue compared to projections before the current budget year began.
All county offices are also feeling a 12 percent increase in Florida retirement system obligations.
Before the work of cutting began in earnest Monday, commissioners decided to freeze all county budgets, including constitutional officers, to allow staff to gain a better handle on what money is remaining compared to obligations.
Butler said staff identified some $323,974 in potential savings to be gleaned from the current budget.
Yeager also continued his call, which he has made for at least five years, for commissioners to look at alternative sources of funding.
And for the second year in a row one proposal is to raise the county gas tax by 5 cents and take $200,000 of those dollars, which flow into the county’s secondary road and bridge fund, to plug into the Public Works budget, which is allowed by law.
“We have got to find alternative sources of revenue,” Yeager said. “We can not continue to go back to the property tax payer who is not 100 percent of us living in the county to absorb these increases.”
According to Property Appraiser Mitch Burke the percent of taxpayers in the county is north of 80 percent of county residents.
After considerable debate between Yeager and Commissioner Carmen McLemore, a replay of last year, commissioners approved 4-1 the additional 5 cents.
Commissioners did the same thing at this juncture last year only to reverse course on abandon the proposal in the final budget.
Much of that wish list that boosted the tentative budget fell by the wayside during Monday’s special meeting.
“Probably everything on this list is needed,” Butler said, adding that the county had done without some items up to this point; another year, he hoped, would not make a difference.
Commissioners nixed pay raises for employees in the Clerk of Courts and Supervisor of Elections offices as well as two new positions for the Property Appraiser as well as money for a new payroll system and equipment upgrades for the board meeting room.
Funds to allow live online streaming of BOCC meetings was cut as was money for an excavator and new fueling system for Public Works, the latter two big ticket items costing a combined $320,000.
“I’d like to have everything on this list,” said Commissioner Carmen McLemore after a testy exchange with Public Works director Joe Danford over the need for the excavator. “But we are not going to be able to do it.”
Dollars to the Gulf County Sheriff’s Office for a new investigator and vehicle replacement were axed.
Cuts to outside agency funding – proposed by staff at 25 percent per agency – met with mixed support, with commissioners agreeing to cuts to the public library system, county Health Department and ARC, but resisting cuts to the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society and Gulf County Senior Citizens.
Yeager said the fact that the BOCC had a contract with the Humane Society and is essentially a partner with the agency on animal control mitigates consideration of cuts.
He said a community should also take care of their kids and their older people as a reason to maintain funding to Senior Citizens.
Overall, staff identified $995,187 in cuts, nearly all of which were approved by commissioners.
Estimates on selling equipment used at the landfill after the landfill closes at the end of the year would mean another $300,000 in revenue.
In total, staff and commissioners closed the shortfall to roughly $682,628, which would still represent an increase in the millage rate of half a mill.
Commissioners indicated they are not done working to bring the numbers down.
Commissioners must set a tentative millage rate by Aug. 1.