As they put the finishing touches to next fiscal year’s budget last week county commissioners arrived at a bumping of the heads.
With one commissioner, Warren Yeager, absent and two commissioners, Joanna Bryan and Ward McDaniel, refusing to cast a vote in support of a tax increase, the Board of County Commissioners spent nearly three hours in a stalemate.
The deadlock was finally broken when Yeager was linked to the meeting, audibly and visually, by phone and cast the deciding vote to approve the budget as presented at the beginning of the night.
That budget includes an aggregate millage rate, taking into account the general fund and fire districts, of 6.8740, an increase from last year of 11.98 percent.
The rollback rate, that millage at which the county would realize the same revenue as the current fiscal year, is 6.1408.
A mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 in taxable property value.
The budget includes a tax increase of $1.073 million.
Clerk of Courts Becky Norris cited several reasons she said accounted for the increase.
Those included $200,000 for a Public Works excavator; increases in Florida retirement system contributions over $200,000; pay raises pledged and budgeted last year and implemented this year on top of raises approved this year which combined for over $400,000; increased costs for landfill monitoring and more than $100,000 for new vehicles for the Gulf County Sheriff.
Commissioners Tan Smiley, Yeager and Carmen McLemore voted to approve the budget; Bryan and McDaniel dissented.
“It’s going to be hard to look people in the eye,” McDaniel said. “We’re just kicking (the issues) down the road.”
The deadlock was evident early as commissioners debated what had and had not been done to cut the budget and, most prominently in the discussion, lessen the burden on property taxpayers in favor of user or service fees.
“We need to shift some of the burden, the cost, from the taxpayer,” said Pat Hardman, president of the Coastal Community Association.
Hardman noted that commissioners had taken up several measures to do that – including adding to the gas tax, an increase to the bed tax, mandatory garbage – and failed to ratify any.
The gas tax died by deadline and the increase to the bed tax was found to not be the panacea for assisting the sheriff’s budget as it was proposed.
“We are very restricted on how we could use those funds,” said Sheriff Mike Harrison.
Mandatory garbage pickup was kicked down the road by commissioners who set a referendum for November 2014 to consider a sales tax to fund mandatory garbage.
“These are no-brainers to me,” Hardman said of the measures discussed and not implemented.
She said she found “some bacon” but not “a lot of fat” in the budget but noted a reserve balance of nearly $5 million.
“I find that incompetent” that commissioners did not do more to ease the burden on property taxpayers, Hardman added. “You need to spread the cost of operating the county to those who use it and can afford it. You are going to have the exact same problems next year.”
The budget vote had urgency as last week was the final budget hearing and commissioners had to gavel the meeting with a budget formalized.
McDaniel, echoing Hardman, said he wanted to dip into reserves to close the tax increase margin, but found early resistance from McLemore and Bryan.
McDaniel and McLemore swapped figures, as if at a bargaining table, on how much would be palatable to take from reserves, but the numbers never narrowed sufficiently.
“I do not support going into reserves,” Bryan said. “I’m not in favor of a tax increase and I am not in favor of going into reserves.”
After the board took two recesses in an attempt to calm emotions and arrive at a solution, McLemore challenged the dissenters, Bryan and McDaniel, for places to further cut the budget.
Bryan said she had raised a number of issues, from considering the operational costs of a $1.2 million jail that was out of compliance with Model Jail Standards to mandatory garbage, and found herself roundly shut out by her fellow commissioners.
“I have been told not to even discuss them,” Bryan said. “I’ve discussed (these) many times and you have no interest in supporting (them).
“I am not in favor of raising taxes if we are not being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”
McDaniel said he had suggested at the last public budget hearing that commissioners comb through department budgets line by line but the suggestion gained no traction.
While the individual savings in a given department might not add up to much, McDaniel said, savings could be found, but commissioners squandered the opportunity.
“We had plenty of time to look at this stuff,” McDaniel said.
County administrator Don Butler said he had a conference call with the county’s bond consultant and said the consultant would want to know if a tax increase was not passed would the county use reserves or cut expenditures.
And, Butler said, would the county continue to spend more than is coming in on the revenue side?
Both questions, Butler said, could impact the county’s bond rating.
“If we live above our means we have to pay the price someday,” Butler said.
During an extended recess McDaniel thought he had brokered a deal by which the BOCC would dip into reserves, not purchase an excavator for Public Works and make other smaller cuts to arrive at a tax increase in the neighborhood of $100,000 or less.
One by one commissioners, save Bryan, went into a back room with staff to discuss the parameters but as commissioners gathered back together, after nearly 40 minutes, Butler entered the meeting room with a phone.
He said county attorney Jeremy Novak, also connected by phone, indicated that if Yeager was linked by audio and video to the meeting, he could vote.
“I felt blindsided,” McDaniel said later.
Yeager, not present during any of the nearly three hours of discussion, cast the vote to approve the budget with tax increase.
“We’ve got to show some leadership,” Yeager said. “We have to move forward with the county’s business. This is a tough call. At the end of the day we are going to have to address a lot of this next year.”