The Board of County Commissioners began the business of next year’s budget with a marathon last week.
The BOCC met over more than five hours divided by a lunch break last week as commissioners begin the task of crafting a budget for the next fiscal year.
The BOCC has until the end of the month to establish a tentative millage rate for the Florida Department of Revenue.
That rate will go out on Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices.
The BOCC will have until September to finalize the budget and millage rate; once established at the end of this month, the tentative millage rate can not go up, though commissioners could still bring it down.
Commissioners said they were seeking to trim as much as $2 million from the budgets provided by departments and constitutional officers.
That initial budget came with a millage rate of 7.8393, said Clerk of Courts Becky Norris. That would be nearly 27 percent above the rollback rate.
The rollback rate is that millage which provides the same level of revenue as the current fiscal year.
A mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 in assessed taxable property.
“It is our responsibility to cut as much as we can,” said Commissioner Carmen McLemore. “Taxpayers want us to do that.”
A dual purpose for Commissioner Warren Yeager was identifying sources of revenue other than property taxes.
“We’ve got to figure out how to take of this off the ad valorem taxpayer,” Yeager said. “We’ve got to figure out to do it with user fees, service fees and other alternatives.”
Commissioners are also wrestling with a double whammy of unfunded mandates this year in increases to Medicaid contributions passed on from the federal government to the state to the county and legislatively mandated increased contributions from local government toward employees’ retirements.
And while commissioners worked through a host of issues last week, much work remains and commissioners repeatedly reminded themselves they were still in position to revisit any budget and line item.
The cutting began early and continued for much of the morning.
A proposal to begin the process of moving to a different operational information computer system, costing $50,000 as a first step this year, was axed immediately.
All personnel budgets had been calculated with a 3 percent raise across the board for employees.
That was also cut immediately, and remained off the board even after a late plea from deputy administrator Michael Hammond.
“I know everybody wants a pay raise,” McLemore said. “Are we going to sit here and give everybody a raise? I’d love to but we have to do some serious cutting.”
Yeager suggested looking at one-time bonuses in lieu of raises which would have impacts beyond the fiscal year and noted employees had not received a pay raise in five years.
“Our staff does a fabulous job, but this is hard time for a pay raise,” said Commissioner Joanna Bryan after noting that many private businesses are “wrestling” with the same problem.
The pay raise would cost the county $225,454, according to the clerk’s office.
For the third consecutive year commissioners also axed an additional position in the clerk’s office. Norris said she had pared the job specs and salary requirements as low as she could and made the plea for the position – again.
“We are struggling to do our job adequately,” Norris said, “and meet constitutional requirements. We are really struggling getting everything done.”
The Veterans Service Office was reduced to two-days a week and the BOCC cut a $10,000 increase for funding to the Gulf County Health Department to assist in offsetting cuts in state funding.
*Commissioners agreed to meet Sheriff Mike Harrison in the middle on funding for new vehicles. Noting the age of his fleet, past and recent unsuccessful attempts to sell old vehicles for new and the lapsing of two manpower positions to net a new vehicle, Harrison said “our fleet is in deplorable condition.”
Commissioners agreed to an increase of $100,000 to fund three new vehicles.
*Commissioners also noted the need to replace some EMS vehicles, at $150,00 per, but wrestled with a departmental budget request of $1.2 million.
The budget for urgent care was $204,000 and 2,500 people in Gulf County alone use some form of Medicaid, staff noted.
“The public would be shocked if they knew what their tax dollars were going to,” said Yeager. “The state needs to find a funding source instead of going to our taxpayers.”
*Public Works requested $330,000 that included $205,000 for a new excavator and $125,000 for a new fueling system.
Director of Solid Waste Joe Danford said one excavator was in decent shape, but he needs three in order to complete all necessary work. He added that his fueling system was in need of an overhaul, currently being run on outdated equipment. Danford worried about Gulf County could find itself in a similar situation as South Florida during bad hurricane seasons where gas can’t be delivered to damaged areas delaying the cleanup process.
Yeager suggested approving the fueling system and leaving the excavator for next year, but Danford said he’d prefer the opposite and noted needs are pushed back year after year.
“We need to sit down and talk about it, make a plan and set some money aside,” said Danford.
*Commissioners considered a host of alternative revenue sources.
Yeager moved to increase tipping fees at Five Points landfill from $40 to $50.
Commissioner Tan Smiley said higher costs at the landfill “will have the woods filling up with trash” but the new fee was approved and will take effect Oct. 1.
Hunting and fishing licenses will see a price hike on the same day. A seven-day saltwater permit for out-of-county visitors will be raised to $50 and fines for hunting or fishing without a license will increase to $500.
Administrator Don Butler offered an idea to increase the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon at the pump. The change is expected to net $175,000 a year.
“It’s a great way to supplement the budget,” said Yeager.
McLemore feared the public wouldn’t understand how the price increase would help with a budget shortfall, but Yeager said it was up to commissioners to educate residents.
Commissioners voted down the gas tax this past Tuesday during a second budget meeting.
Commissioners are also looking at the potential of raising the bed tax collection by one penny and increasing beach driving permit fees.
*Commissioners increased funding for the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society as the society’s shelter has seen animal intakes more than double the past five years. The increase of $15,000 was noted by Hammond in his ending statement on employee pay raises as he said commissioners provided additional funding for “dogs” but not employees.
Star Staff Writer Wes Locher contributed to this report