During a special meeting last week, the Board of County Commissioners made clear their feelings about a recent Florida TaxWatch report.
“That report was a bunch of hogwash,” said County Administrator Michael Hammond of the report which placed county residents in the upper half of the state on per capita taxation while living in one the least populous county’s in the state.
Hammond said the comparison of per capita taxation was dubious at best.
Financial officer Sherry Herring said the report takes in not just taxes levied by the BOCC, but municipal, school board and water management district taxes, every entity that levies residents of the county.
Herring said per capita analysis is typically an unfair method of examining small governments due to the costs of providing just a minimal level of service, capital outlay and basic infrastructure and unfunded mandates from state and federal governments.
She used a real-world example.
If the South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department and Howard Creek Volunteer Fire Departments each purchased the same fire truck at the same price, the “per capita” cost would be much less for South Gulf than for Howard Creek, which would seem to have overpaid.
But both communities (fire districts which also levy taxes under the BOCC) should have and need the fire truck and would have to structure their financial plan differently in order to fund the same expense.
Hammond noted that the value of the mill in Miami-Dade County is worth $2.9 billion while in Gulf County the mill was worth barely over half that, which is 47th in the state, according to the TaxWatch report.
He said the BOCC reduced its budget by 25 percent compared to 14 years ago, just before the Great Recession, and is operating with 34 fewer employees than 14 years ago.
Also, the growth in ad valorem taxes is in the negative, as reflected in the TaxWatch report and the county lands in the bottom 25 percent in other taxes such as sales taxes.
Mix in high land values due to the area being a “destination” and the county’s rank as 43rd in amount of just value exempt from property taxes and the TaxWatch report is a subjective look at the county’s operations.
“We don’t have a WalMart here,” Hammond said in reference to sales tax. “Continuously people want more services and that costs more money.
“We’ve done more with less than we ever have.”
Florida TaxWatch is a government watchdog agency that recently released a report that compared the revenue and expenditures of Florida’s 67 counties “in an attempt to provide an overview of how local government stacks up with the rest of the state,” the report stated.
The report did not attempt to compare or evaluate levels of service.
While the county ranked 53 in average total millage rates, the Board of County Commissioners and Gulf County School Board both ranked in the top 10 in property taxes “per capita” and 14 in “per capita” total property taxes.
The county ranked No. 2 among 67 counties for tax levies per $1,000 of personal income.
Total county tax revenue is No. 10 “per capita” in the state and county and municipal taxing, BOCC and cities, “per capita” is No. 8 in the state.
Storm debris, water
The BOCC formally accepted $2 million from the Florida Division of Emergency Management and will apply a chunk of the money as a match to a federal grant of $5.7 million.
The $7 million total in funding will be used for debris removal along waterways, stormwater ditches, particularly outfall ditches leading to other water bodies.
“We want to do this as quickly as possible,” Hammond said.
Public Works director Mark Cothran said his team already identified a number of areas to be addressed.
He added some problems areas were revealed during recent heavy rains that resulted in flooding in Overstreet and Pleasant Rest Road, areas that rarely if ever flood.
The county has already addressed some areas, Cothran said, but is ready to move forward with a county-wide approach.
“We have a pretty good plan for what needs to be done,” Cothran said.
He said that in the next 220 days the lion’s share of the problem areas should be cleared, he said.
The $2 million was half of grant funding recently disbursed by FDEM to local governments.
The BOCC also approved including among its legislative requests dollars for dredging the shipping channel as a step toward opening the Port of Port St. Joe.
Guerry Magidson, Port Authority Director, said the goal is to restore an initial $20 million to the budget of the Florida Department of Transportation, secure a $10 million match and seek $5 million from Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc.
He added that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is examining extending the current five-year permits for the dredging.
“The two most important economic development projects in the county are dredging and getting the railroad fixed,” Magidson said, referring to Genesee-Wyoming tracks that connect the port to points north.