No tax increase this year from county
Administrator Michael Hammond said during a special meeting of the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday that he did not sense a vote for raising taxes.
The prediction was on the money.
Commissioners unanimously maintained the same millage rates for the board and fire control districts while millage rates within the Municipal Services Taxing Units (MSTUs) fell due to rising property values.
Commissioners maintained the board’s 7.100 millage rate, approving a half-mill levy for each of the fire control districts.
The MSTU millage rates are, from gulf-front to gulf-interior to bayside, 1.232, 0.7785 and 0.875, respectively.
A mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of assessed taxable property.
Once submitted to the property appraiser by the first week of August, the board can not increase the millage, though it can reduce it.
Commissioners also approved the broad strokes of the coming fiscal year’s budget, but it was just that, broad strokes.
Sherry Herring, the county’s financial officer, said a number of state revenue sources had yet to post to the county.
The final state budget was not signed until the last days of June and it has left local taxing authorities scrambling as deadlines approach for submitting millage rates and advertising tentative budgets.
“We are still waiting on important revenue due from the state,” Herring said.
The county, Hammond said, was put in a bad position, but staff felt comfortable putting a millage rate and tentative budget forward pending state dollars.
From the outset, this was a tighten the belt budget, Hammond noting that constitutional officers and departments were held to zero increases across the board.
Outside agencies such as the humane society and libraries also received no increases in funding, Hammond said.
“We treated everybody the same,” he added.
There are cost of living salary increases and the board will increase its contribution to employee health insurance.
“There are still a lot of unknowns,” Hammond said, echoing budget discussions earlier in the week by the Gulf County School Board.
The first public hearing on the budget will be 5:01 p.m. ET Sept. 14.
The budget meeting segued into a discussion of the county’s need for additional paramedics for EMS.
This in turn brought up a broader debate about EMS, which is a losing proposition in the county, a situation compounded by the $36,000 Mexico Beach pays for EMS service.
Hammond said that Mexico Beach service was a half million expense for the county and that number must increase.
“Gulf County taxpayers are subsidizing Bay County taxpayers,” Hammond said. “We’re losing money.
“We want to be good neighbors, but that number has to come up.”
As in 10-fold, Hammond added, if it was to make an impact.
After years of losing as much as $1 million annually, county EMS, as currently budgeted, would lose about $400,000 next fiscal year.
“Under ideal conditions we are going to lose $400,000,” Hammond said. “Bay County knows it is getting a sweetheart deal.”
County attorney Jeremy Novak said he would craft a letter alerting Mexico Beach officials of the county’s desire to re-visit the current contract, established about five years ago.
At the time, Commissioner Ward McDaniel noted, the county was just trying to “dip a toe in the water” to receive the business.
As Hammond said, the agreement makes sense geographically and vicinity, but the county has to receive more than $36,000 a year.
“I think it is time to renegotiate the contract,” said Commission chair Sandy Quinn, Jr.
And McDaniel said the county could approach Bay County on the basis of needing additional personnel; the county has just six full-time paramedics at this time.
The problem with a lack of certified personnel is region-wide and has been since Hurricane Michael.
Further, McDaniel noted, that county EMS is making 1.3 trips per day on average carrying patients from Ascension Sacred Heart Gulf to Panama City or Tallahassee facilities.
“We need to try to bring in more paramedics,” McDaniel said.
Commissioners approved the county providing a guarantee on a $2 million loan for Lighthouse Utilities, with the proviso that an agreement to purchase the utility is reached in the next three years.
The county would solely be a guarantor on the loan; a step to secure competitive rates on the loan, Hammond said.
The immediate goal of the utility is to construct in the next three months a new well on the site of one destroyed during Hurricane Michael, Hammond said.
That would assist the utility in increasing capacity, Hammond said, which is the key issue.
Hammond said the utility’s distribution system is “good” but the issue is the utility has been reduced by Mother Nature to one well from three.
“They are one major crisis away from being everybody’s crisis,” Hammond said.
Lighthouse serves roughly 2,000 customers from Jones Homestead to St. Joseph Peninsula.