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PSJ: Millage rate static, slight increase in utilities

By Tim Croft
The Star

Port St. Joe commissioners came away from Tuesday’s budget workshop confident in the city’s financial position and the year ahead. 

Now comes all the advertising and public hearings required to put the finishing touches on the budget before the first public hearing Sept. 15. 

To start, for city taxpayers, the millage rate of 3.9514 will remain untouched, as it has for more than 12 years. 

A mill is equal to $1 per every $1,000 in assessed taxable personal property. 

“Right now, it all looks pretty good,” said Mayor Rex Buzzett. 

City Manager Jim Anderson emphasized that when taxpayers receive their Truth In Millage (TRIM) notices, those notices will reflect a full mill increase from the city. 

TRIM notices, however, reflect tentative millage rates, that cannot go up but may come down and must be submitted to the property appraiser by the first week of August. 

And, the city has consistently submitted a mill increase to provide commissioners flexibility in planning, only to return to the same millage each year. 

This year proved no different. 

On the consumer side, not all news was positive as the city is proposing a 2 percent increase in water and sewer, an increase based on a rate study conducted this year. 

The city is currently working on a cycle that will see utilities increase 2 percent each year for the next five years. 

For the average water and sewer bill of $100 per month, the increase would amount to about $2, Anderson said. 

“Yes, it is an increase, but it is a minimal increase,” Anderson said. “We will be flattening it out for the next five years.” 

The city is preparing to take a macro look at current debt, requirements from the rate study to satisfy the debt payments and whether paying down a portion of the $12 million-$16 million the city owes could impact rates. 

“Do we want to refinance?” Anderson asked commissioners. 

A citizens committee has been named by commissioners to examine the city’s financial situation and assess options. 

On the utility side, the city remains roughly 100 customers down compared to pre-Hurricane Michael, equating to about $120,000 a year. 

However, commissioners also noted the amount of building taking place in the city. 

“Hopefully, next year we’ll be back to par,” Anderson said. 

In addition for consumers, the contract with solid waste hauler BCC automatically includes a 3 percent bump in rates. 

Overall, for the first time in some years, the city is in a flexible fiscal position, said financial officer Mike Lacour. 

“We’re certainly healthier since I’ve been here,” Lacour added. 

Due to the rise in property values, despite maintaining the same millage the city will collect an additional $133,000 in property taxes during the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. 

“With all the building going on we’d expect to see more (of an increase) next year,” Lacour said. “This is the first time in 10 years we’ve seen this kind of increase.” 

Additionally, the city expects to collect $408,000 from the county as part of an interlocal agreement that sunset the initial boundaries of the community redevelopment area. 

The city also holds a note for just under $200,000 with the Port St. Joe Port Authority which comes due in the spring. 

Lacour said talks were needed with Port Authority board members about the note and the future of the port. 

“That will need discussion,” Lacour said. 

Further, the city has escrowed roughly $800,000 in FEMA and insurance dollars for projects, with another $506,000 on the books for reimbursement. 

“We can make some improvements to the community with this budget,” Lacour said. “We have a lot of challenges but a lot of opportunities with projects.” 

Of particular focus is the historic Maddox property and George Core Park. 

Another priority is replacing two lift stations. 

Buzzett said with The St. Joe Company’s plans to rebuild the marina, the city’s hopes for a new city hall adjacent to the new Capital City Bank building, he was encouraged at the progress. 

And, unlike a typical year when the city would for ad valorem taxes to be collected to begin substantive projects, Lacour said the city was positioned to move immediately. 

The budget as it stands includes a 3 percent cost of living salary increase for all employees and the city will absorb most of 4.92 percent increase in employee health insurance, raising the board’s contribution from $755 per month to $792 per month per employee.