Apalachicola property owners will see more than a half-mill increase in their taxes, and city workers won’t be getting raises, if the tentative budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year is approved in two weeks.
By unanimous consent at the first budget hearing Tuesday night, city commissioners okayed a nearly $2 million budget which will see the millage rate rising from 9.0090 to 9.6852 mills, an increase of about 7.5 percent.
By adopting the rollback rate, city commissioners will raise next year about $1.083 million in property taxes, only about $8,000 less than the $1.091 million brought in this year.
The new millage rate, if adopted at the second and final budget hearing at 6 p.m. on Sept. 24, will bring Apalachicola less than one-third of 1 mill away from the 10-mill cap specified in state law.
Once the $140,000 raised by the half-cent sales tax, the $237,000 raised by utility franchise fees and taxes and a variety of other fees and rents are factored in, the proposed budget will raise about $1.82 million, about $18,000 less than was raised in the current 2012-13 fiscal year.
The reason the city was forced to raise taxes and is still bringing in less dollars than this year is because the city saw a steep drop in its tax base, which fell from $126.4 million to $117.7 million, or by about $8.6 million, or nearly 7 percent.
At a budget workshop held prior to the regular meeting Sept. 3, Mayor Van Johnson tried to persuade his colleagues to offer employees a raise, but he garnered little support.
“That’s money that will be put into the community,” said Johnson. “They’ll go out and spend it and it will recirculate in the community.”
Commissioner Mitchell Bartley was adamant that the city was not in a position to offer pay increases. “I don’t feel like, in the circumstance, that it’s time to be giving raises,” he said. “I just can’t see it.”
Bartley said his views are shaped by the fact that the city plans to impose a new, state-mandated sewer user fee on customers next year, on top of the annual 3 percent hike in water and sewer rates that are part of the existing law.
City Clerk Lee Mathes outlined for commissioners the proposal for divvying up sewer customers’ share of the roughly $101,000 that the user fee will generate, with that money going towards repayment of a state revolving loan that was taken out to finance improvements to the city’s advanced wastewater treatment system a few years ago.
As it stands now, each of the city’s 810 residential sewer customers will pay a fee of $6.50 per month, with the system’s 298 senior citizen customers each paying $3.50 monthly. The city’s 175 commercial customers will pay $12.50 per month, if the proposal is adopted on second reading at the October regular meeting.
“It’s a sewer user fee that will be added on to each individual bill just to pay for the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) payment,” said Mathes. “If you don’t have sewer it doesn’t affect you.”
The mayor queried the commissioners whether it is “palatable for you to consider any percentage (for raises.
In the past we did a bonus. I suggest that we do that, at least give employees something,” he said.
But the commissioners, with the exception of Frank Cook, were not in support.
“We ought to take any extra money we got and stockpile it and plan for the worst and hope for the best. Sometimes things crop up that we don’t count on,” said Jimmy Elliott, noting that with the closure of the Bay City Work Camp the city lost a major source of income to operate its water and sewer system.
“That’s a major hit, to losing over $100,000 a year. To me that’s a lot of money,” he said. “I feel like right now our employee are making far better at their jobs than most of the people in the county. We can hold off a while and see how things are going to go this year.”
Brenda Ash, who was absent due to illness, sent a memo opposing any boost in pay for either the city attorney or city workers. “I am not in agreement with increase attorney fees or across-the-board raises while we have less money coming in,” she wrote, in a memo read by City Administrator Betty Taylor-Webb.
Commissioner Frank Cook carved out a middle path, supporting a bonus for city employees but not specifying whether it would be quantified and paid up front, or come as a result of surplus monies left at the end of the year.
“On the pay increase I’m still contemplating,” he said. “I can see some advantages but I haven’t made up my mind on that one,” he said. “Once you give a raise it’s there. I would be more amenable to go to something like a bonus, and if we are below what we should have spent in a given month, look at that and prorating it out.
“Once you give a raise people depend on it. But if we have extra money, it’s an incentive for people to save money. Workers can push to save money as time goes on,” Cook said. “I’m apprehensive about the financial situation of the country and just society in general right now I’m somewhat apprehensive about obligating ourselves to a pay raise, I think we can probably do it, but if we do it in writing we have obligated ourselves.
“I would be amenable to somewhat of a compromise,” he said. “Maybe we can have our cake and eat it too.”
The mayor continued to press for a pay increase without taking on any of his colleagues. “I’m not being critical of (anyone’s) position,” he said. “I also understand that the cost of employees are part of the operations of the city, they’re part of that cost, and we can’t exclude them because they’re people, and not give them cost of living adjustments when we’re increasing everything else.”
Johnson said granting the city’s workforce a 3 percent increase “is not going to amount to more than $30,000. That is the cost of running the city, that is a cost you cannot escape.”
Both Elliott and Bartley remain unconvinced. “We pay good salaries and each policeman has a car,” said Elliott. “They don’t drive to work. That’s gas expenditures.
“I think we ought to be thankful we’ve got jobs, period. I’m thankful they (city employees) are not in a position where they’re going to lose their jobs,” he said. “This ought to be a year of tightening up.
“Schoolteachers have to pay half their health care (and they) have to pay loans and they’re the ones teaching our children for the future of this nation,” Elliott said.
Bartley said he was concerned the city was coming too close to the 10-mill cap. “I think the money should be carried over,” he said. “I think we need to handle the taxpayers’ money in more of a professional way.”