After two mornings of county budget workshops last week, three things became clear.
None of the constitutional officers and county department heads increased their budgets.
The millage rate is likely not going to increase next year.
All county employees can expect to receive an annual $1,000 across-the-board increase in their paychecks during the upcoming fiscal year.
In a smooth Thursday morning session that only briefly was continued in the afternoon, followed by a comparatively short Friday morning session, the workshop glided by with very little, if any, controversy.
A roughly 3.6 percent increase in the tax base, from $1.76 billion to $1.83 billion, meant that if the millage rate stayed the same, at 6.3065 mills, the county would collect next year about $11.5 million, roughly $400,000 more in property taxes than it did this year.
The commissioners evidenced little interest in opting for the rollback rate, which at 6.1554 mills, would bring in about $11.2 million, about $115,000 more than the taxes raised during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The only voice on hand that supported the rollback rate was that of Allan Feifer, representing the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, a perennial advocate for keeping taxes low and budgets under control.
He argued that keeping the millage rate the same would mean individual property taxes would be going up anywhere from 3.5 to 5 percent, due to a boost in property valuations.
In her report, Erin Griffith, the assistant finance officer, told commissioners that homesteaded properties with just values exceeding taxable values, saw an increase in accessed value of 2.10 percent, so that a homeowner with a house valued at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay $651 in county taxes, $20 more than what he or she paid this year.
“There’s not a bad person up there. I know each of you act with a heart that wants to do the right thing,” said Feifer. “But the budget process is flawed. One of the ways we could improve the budget process is to first discuss where we want to wind up at the end of the process.”
Feifer praised the department heads for heeding the commissioners’ request to not increase their budgets, but was critical of what he said was a half-million dollar increase in overall spending.
In her report, Griffith said that once you exclude the effect of transfers to the tax increment districts in Apalachicola and Carrabelle, and unavoidable increases in health insurance premiums and contributions to the Florida retirement system, total spending would go up about $250,000.
The lion’s share of this spending increase, about $215,000, comes as a result of a $1,000 across-the-board pay hike for all county employees.
Griffith outlined the cost of four possible options. The others included a one-time bonus of $1,000, which would cost about $188,000; a $750 across-the-board raise in wages, which would run about $161,000; and a $600 pay hike, which would run about $130,000.
None of the commissioners objected to Commissioner Noah Lockley’s motion to tentatively improve the $1,000 raise, which they view as a cost-of-living increase. Commissioner Cheryl Sanders noted that the pay raise did not require any raising of the millage rate over the current year.
The Thursday workshop opened with the county’s largest budget, that of the sheriff, which is being held steady at $5.6 million, Sheriff A.J. Smith was the lone constitutional officer who did not attend, with the department represented by Ginger Coulter, the department’s finance officer.
Smith’s budget will grow from 78 to 81 positions, and includes about $90,000 for new machinery and equipment.
Sanders asked whether there were three courthouse security guards in the budget, and Coulter said there were, but only two were on the job as of now.
“I want to make sure we have adequate courthouse security,” she said, noting that courthouses in adjacent counties seemed to have sparse staffing.
“They are an accident waiting to happen in my book,” she said.
Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper’s budget of $630,802, unchanged from this year, also was tentatively approved, as was that of Tax Collector Rick Watson, which dropped by about one-quarter of 1 percent, to $586,203.
Watson said he has spoken with officials in the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles about adding drivers license services, which he said could be done without bringing on any additional employees.
He said Franklin, Glades and Gilchrist counties are the only ones in Florida without full-time on-site drivers license services, and that the county is losing about 1,000 license transactions a year to neighboring counties.
Watson said that with about 1000 concealed weapon permit holders in the county, he would alse like to add that service, so that the entire permit process could be handled on-site.
“Would you make money (with these services)?” asked Commissioner William Massey.
“You won't lose none on it,” said Lockley.
“This is good news for people in the county to get licenses here, especially under current budget constraints,” said Chairman Smokey Parrish.
Sanders asked about getting the air conditioning fixed in the Carrabelle annex. Skipper said they are looking into it, and that it may not require putting in an entire new commercial unit.
Commissioner Ricky Jones questioned Watson how he would be able to add licensure and permitting without an increase in staff. “I have found it’s very hard to add services without adding employees,” he said.
“Debbie (Cox) is retired and Miss Ethel (Jenkins) isn’t far away,” said Watson.
He said Jenkins is retiring at the end of September, and that he will be interviewing that month for a replacement.
“I’ll replace one employee but I won’t be replacing two,” Watson said, “I looked at the transaction load that the office has now, and the additional transactions that would be expected, and I met with a budget person at the Department of Revenue and did comparisons with other counties. I’m confident we can do it.”
Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson and Supervisor of Elections Heather Riley each kept their budgets unchanged, at about $330,000 in each case. Johnson’s staff also includes several employees who are paid for out of court system funds, and not out of county property tax proceeds.
In her report regarding health insurance, Griffith said that the county is fortunate to be facing only a 9.5 percent in the cost of its Capital Health Plan, which is significantly lower that the industry's average of double-digit increases, in the neighborhood of 15 percent. She said this will cost the county an additional $163,000.
"Even with the 9.5 percent increase in the renewal rate for 2017-18, the premium is just $7 above the amount paid for coverage six years ago when Blue Cross was the carrier," she said.
The county will also have to sustain a roughly $47,000 increase in the cost of its contribution to the Florida Retirement System, based on contribution rates set by the Florida Legislature each year.
The county plans to transfer about $219,000 into its capital outlay fund, up from $182,000, with some of this money used to offset the cost associated with infrastructure changes at the landfill when its shifts to running the transfer station.
The county will also transfer about $16,000 to the tax increment districts, in Carrabelle and Apalachicola. This money represents the difference in tax revenue for these districts between the base year, which continues to accrue to the county, and the current year, which all goes to the tax increment district for infrastructure improvements.
In the case of Carrabelle, which started its taxing district in 1996, the difference between last year and next is insignificant. That district reached a high point of more than $206,000 in tax receipts in 2006, when it was worth nearly $64 million in taxable value, much higher than its base year of $74 million. But the Carrabelle district's taxable value is now down to $20.7 million, and only yields about $79,000 annually in tax receipts.
In the case of Apalachicola, which began its district much later, with a base year of 2014, the increase in money sent to the district will be much greater.. In 2014, the base year, the district's taxable value was about $31.4 million, and next year will be about $37.4 million.
As a result, the Apalachicola district, which received about $18,500 in increment funding from the county this year, will get more than $36,000 next year.
NEXT WEEK: A LOOK AT THE OTHER DEPARTMENTS AND THE NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS.