A divided Apalachicola city commission voted 3-2 Tuesday evening at its first of two budget hearings to approve a quarter-mill hike in property taxes.
City Commissioner Brenda Ash voiced a quiet nay vote, and Commissioner Mitchell Bartley a loud one, while Mayor Van Johnson, joined by Commissioners Jimmy Elliott and Frank Cook, all voted yes on raising taxes to 9.6043 mills.
The proposed 2017-18 budget, which will raise a little more than $1.3 million in ad valorem taxes, will put the city in the black by a slim surplus of a little more than $6,000. The city is forecast to have about $383,000 in reserves, although about $54,000 of that is restricted.
The budget presented to the city commission Tuesday by City Administrator Lee Mathes varied only slightly from the previous version. She had removed the city’s $7,000 contribution to the July 3 fireworks exhibition, and had trimmed back the city’s group health insurance costs, since newly elected Commissioner Anita Grove has opted not yet to take advantage of that benefit.
The hearing opened with a discussion of what constituted a tax increase. Johnson noted that if the city were to maintain its millage at this year’s rate of 9.3543 mills, residents would still read in their TRIM (Truth in Millage) notices that their taxes had gone up, since the state considers any action other than adopting the rollback rate, designed to keep tax revenues unchanged, as being a tax increase.
“When those notices go out, that’s what the public is going to see,” said Johnson.
“Leaving it as the same overall, it maybe seems like a tax rate increase but it’s not a millage increase,” said Ash.
In her budget proposal, Mathes noted that keeping the millage rate unchanged would raise only $1.27 million, and leave a deficit of close to $28,000. In addition, the city would only have about $349,000 in cash reserves. The overall budget is about $2 million, with the difference being fees, rents and other sources of sales tax revenues.
She said her current budget projections do not incorporate a number of possible additional revenue sources, which could include the leasing out of the Harbormaster House at the Mill Pond, a possible funding by the Tourist Development Council of about $9,000 in annual maintenance and cleaning costs for the downtown restrooms, and a proposed hike in some fees.
From the outset of the meeting, Bartley stood fast in opposition to any tax increase. He sought to nix the $42,500 full-time salary that will be paid Jill Rourke, the newly hired librarian over the Apalachicola Margaret Key Library, and instead trim it back to the roughly $25,000 that was paid to former librarian Caty Greene (See related story). Rourke has agreed to work all this month at Greene’s hourly pay rate.
“You cut that (library budget) down, you just about balance it without raising taxes,” said Bartley. “It has nothing to do with the lady. It’s spending.”
Johnson, who said he preferred a half-mill millage hike, took issue with Bartley’s view. “If you truly feel a no-tax stance, the only way to reconcile it would be to go back to the rollback rate,” he said. “Anything else is talk.”
The mayor pressed his colleagues to “fish or cut bait,” as he pressed for a motion that would prevent the city from going with the maximum 10-mill rate, which it tentatively approves each year to get the budget talks underway.
Mathes told commissioners that adopting the rollback rate of 9.1734 mills would leave the city with a roughly $100,000 deficit. “You would have to reduce services and personnel,” she said.
Elliott said that because of homestead exemptions, “the average citizen will pay very little” with the tax hike.
Johnson said owners of a non-homesteaded property here, or those with commercial property, will see the lion’s share of any tax increase.
Both Elliott and Johnson directed some of the fault towards residents who helped to defeat two proposed projects: the Family Dollar store on U.S. 98 adjacent to the Best Western, and the Denton Cove affordable housing complex. Both projects remain on the table, but each has been given the cold shoulder by commissioners after neighborhood opposition.
”The city has had the opportunity to bring in revenue. The dollar store would have, but it was protested and we lost that. What we got out of that was lawsuits that cost us,” Elliott said.
“Any city that keeps turning away businesses is going to die,” said Johnson, estimating that the projects would have meant an additional $90,000 a year in city coffers.
“If this city keeps saying no to development, you’re never going to balance this budget on the back of the taxpayers,” he said. “We wont even have that conversation. We won’t say ‘this is what we want and if you can’t do what we want, you can’t do it.’ Instead we back off.”
The proposed millage is 4.7 percent over the rollback rate. A second and final budget hearing is set for Sept. 26.