Apalachicola city commissioners got a first look Tuesday night at details of a budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, and now must decide whether keeping the millage rate the same as this year will get the job done.
The commissioners last month tentatively adopted the maximum allowable millage rate of 10 mills for next year, and so they have the leeway to raise it to that if they should so choose.
The budget presented Tuesday by City Administrator Betty Taylor-Webb gave figures that kept the millage the same as this year, 9.6852 mills. Because the tax base has grown slightly, that millage rate would generate about $1.14 million, about $60,000 more than this year’s $1.08 million.
Webb said one bright area of the budget has been a proposed switch in health insurance to Capital Health Plan from Blue Cross/ Blue Shield, which could see a drop in benefit costs throughout all departments. She said City Clerk Lee Mathes and staffer Deborah Guillotte have been reviewing CHP’s proposal, and that she will have more specifics on how the plan would work next month.
Highlighting Webb’s proposals for the new budget could be a possible 25 percent hike in the occupational license fee, which she said hasn’t been raised since 1991. In addition, she suggested the fee for grave openings at the cemetery, which hasn’t risen in several years, could rise from $250 to $500.
“It costs $200 a weekend, for two guys with a tractor, and the majority want to have them (funerals) on weekends, not during the week,” Webb said.
She also proposed adding a $25 processing fee for building permits, as well as for applications for cutting down trees. The special exception variance fee could rise from $100 to $500, if approved by the city commissioners. “Right now, it’s costing us money,” Webb said.
She also indicated that water and sewer users should brace for an increase in the $6.50 per month sewer user fee that was tacked on this year in order to make payments on a wastewater treatment plant loan from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. She said that to make adequate payments in fiscal year 2014-14, the fee will have to rise by 65 percent.
The city administrator said Greg Harris, who heads public works, has asked for two additional workers for heavy equipment, the water and sewer department needs two more certified people, and the library is seeking a part-time person. Neither of these, nor any other new hires, was included in the proposed budget.
Susan Clementson, who heads the library board, said the part-time staff person is needed to replace the position held by Diana Kane, a federal government-funded position which has not been continued.
“Volunteers are wonderful,” said Clementson. “But volunteers take vacations; volunteers just decide they can’t come to work that day. It’s hard to depend on them.”
She said the library is open now from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. “We’re paying Kane on Saturday for four hours out of petty cash,” Clementson said. “It’s a temporary thing.”
She said the additional person is needed for 15 to 20 hours a week, at $8 or $9 an hour, given that there’s often a line when librarian Caty Greene opens the library at 11 a.m.
“It’s difficult to do all the things expected of me,” Greene said. “I hear the little bell on the desk, and have to help people print things from the computer (and other patron services). Diana was 20 hours a week, sometimes 17, and then we cut her down to 10.”
The thought that the millage rate could rise from the current 9.6852 mills did not find favor in the eyes of Commissioner Brenda Ash. “It’s not sitting well with me right now,” she said. “I am not at all in favor of any tax increase anywhere. It bothers me that there’s a continual increase.”
Due to drops in the tax base, the millage rate has climbed since 2009-10, when it stood at 7.31 mills, and yet still raised about $75,000 more five years ago than what the proposed rate would next year.
“I just think we have to do better,” said Ash. “We can’t keep putting the cost on the backs of the citizens. I know we are in need in some places. But is it absolutely positively necessary? Is there something we can do to keep it (the millage rate) down? Can’t we dig a little deeper, look a little closer?”
Webb said she tried to propose as lean a budget as she could. “If there was a way to make it work, I’d be the first to step up and say do it,” she told Ash.
Mayor Van Johnson stressed the budget proposal was a work in progress. “This is just a workshop,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is put out numbers in the budget, and look at them and see if any additional cuts will be necessary.
“This is not a final budget, this is a workshop,” he said.