County commissioners last week approved a tentative tax rate of 6.0243 mills, about 21 percent more than the current rate of 4.9800 mills, but which would bring in about $200,000 less revenue than this year due to a shrinking tax base.

County commissioners last week approved a tentative tax rate of 6.0243 mills, about 21 percent more than the current rate of 4.9800 mills, but which would bring in about $200,000 less revenue than this year due to a shrinking tax base.

The accent was on the word “tentative.”

After difficulty securing a majority of support on an initial vote for the proposed $37.87 million budget, commissioners unanimously approved the millage hike at the tail end of the budget hearing.

But in doing so, at least three of them stressed they intended to seek further cuts - and a lower millage rate - before signing off on a final budget Tuesday, Sept 25 at 5:15 p.m.

After achieving about $285,00 in cost savings during the nearly four-hour hearing, the commissioners’ first vote on adopting the 2012-13 budget went down to defeat 3-2, with Commissioners Pinki Jackel, Cheryl Sanders and Noah Lockley all voting no.

“Next time I’ll bring a sleeping bag and a lunch,” joked Commissioner Bevin Putnal who, together with Commissioner Smokey Parrish, voted yes on the first go-round.

After a lengthy pause, Jackel and Sanders then said they would switch their votes and support Putnal’s second try at budget approval.

Sanders said she did so out of consideration of the lateness of the hour for her longtime colleague, who is leaving the commission after five consecutive terms in office. “Out of respect for this commissioner, I’m going to second his motion,” she said. “As long as it’s an understanding that we’re going to come back, that the millage rate is probably going to go lower.”

Jackel said she too planned to suggest more cuts before the final ratification vote in two weeks. “It’s been a difficult process and we have asked that the record reflect that this is not a vote for a final millage, but what we need to do for the process to go forward,” she said.

Putnal, too, indicated he backed further cuts. “We’ve done what we can do tonight,” he said. “Nothing is permanent and we will continue this and try to find more cuts at our next meeting.”

As it stands now, the proposed millage rate is 5.54 percent more than the rollback rate of 5.7079 mills. The rollback rate would bring in the same amount of revenue as this year, $38.06 million.

Erin Griffith, the county’s assistant finance director, told commissioners at the outset of the meeting, they would have to find roughly $837,000 in cuts at the hearing if they were to reach the rollback rate.

“I would ask the board for us to consider how we can get back to a rollback figure,” said Jackel in her opening remarks. “This is what I would like us to look at as a goal.”

Sanders agreed the 6.19 mills commissioners were eyeing at the start of the meeting was too high. “Can we get down to 5.79 (mills)? I don’t know,” she said. “There are a lot of things we can do. We need to honestly look to what can be shifted to other revenue sources coming into the county, rather than on ad valorem.”


Health care tax shift considered

Putnal suggested commissioners turn to the 1 percent sales tax coffers to fund the $505,000 annual ambulance subsidy that now comes out of property taxes.

“We can put ambulance service back in the hospital and use the 1 cent sales tax right now,” he said. “With the economy like it is, even with the bay, the sales tax is going to go down and I don’t think the county can afford to build a hospital in the near future. That’s one way we can cut a half-million dollars.

“I really think that’s where it should be,” he said. “(But) it’s a matter of what the board wants, not what I want.”

Jackel said shifting the sales tax money away from the capital outlay fund for renovating or rebuilding a new hospital would not jeopardize the project.

“Even if we get an answer tomorrow, we cannot have the hospital constructed and open in 12 months,” she said. “So that money set aside for cash flow and payment on new hospital debt would not be used for at least 12 months. We can use it without damaging the use of funds for future hospital mortgage payments.”

Sanders liked the idea as well. “I’m open to it,” she said. “It's mandated by the state to have emergency services. You have to have ambulances and this is a good way (to fund them).

“We can take it for this year and hopefully things will get better,” she said, adding that county officials from South Florida who she spoke with at a recent meeting said they already were seeing an upturn in their housing markets.

“If things get better we might have the ability to do that,” Sanders said, referring to returning in 2013-14 to ad valorem funding for the ambulance. “I believe we need to go and do it for the ambulance for one year.”

Griffith told commissioners the one-cent sales tax would bring in an estimated $1.57 million next year, which after 5 percent is set aside as mandated by law, would yield $1.49 million. Half of this is earmarked for Weems operations, while the other half is set aside for future capital outlays.

“If the entire $505,000 is pulled from ad valorem, it will be incredibly hard to get back to be supported by the ad valorem process without an increase in taxable value,” Griffith stressed.

Lockley then proposed, and Sanders supported the idea, that another $120,000 in property tax revenue, now supporting the Weems East urgent care clinic, also be taken out of sales tax revenue. All told, this would pull about $625,000 from the sales tax monies for the ambulance and Weems East.

Parrish spoke out strongly against funding ambulance operations from the sales tax. “I think when we take that money out of the revenue stream, that’s not what I told the people I was representing when I worked to pass the tax,” he said.

He said the top priority of the budget measure, passed by voters in Nov. 2007, was to fund construction of an urgent care clinic in Carrabelle. “We’ve done that,” he said, noting the next priority was to renovate the existing hospital in Apalachicola or build a new one.

“When you take the money away from the revenue stream, you take away the rehab or hope of building a new hospital,” he said. “But if you’re going to move it back to ad valorem (in the following year) you have to raise millage.

“The people I represent are going to say ‘Y’all did the bait-and-switch,’” Parrish said. “And we have interlocal agreements. I see us taking away the revenue stream. I think the hospital is a tremendous asset if our economy is to return. I have to stand up for what I believe.”

The issue of the interlocal agreements then became the evening’s hot topic, as the commissioners sought a legal opinion from County Attorney Michael Shuler, who was not in attendance at the meeting. After Director of Administrative Services Alan Pierce telephoned him, and they waited for Shuler to arrive from his regular five-mile run, commissioners heard from Allan Feifer, representing the Concerned Citizens for Franklin County tax watchdog group.

Feifer urged commissioners to take a second look at a series of suggestions for budget cutbacks the Concerned Citizens and Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson’s office had compiled, rather than rely on a funding shift out of sales tax monies.

“I see that as a short-term gap filler for next year,” he said. “Are you into some sort of fantasy land that we can continue to find money in little rat holes until one day there’s no more rat holes?

“There are valid ways to cut that budget. Is there not an appetite to talk about real cost cutting?” he said. “The bottom has not hit us yet; we’re looking at another round of assessment drops next year.

“Easy choices do not always represent great leadership,” said Feifer. “The public has a right to know we’re looking at all the options. I encourage you from changing the same old game.

“There has been a whirlwind of hurt to residents of this county. The fabric of this county has been changed in a way that will never be fully healed,” he said. “The millage and how you spend money makes a difference in people’s lives. Let’s have a conversation on the reductions in budgets.”

Feifer pressed commissioners to look closely at how departments handled budget surpluses at year’s end, and to abandon any across-the-board bonuses.

“The answer is merit raises, let's make partners of our employees. Let's make them stakeholders,” he said.

Shuler arrived still dressed in running shorts from his exercise. “My granddad said if I slow down I’ll stiffen so I don’t slow down,” he joked, as he took a few minutes to review the wording of the budget measure, county ordinance and interlocal agreements that governed the collection and expenditure of the sales tax receipts.

His eventual conclusion to commissioners was that the ballot measure allows for covering the cost of “operations of healthcare infrastructure and services,” and thus the $120,000 for Weems East funding could be taken out of sales tax proceeds.

But, he advised, funding ambulance operations of the sales tax would require a change to the interlocal agreements that allow for collection of the sales tax inside of Apalachicola and of Carrabelle.

Shuler said that while the ballot measure allows for “upgrading the ambulance service, I would be hesitant to read ballot language to equate upgrading with (funding ongoing operations).

“Absent an amendment of this agreement you can’t just cost shift and fund the hospital,” he said. ”When you look at the plain language, it says ‘upgrade.”

“It seems very clear that there was a decision made along the lines to limit the use of the surtax for two purposes, to construct Weems East and then dedicate the remainder to a war chest to look at building or remodeling in Apalachicola,” Shuler said. “It seems very clear there was an intention to limit surtax funds to subsidize the hospital, and do capital outlay projects.”

The county attorney advised that the county could go back to each of the two cities and ask to modify the two interlocal agreements, but this could jeopardize the entire sales tax collection systems.

“If the interlocals get busted up, the majority is collected in the two cities and we can really hurt health care for all of us if we don’t keep this trust fund in place,” he said. “If those interlocals get busted, they might divert those (revenues) to fixing potholes. We have got to keep these interlocals in place and go by the terms as they were written.”


Tire disposal fee reinstated

In their vote on adopting the budget, all but Lockley voted to approve the roughly $283,000 in budget cuts. These included the $120,000 to be taken out of sales tax revenues, as well as savings of $74,314 for health insurance costs, $12,400 for savings to the county’s cost of dental insurance, $39,000 in readjustments to the state’s restored coverage of Medicaid costs, $8,000 from a reduction in funding for the property appraiser’s budget and $20,000 from a change to the landfill budget.

The landfill savings came after Griffith suggested the county resume collecting tipping fees for businesses that dispose of tires at the landfill. Solid Waste Director Fonda Davis said local businesses use the landfill for tire disposal, with none of them coming from outside the county.

“They (local businesses) are collecting that money,” said Pierce. “I pay a tire disposal fee, we’re all paying it.”

The policy change would not allow for business disposal of tires on amnesty days, but would not apply to residential customers. The commissioners discussed, but did not act on, the possibility of cutting back on amnesty days, or even eliminating them altogether.

Lockley continued to push for cutting out the county’s literacy program, which he has long maintained should be funded by the school district. “Let the school system do that,” he said. They got a program out there for that.”

Lockley also suggested the county look to further trim its contribution to the county’s non-governmental organizations, but he received little support for the idea.

“I can’t be in favor of cutting one and not cutting all. To me that’s an all or none,” said Jackel. “We have cut them 10 percent every year for the past three years, and some of them, eventually, they’re just about cut out.”

The commissioners talked about raising the rent for the former health department building, cutting the capital outlay budget, stopping roadside trash pickup, or taking the funding of two recently acquired mosquito trucks out of reserves, but they did not include any of these in the current cuts.

They also mentioned a possible across-the-board cut to all the departments, but the idea also was not included.

“We could not fund each department at the requested budget amount. We’re not putting aside money for paving, there’s things that have been taken out, and you’re down to the bare minimum to still provide services citizens expect from us,” said Parrish.

Jackel said he would like to see more cost cutting on the side of the constitutional officers. “I’ve seen the county on our side make cuts that I haven’t seen on the other side,” she said. “I’d like to see deeper cuts.

“It’s very uncertain times for a number of our citizens, and we’re all going to be affected by it,” she said. “As we consider what our taxes are, this really affects those who pay a lot of taxes and those who pay less amount.

“We cannot keep taxing our way through his market crisis and through the economic crisis that we’re facing,” Jackel said. “At some point these are tough decisions but business cannot go on as usual in Franklin County.”