Mayor says he regrets not pushing for rate hikes a few years ago

After hearing from an audience that ranged from the fiercely indignant to the steadfastly supportive, Apalachicola city commissioners Tuesday night unanimously approved a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that keeps property taxes unchanged, but sharply hikes water and sewer bills.

The roughly $4.6 million general fund budget, for the fiscal year beginning Monday, keeps the millage rate for ad valorem taxes unchanged at 9.6043 mills, a very slight one-fifth of 1 percent increase over the rollback rate of 9.5862 mills, which would have kept property tax revenues at the same level as this year.

Instead, since the city saw a 3 percent, or roughly $4.4 million, expansion of its tax base - from $142.9 million to $147.3 million – the unchanged millage will bring in about $1.34 million in property tax revenue, about $40,000 more than came in this year, to the general fund.

The biggest difference will come in the city’s roughly $2.07 million in its enterprise fund budget, comprised mainly of water and sewer billings, plus about $100,000 from income associated with the Scipio Creek and Battery Park boat basins.

An enormous chunk of these utility billings will go towards addressing a roughly $800,000 debt obligation the city has with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, stemming from a $9.35 million loan it took out in 1995 for wastewater collection system and treatment plant improvements.

With a steep rate hike set for customers, the city will be able to make its current $430,000 annual debt service payment, plus an additional $89,000 in reserve payments, enabling it to bring the loan out of default.

In addition, the city will have the funds necessary to make a $142,500 annual bond payment on water system improvements, plus set aside about $95,000 for capital outlay in the event repairs are needed on the water and sewer system.

Bearing these costs will be the city’s water and sewer customers, who are poised to see about a 40 percent hike in their upcoming bills.

A sewer user fee (SUF), created a five years ago specifically for debt repayment, will jump from the current rate of $10.75 to $29 for all residential customers, a hike of $18.25, or about 170 percent.

For commercial users, the SUF would go to $95, an increase of $74.25, or about 358 percent, from the current rate of $20.75.

In addition, a 13.5 percent increase in the base rate, and the per 1,000-gallon charges, is in store for both residential and commercial water and sewer users.


Help for senior citizens urged


The first two speakers to come before the commissioners, Leslie Coon, an Apalachicola business owner, and Rebecca Jetton, a former staffer with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, illustrated the sharply divided feelings of the audience.

Coon, who has advocated for a three-tiered payment plan for the commercial SUF that would give a break to smaller businesses that use less water, opened by blasting commissioners. She accused them of ignoring the needs of downtown businesses, and asked that they either take a cut in pay, or cover the $95 monthly fee themselves.

“I can barely make my ends meet,” she said, taking issue with Mayor Van Johnson’s comments of several weeks that she said suggested “that we as citizens have squelched the development downtown.”

“Never have I seen you in my shop,” she said, addressing her comments to all five commissioners.

“You are at fault and you need to step down," she said.

Jetton followed up with her observation that when she worked for the state, and represented Apalachicola, she learned the delinquent sewer loan would stand in the way of securing for the city additional state funds.

“This is an old loan that didn’t work out the way everyone wanted it to,” she said. “The city was under pressure, and the state had a lot to do with you having to put in an advanced wastewater treatment system.

“I know this is a hard decision for you all to make,” Jetton said. “But you need to do this, you need to stay the course or the city is going to go bankrupt.

“The city has to provide the infrastructure for them (growing businesses),” she said. “Stay the course; you must increase your rates.”

The issue of how the sewer rate hikes will affect senior citizens was first brought up by Sally Williamson, a self-described “eldercare advocate” who noted the city last year removed the 12-year-old rate cut that it had extended to seniors, while at the same time raising rates 3 percent on everyone.

“That was a double whammy, this time they’ll have three whammies,” she said. “I know we’re in trouble; it’s going to be a bitter pill. Plus the 10 percent (hike) on all electrical bills, that’s going to hurt them too.”

Apalachicola resident George Coon said that he spoke with an elderly neighbor, “who is essentially bedridden. They wanted me to speak for them without naming them. The (loss of the) senior benefit, it’s hurt them greatly.”

Coon said his neighbor suggested commissioners reduce the salary of all city workers, or eliminate their own monthly stipend, which runs about $400.

Later, at the special meeting when the vote was taken, Commissioner Jimmy Elliott asked that the city consider rescinding the most recent raise given city employees (a 3 percent pay hike given out three years ago) and place those revenues in a fund earmarked to offset the sewer bill increases for those in need. His suggestion did not receive support from the other four commissioners.

Apalachicola resident Robin Vroegop urged the city commissioners to give people an option on their bills, in which they can donate money to help seniors and others in need.

“See if we can try this, at least try this,” she said. “I know how it is to put all your change in a jar so at the end of the month you can pay your utility bill.”

In his remarks later in the meeting, Mayor Van Johnson outlined the creation of an “ApalachHeart” fund that has been set up. The new non-profit, to be administered with the help of Valentina Webb, a former city commissioner now active in the church and social service community, will gather donations that will then be used to offset the rate hike for those in need. The new organization, however, will remain separate from the city, and utility bills will not offer a donation option, he said.


Calls made for cuts to salaries


In her remarks, Vroegop mentioned that Leavins Seafood uses space on city property, without cost to the company. “I’m just saying that is potential income,” she said.

Speaking on behalf of Leavins Seafood, Darren Guillotte said the seafood industry has changed since the late Grady Leavins started it in 1972.

He said it now employs about 35 workers, and that the company paid out $32,000 last year for water, sewer and garbage.

“The first thing they (visitors) see when they come off the bridge is that shell pile,” Guillotte said. “We can look for property outside the city and move the shells if that’s what you want us to do.”

Vroegop went over a list of several other possible sources of income, including raising launch fees at Battery Park, which are now mostly voluntary. “If we could get more enforcement, we could get more fees,” she said.

“I see all the pain being borne by all the individual citizens,” she said. “We can do something now, we don’t have to fold. We can find the money.”

City Manager Ron Nalley said he has been busy looking for additional sources of income, but that he can’t make definitive recommendations in time for the Oct. 1 deadline to ratify a budget. “I cannot answer these questions within 30 to 60 days,” he said.

A strong appeal to make cuts in the city budget came from Apalachicola resident Johnny Byrd.

“I know we need money, but it’s not the citizens who should be bearing the burden. The city’s going to have to bite the bullet and do things they don’t want to do,” he said.

Byrd, a former Apalachicola policeman, urged commissioners to make further restrictions on the use of city vehicles within the police department, and called for a hike in fees charged to marina users.

“If you can afford a $100,000 boat, you can spend the money to put it there,” he said. “Business is business, friends is friends. Don’t mix friends with business.

“When you gotta do what you gotta do, you do it. Do what’s best for the largest part of the city,” Byrd said. “That’s what businesses do. It ain't about love, it’s about business.”

Apalachicola resident Jamie Liang called for either a jobs cut, or a rollback of salaries. “If you decide you don’t want to cut, you roll back salaries,” she said.

The city commissioners got a strong note of support from Apalachicola businessman Tom Morgan, who defended them against comments from the audience that suggested they had acted in an unethical, self-serving way.

“I know all five personally, and I have dealt with a lot of city commissioners and mayors in my lifetime,” he said. “I have never dealt with a commission of five more honest people who are not in it for themselves, who are doing the best job they can for the city. No one is out for personal gain.

“There isn’t a single commissioner that likes the numbers we’re seeing,” he said. "But it is where we are today and today is going to take leadership to get us out of where we are.

“I believe with leadership of a city manager, we’re going to find some money,” Morgan said, in urging a yes vote on the budget. “In a year from now we’ll have a much better handle on where we are and where we’re headed.” 

Both Byrd and Apalachicola resident Lillie Turrell said the city should brace itself for utility cutoffs when residents can’t pay their bills.

“If you’re under $30,000 a year, there’s no way you can pay it,” said Byrd.

“Some of these people’s water is going to be cut off, it’s that simple,” said Turrell. “They’re not going to have the money that’s being put on them right now.

“Let’s face the facts here,” she said. “Don’t go to sleep at night thinking God ain’t watching you because he is.”


Ash challenges those who 'belittle and degrade'


Prior to the vote, Johnson recalled how he and his fellow commissioners had opposed a rate hike about four years ago when City Administrator Lee Mathes came to them and asked them to consider it.

“This board said emphatically no,” he said. “Given what I know today, I would have been the first one as mayor to say let’s raise the rates then. We are here because we refused to raise the rates on the very people who are encouraging us now not to do it.”

The mayor recited a series of stern warnings by state officials about the city’s insufficient revenues, and of their possibly coming in and setting rates, or even appointing a receiver to collect those fees and even taking funds out of other city accounts.

“That’s going to be out of our hands. If you think you guys are upset now, wait until later,” Johnson said. “Given what I learned I would not put this community through this again.”

Commissioner Jimmy Elliott said he and his colleagues have taken cost-saving steps, such as not taking the city-paid health insurance and he pledged to contribute to the ApalachHeart fund, just as the mayor has said he will earmark $100 to the fund.

Commissioner Brenda Ash said that given what she knows now, she regrets not advocating for an increase a few years ago. She also took issue with some of the harsh attacks leveled against commissioners.

“I did not go on this journey as a commissioner for the glory, the glam, the prestige,” she said. “I went on this journey for my love of these people.

“We all have our own passion right now. We all have the same idea of contributing to help someone,” Ash said. “I’ll give some of that back, the Lord has blessed me in ways that I can do that, and I don’t take his blessings for granted and I do not take yours for granted.”

She chided those who have made statements “to belittle and degrade this body. Those decisions were made from the heart, not from the pocket, not from the glam, not from the prestige.

“How many of you can say you’ve given back to this community?” Ash said. “I’ve listened to the ridicule, the anger. We know what we’ve been going through, the pain and agony, but it requires leadership.

“In the meantime we are here and we will make the decisions we think are beneficial for the city,” she said. “It’s about the betterment of the entire city.”

Following the vote, the mayor summed up his feelings in a single sentence.

“Thank you Jesus,” he said.