The financial toll of Hurricane Michael on Franklin County is becoming clear, and it hurt.
In a report to county commissioners on the effect the Oct. 10 storm had on the county’s tax base, Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper wrote that based on an estimate derived from examining the 2018 tax roll, the county sustained a loss of about $44.2 million in overall market value.
“This is just an estimate, as my staff and I are still working on land values,” she wrote.
Skipper and the other property appraisers in the affected counties have been asked by the Florida Department of Revenue to estimate property losses.
Former County Planner Alan Pierce, who serves as the county’s liaison for securing RESTORE Act monies, suggested to commissioners that they use these numbers as a basis for its request to the Triumph board for tax assistance. He said Triumph staff has agreed that these Department of Revenue estimates might be “a common starting point for determining how TRIUMPH reimburses all the counties.”
Pierce plans to attend a special Triumph board meeting in Panama City Friday which will focus on tax relief and how these Triumph funds, secured as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, might be used to help the affected Panhandle counties.
One suggestion that will be discussed by the Triumph board is whether to use these funds as possible loans to the counties. The commissioners sounded a resounding voice of objection to this idea.
In his remarks, Commissioner Bert Boldt praised Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson and her finance staffer Erin Griffith for being on hand to answer questions about county finances.
“We have a comfort level and peace of mind here,” he said. “We need to really be thinking ahead of our money situation as we move forward, with historical information ahead of time. I’m just pleased to know our financial staff should be here to help us. I know it takes county staff and energy to be here.”
In terms of the storm’s impact on tourism, John Solomon, administrator of the Tourist Development Council, said the storm decimated bed tax collections during October, which brought in only about $38,000, more than $47,000 less than the nearly $86,000 brought in in Oct. 2017, a drop of more than 55 percent.
This drop, he said, was due to there being only eight days of collection of the two-cent tax on overnight lodging throughout the county in Oct. 2018.
The good news was that the county rebounded strongly in November, Solomon said, with the bed tax bringing in nearly $88,000 in November, a better than 83 percent increase over the more than $49,000 that was gathered in Nov. 2017.
“We’re seeing very good numbers from businesses in January and February,” he said. “We should see consistent improvement in the next few months.”
As it stands now, in the first two months of fiscal year 2018-19, which began in October, the county bed tax has brought in a little more than $126,000, a drop of about 6.7 percent over the roughly $135,000 brought in during the first two months of 2017-18.
Last year, the annual bed tax receipts topped $1.3 million, part of steady yearly increases since the two-cent tax was approved by voters to begin in 2005.
Another hit from the storm came to the bottom line of Weems Memorial Hospital.
In his report Tuesday morning, Weems CEO H. D. Cannington said that in the first quarter of the fiscal year, which ended Dec. 31, overall revenues were $3.1 million, a 22 percent drop over budget forecasts of $647,000.
Net patient revenues, defined as what the hospital expects to collect from insurers and private patients, stood at $1.6 million, about 32 percent under what the hospital had budgeted.
Cannington said expenses, at $2 million, were in line with what had been budgeted, so that once the $535,000 in county subsidies were factored in, the hospital sustained a loss of $362,000 for the first quarter of the fiscal year.
“The variances were due to reduced services throughout the end of October and even into the first half of November,” Cannington said.
Because of the drop in revenues, Weems had about 18 days of cash on hand at the end of 2018, or about $371,000. This was a drop of $407,000 since Sept. 30, in terms of cash on hand.
“This is not bad considering our collections were down significantly due to the storm, while we had to continue to pay employees, suppliers and other vendors as before,” Cannington said. “Hopefully, we’re seeing that turn around now.”