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Apalachicola targets rollback of property taxes

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

Apalachicola city commissioners Tuesday evening tentative adopted the rollback rate, lowering the millage and keeping the overall property tax revenue equivalent to last year.

City of Apalachicola seal

While they have not formally adopted the reduction of the millage for the next fiscal year, from 9.3000 down to 9.0001 mills, city commissioners were generally supportive of the rollback.

The notable exception was Despina George, who floated the possibility of keeping the millage rate unchanged, and using the additional $51,376 in revenue that results from that to help offset other expenses that residents are facing.

“The alternative would be to adopt the current millage and transfer those savings to water and sewer funds and give some limited relief to water and sewer customers who have paid the bill due to our debt delinquency,” she said.

During the more than two-hour workshop, in which commissioners examined carefully a detailed budget provided them by Finance Officer Leo Bebeau, commissioners were supportive of looking at ways of lowering the water and sewer burden on customers, perhaps by working to lesser the sewer user fee, a fixed cost borne by users regardless of their usage.

“I think we help more people in a real way by taking the surplus, and using it to reduce the sewer user fee by a modest amount,” George said. “That will affect every citizen, including renters and longtime homeowners who only have very modest increases (in their usage).”

George noted that the sewer department would have a $292,000 surplus which the city could consider for additional infrastructure but perhaps using some of that to give limited relief to customers. “Priority needs to be to invest in infrastructure,” she said.

Mayor Kevin Begos said the city could use general revenue proceeds to offset water and sewer charges, especially since the Florida Department of Revenue has long been aware of historic transfers in the opposite direction.

“Their point is we took a lot of money out of water and sewer and put it in the general fund,” he said. “They’re completely amenable taking that $51,000 from general revenue and lowering rates.”

The mayor also floated the idea of drawing on about $1.25 million in surplus monies, more than half of that about $750,000 in property insurance proceeds, to further bolster the city’s revolving loan fund, a conduit for helping local businesses with capital needs.

“We have $245,000 in the revolving loan fund now,” Begos said. “It could be possible to use that money to help downtown businesses. Or to help people trying to go into aquaculture.”

He conceded that due to some past experience with unpaid loans, the move could be “risky and controversial” but taking a step, even perhaps reducing licensing fees, could send a good message.

“None of that is big money but I think people would appreciate anything we can do to help them,” he said.

The mayor said that in the event that relief is granted water and sewer customers, perhaps to seniors, that an effort be made to fine-tune the process so it is not based on age alone.

“In the past (the beneficiaries) were seniors but they weren’t necessarily struggling,” he said. Begos said thought should be given to starting a program for the 200 or 300 of the neediest seniors, perhaps drawn up in conjunction with the Elder Care Community Council.

By the end of the workshop, after a painstaking review of each of the department’s, commissioners agreed to have staff review the costs and benefits of using tax revenues to assist businesses and residents, leaving open the possibility they might keep the millage rate unchanged. That decision has to be made at the two budget hearings next month.

The consensus appeared to back preserving the rollback.

“I think it will show we’re being cognizant of our property owners,” said Brenda Ash. “We know they have had some hits on both commercial and residential. It show we’re being conscious of what we’re doing. I will go with the rollback.

Commissioners Adriane Elliot and Anita Grove were equally supportive.

“I think it sends a good message,” said Begos.