Apalach hires Bebeau, opens budgeting process
Apalachicola city commissioners Tuesday night tentatively set the millage rate at the maximum of 10 mills, but have no fear, it’s not going to be that high.
As is the traditional practice, the commissioners initially set it at the maximum allowable inside millage, and then over the next month, they will see if they’re able to lower it to the rollback rate, which keeps the amount city property taxes at the same level as the previous year.
Because Apalachicola’s tax base expanded this year by about $10.1 million, from $160.6 million to $170.7 million, the equivalent of 6.3 percent, the commission should be able to keep the millage somewhere between the present rate of 9.3 mills and the rollback rate of just under 9.0 mills.
Keeping the millage rate unchanged would generate about $1.5 million in property taxes, about $100,000 more than in the current budget.
The commission’s initial budget workshop, a Zoom meeting on June 21, was met with a snafu, when hackers disrupted it with a flurry of vile messages that prompted Mayor Kevin Begos to terminate it immediately and restart it soon after in the Facebook live format, broadcast from the city commission chambers at Battery Park.
Begos said afterwards that Chief Bobby Varnes had reported the matter to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and was told that such Zoom hacks are commonplace, and that it is difficult to prosecute the perpetrators even when the apparent source of the hack can be traced.
When the meeting resumed, newly hired city finance director Leo Bebeau outlined the budget he had prepared in the two weeks he has been on the job.
Bebeau was approved July 7 by a unanimous vote to fill the slot, at an annual salary of $62,000, higher than the advertised salary of between $45,000 and $55,000.
City Manager Travis Wade had negotiated the deal, after Bebeau, a finance and accounting professional with 35 years of experience, had balked at the proposed salary level.
“He has decades of experience,” said Begos, noting both the city’s outsourced accounting firm, as well as interim city manager Chris Holley, had endorsed Bebeau for the job. “It’s a worthwhile step to take, and I’m very hopeful Mr. Bebeau saves us money.”
Commissioner Despina George, who ultimately voted in support of Bebeau’s hire, said that while he has a bachelors in accounting from Georgia State, he lacked the experience in city government finances that had been sought for the position.
“I don’t think the applicant has the qualifications we set out to hire,” she said.
Begos stressed Bebeau would be an at-will worker, without a contract. “We made extreme efforts to reach out to people, and weren’t able to find anyone,” he said. “I think Mr. Bebeau clearly has had an impressive career in business and finance.
“I think his experience is going to help us,” Begos said. “He may run screaming from us in six months or a year, who knows? This is a big step towards making us more accountable and saving us money.”
In remarks immediately following the vote, Bebeau, who has lived in Apalachicola for the past 12 years, said he had spent the last 15 years with a company in which half of its business was working with cost-plus government contracts.
“Every penny is accountable, whether it comes from a grant or a tax dollar,” he said, “I bring an understanding of numbers.”
Commissioner Brenda Ash noted Bebeau would be on a 90-day probationary period. “We really need to have someone in that position,” she said.
Elliott backs pay hikes, sewer rate cuts
In addition to property tax forecasts for the upcoming year, Bebeau’s preliminary budget for the upcoming fiscal year also sought to anticipate the city’s half-cent sales tax numbers, and to forecast state revenue sharing dollars. He tried to be cautious, wary of the effect on the economy due to the coronavirus, and set these taxes’ forecast at 80 percent of the current year’s totals.
For the revenue for the Apalachicola Center for History, Culture and the Arts, which remains closed as it has been since mid-March, Bebeau pegged that at 50 percent.
Both Commissioner Anita Grove and George cautioned that even that forecast may be overly optimistic and asked to see more exacting numbers by the first public workshop, which is set for Tuesday evening, Aug. 18, with the second one Tuesday, Sept. 15.
At the conclusion of a department by department review of the proposed budget, which had built into it a 1 percent across-the-board pay hike for city employees, Commissioner Adriane Elliott said she was in favor of a 3 percent pay hike, with a further review early in the fiscal year to see if an additional pay hike was warranted.
She said the pay scales make the city “not an attractive place to work.” She said she also was in favor of considering a reduction in water and sewer bills.
“There’s some people really hurting from increased sewer fees,” Elliott said. “On paper, we’re running surpluses in some of these accounts.”
Begos had told commissioners that forecasts made when the utility rates were initially raised a few years back have led to more revenue than was originally believed would be forthcoming, about $930,00 compared to the initially forecast $760,000.
“On the good side we’re getting more money in the last year-and-a-half and we’ve been on a continual upward slope of generating more than we projected,” he said.
The mayor cautioned, however, that in order to secure a more favorable debt repayment schedule with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the city has had to commit itself to applying any additional monies towards infrastructure improvements, many of which have been on the back burner over the past few years.
“I’m with you in spirit,” he told Elliott. “I leave it to Leo (Bebeau) to crunch those numbers on what 1 percent, 2 percent, pay hike would cost, and what reducing sewer fees would mean. And whether any of those are possible.
“If revenues keep dropping we won’t even have these surpluses we’re projecting now.” Begos said.
Grove was cautious in supporting any additional pay hikes or sewer bill reductions.
“Salaries are low but I still feel we’re going to have a shortfall,” she said. “We need to look at providing some relief (on bills) but I want to hear what the Florida Rural Water Association (FWRA) says. I kind of trust what they have to say.”
Begos backs land swap for DEP fine
Begos outlined a proposal that would have the city donate a parcel of marshland on the northeast side of Scipio Creek to the state, in order to offset a $63,000 fine that now hangs over the city’s head due to violations of acceptable levels of trihalomethanes, a possibly carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine disinfection.
“There doesn’t seem like we could build anything there,” said the mayor.
He said both the FWRA, and the city’s legal consultant Dan Hartman have recommended this land donation, primarily because it would avoid making a cash investment to the state that would empower FDEP to sign off on every step the city made with its wastewater improvements.
“We conceivably settle the whole drinking water fine and hopefully build more goodwill with DEP,” Begos said. “The goal is to get back with a good relationship with the state revolving loan fund, which could benefit us with other state agencies. “
He noted that the land in question does not include the side of the Mill Pond where the shell pile has long sat.
“We would be keeping all the shell pile land, all the way to the cemetery we still would have,” Begos said. “This is kind of out in the river, between Scipio Creek and the marshes.”