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County to lower millage rate

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

Due to growth in the county’s tax base, Franklin County commissioners plan to lower the millage rate by a slight amount.

But it could drop down by even more, thanks to a surprisingly tiny increase in the cost of health insurance for county employees, as well as a possible favorable change in the terms of federal government COVID-19 assistance to the county.

At a budget workshop Thursday morning, Erin Griffith, the county’s assistant finance officer, reported that a growth in taxable value of 5.44 percent means there will be a $110 million expansion from $2.03 billion last year to $2.14 billion. This growth is slightly below the 6.8 percent growth the year before, when the county added about $130 million to its tax base.

Based on this growth, one mill would generate $2.14 million, so if the current 5.9494 millage rate were to remain unchanged, it would generate $12.7 million in property tax proceeds.

The rolled-back rate, which is the level of taxation needed to keep the total revenues unchanged, would be 5.6926 mills, and would generate $12.19 million in ad valorem proceeds.

The county decided to set the millage at 5.9026 mills, which is 3.69 percent over the rolled-bac. This would produce roughly the $12.64 million in property tax proceeds required to fund the preliminary budget, which is about $450,000 for that purpose more than last year.

By advertising that millage for the TRIM (Truth in Millage) notices set to go out later this month, the county has set a ceiling in its tax rate. But that millage could be brought down even lower, following the two upcoming public hearings, set for Sept. 8 and 22.

If they are brought down, it will largely be due to two elements, the costs of health insurance and the willingness of Congress to allow counties to use up to one-quarter of their Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, (CARES Act) monies to offset budget shortfalls.

The county is set to receive about $2 million of the CARES Act’s $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in March 2020. If the $3 trillion HEROES Act (The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act) passed by House Democrats becomes law, then the county will be able to use one-quarter of that, about a half-million dollars, to apply to general revenue, and not be limited, as the CARES Act is now, to only expenses related to the coronavirus. This could lead to a further lowering of the millage for next year.

It is not clear yet whether the compromise reached between HEROES and the Republican-backed alternative HEALS Act (The Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools Act) will allow that offset.

The one item that is for sure is that the county will be seeing a much smaller than anticipated increase in its health, life and dental costs, which was expected to consume about $1.7 million of the budget.

At last week’s budget hearing, Griffith had built in an estimated 10 percent hike in additional; costs, about $144,500, based a projection of the premium increase by Capital Health Plan.

But on Monday, she learned that CHP would be levying a 2 percent renewal rate increase, a move that reduces the proposed budget by about $115,000, setting the stage for a possible further millage decrease to 5.8490, down from 3.69 to 2.75 percent over the rolled-back rate. The cost for individual coverage will rise from $645.31 to $658.22 per month per employee.

Last week’s budget workshop moved along briskly, as nearly all departments had kept their budgets either unchanged, or slightly lower, with only a few instances of increases.

The largest of the constitutional officers’ budgets, the sheriff’s office, got tentative approval for about $5.45 million, a two-tenths of 1 percent drop from the current $5.46 million.

“A couple of higher end employees retired and we were able to fill those positions at a starting rate,” said Ginger Coulter, the department’s finance director.

She noted that in light of the state legislature not providing any funds, the department did not build into its budget funding for the Bay City Wellness Center, a drug rehab facility that Sheriff A.J. Smith has proposed at the site of the former work camp outside Apalachicola.

There will be a 3.67 percent increase to the clerk of courts budget, from $353,725 to $366,721 due to an increase in the cost of retirement for whoever is elected in November, either Griffith or Michele Maxwell, to succeed the retiring Marcia Johnson. This is because Johnson, who was in the state’s DROP program, had a lower retirement contribution than the rate that will be charged either of her two successors.

After an appearance by Casey Nash, chief deputy to Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper, that budget will remain unchanged at $676,594.

The budget of Tax Collector Rick Watson will fall from $624,747 to $620,876, a 0.62 percent decrease, and that of Supervisor of Elections Heather Riley will also drop, from $409,815 to $400,619. She said the 2 percent decline is because next year will see only one major election, unlike this year’s busy presidential election year.

The budget of Veterans Service Officer Charles Elliott will remain unchanged, at $63,604.

Following a break, the workshop resumed with the approval of the road department’s budget, unchanged at $1,59 million. The uncertainty in that budget remains the effect that an anticipated decline in gas tax proceeds, a major source of funding, will have on the budget.

“The sales tax revenue estimates which were released (by the state) paint a dire picture of the state's economy for next fiscal year,” said Griffith. “Florida government is heavily reliant upon sales tax proceeds. Whereas county government does not rely as heavily upon sales tax proceeds as the state budget, we are intertwined with the state economy as far as state-shared revenues are concerned and approximately 17 percent of the revenues for the general fund come from sales taxes.

“In the past, these revenues have been dependable and have shown sustainable, reliable growth year after year,” she said, noting that the coronavirus pandemic is expected to have a negative impact “The (state) has a tourism based economy and the social distancing and reduction in travel to South Florida locations due to pandemic fears have reduced the state shared sales tax revenue proceeds by $227,821 for the general fund and $225,780 for the road and bridge fund.”

The solid waste budget, at $1.11 million, remains unchanged, as a recent rate increase on landfill tipping fees, improvements in the housing market and the ongoing processing of storm related construction debris have enabled the tipping fee fund to transfer an additional $100,000 to the general fund. “The tipping fee fund has not been able to transfer more than $100,000 per year to the general fund since 2010,” said Griffith.

A solid waste grant from the state of $90,909 helps pay for fuel expenditures.

The budget for parks and recreation, also under the direction of Fonda Davis, will rise to $621,340 from $609,112, in large part due to the cost of maintaining new parks such as the Buddy Ward Seafood Landing park west of Apalachicola, and the Eastpoint fishing pier restrooms, expected to open next year.

“With all the parks we’re adding on it’s getting tough for the six-man crew that we have, and we will be coming back later for some help,” said Davis, noting that there also has been a reduction in inmate crews due to the pandemic. “We’re trying to maintain the ones we have. The boat ramps is not being taken care of.”

The budget for animal control remained unchanged at $174,082, as did the county library, constant at $348,068, about $75,213 of that is a state grant.

The courthouse maintenance budget remains at $271,780, and will serve seven locations, including the Chapman Auditorum.

Because there was a $30,000 increase in fees, the building department budget was set at $204,705. Planning and zoning remains at $153,055 and that of administrative services unchanged at $140,330.

The budge for Pam Brownell;’s emergency management office is unchanged at $229,197, which includes a state grant of $105,806, a federal grant of $53,720 and a local portion of $69,671.

The budget for mosquito control remains unchanged at $216,921. “We’re good for this year,” said director Dewitt Polous. “But next year we’re looking at replacing some of that stuff.”

The budget for the county extension office will rise from $83,357 to $85,699, because Erik Lovestrand was recently promoted to a higher position by the University of Florida.

The county pays 20 percent of his salary, and so they will have to add $2,422 to that.

“We have a new level of credential here, that’s a compliment to the county,” said Commissioner Bert Boldt.