City leaders reluctantly OK tax hike

Money – or more specifically, the lack of it – dominated discussions among members of the Clewiston City Commission at their meeting Monday, which ended in a decision to submit a potential 0.75-mill increase in the property tax rate as the city’s Truth in Millage (or TRIM) rate to the Hendry County property appraiser.

But before that struggle, which required four votes of the commission to reach the decision, city commissioners were asked by Hope Healthcare to waive or reduce the monthly rent it pays for use of the city’s Senior Citizens Building to administer a federally-mandated supplemental food program for poor residents.

Commissioner Julio Rodriguez pointed out that the programs Hope Connection (a division of Hope Healthcare) operates out of the city’s space also serves a lot of Hendry County residents.

“My concern is … that our city is strapped in its budget right now. We can’t give raises, we can’t paint buildings, we can’t add more employees. I just don’t think we should be in the business of giving away anything right now. We can’t afford it. I cannot support this,” he said, noting that it would put more of a burden on city taxpayers.

Matt Hudson, vice president of Hope Healthcare, said he had reached out to Hendry County officials and that the county has agreed to contribute about $34,000 annually in exchange for the benefit to unincorporated-county residents, “… because they recognize that in lieu of us, they couldn’t do what we do for $34,000, nor could you for $6,000.”

Mayor Mali Gardner, saying she wanted to do what’s right for the community, proposed that the city waive the $500 a month rent but still require Hope Connection to pay utility costs since taxpayers’ money covers them, and that the city manager work with Hope and Hendry County to have it share costs for Hope’s use of the building.

Commissioner Kristine Petersen put her proposal into a motion, and it was seconded by Commissioner Michael Atkinson, who was attending by phone from Tennessee where he was vacationing.
The motion passed 3-1, with Rodriguez dissenting. Commissioner Phillip Roland was absent.

All that was but a prelude to an even longer back-and-forth about whether Clewiston’s property tax rate needed to be higher.

Mayor Gardner began by saying that reverting to the rollback rate – which would keep the amount homeowners pay steady unless their homes’ assessed valuation increased – would make Clewiston’s total revenue $28,243 less than it was last year.

Keeping the current millage rate of 6.0314 would add that same amount back in but provide no extra money for city operations over fiscal 2016. She said she favored the latter approach.
One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of taxable property.

Ms. Petersen said she wanted the commission to send the TRIM rate with a possible 1-mill increase (after that stage of the process, the rate could be reduced but not increased).

“We have a library that’s leaking. We still need to look at some salaries. We know that the health care is going to go up.

There are a lot of things that we need to be concerned about,” she said, “and we’ve held the line for a number of years. And this doesn’t mean that we necessarily have to [raise taxes], but we have got to know that we have the opportunity to. This is the same thing I said last year.” A 1-mill increase would put the rate at 7.0314, the mayor pointed out, raising an additional $218,083 for the city.

Mr. Atkinson agreed with Ms. Petersen, saying that “it’s better to have a little wiggle room and not need it than to need it and not have it.” Mr. Rodriguez said: “This is one of the tough times of the year for us. We’ve gotta have more money. We don’t have enough revenue coming in.”

Acknowledging that Clewiston has mounting needs such as painting buildings and replacing old vehicles, he still insisted: “I’m always on the fence about raising taxes. I don’t like raising taxes.
So even giving you that pitch, where it sounds like I’m going to support raising the taxes tonight, I can’t do it.” Ms. Petersen pointed out that a vote for an increased TRIM rate did not equate to raising taxes and that a commissioner could vote yes and still vote no later.

Mayor Gardner retorted: “I’ve been here a long time and I realize that any time there’s been a millage rate increase, we’ve stayed with it. And so it is an increase in taxes. You know, I am burdened by the fact that there are a lot of things that need to be done, but I think that … there’s things that we can do. There are still some savings that can be realized. I cannot support a millage rate increase even though it might give us some wiggle room until we go through the budget process. We’re going to have to be creative on how we do things. “I believe that the current millage rate at 6.0314 is exactly where … you know, I believe it should be lower, but I realize with all the concerns that have been noted, I’m willing to leave it at that and not go back with the rollback rate,” she finished.

City manager Al Perry interjected: “Mayor, may I speak for Commissioner Phillip Roland? He’s ill tonight and unable to be here or on the phone, but I did speak with him briefly before the meeting and he was, as well, concerned about the millage, and his recommendation was that it be between 6.7814 and 7.0314, which is three-quarters to a 1-mill proposed increase.”
Mr. Perry added that in his 4 1/2 years with the city, he’d never asked for a tax increase.

“But it’s hard to field the phone calls about the auditorium and the bathrooms leaking at somebody’s wedding, and it’s difficult to field the phone calls about the floor that looks like a disaster out there, and we just don’t have the funds to fix it.

I’ll work within whatever budget you guys decide, but it’s awful hard at times,” he said.

Signaling an end to the talks, Mayor Gardner asked for a motion. The first, made by Ms. Petersen and seconded by Mr. Atkinson, to increase the rate by 1 mill, failed in a 2-2 tie.
A second, made by Mr. Rodriguez “for the sake of us going home tonight,” was for a half-mill increase, to 6.5314 which would bring in $137,283 more than the rollback rate, failed for lack of a second.

Commissioner Atkinson, arguing forcefully that a full 1-mill increase was the only acceptable alternative to her, repeated her motion and Mr. Atkinson his second but it failed in the same 2-2 vote.
Mayor Gardner then entertained a motion to raise the TRIM rate by 0.75 mill, to 6.7814, which would raise $191,804 more than the rollback rate. Ms. Petersen reluctantly made one and, with Mr. Atkinson’s second. It won the mayor’s grudging support and passed 3-1 with Rodriguez maintaining his opposition.

The Clewiston City Commission will have a budget workshop Aug. 1 at 4 p.m. with a brief special meeting to follow for approval of budget documents to be submitted to the county; a budget workshop and tentative public hearing Sept. 14; and, its final budget public hearing on Sept. 25.

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