CLEWISTON – Clewiston commissioners voted weeks ago to raise the city’s property tax rate for the annual Truth-in-Millage notices to taxpayers and to allow a little budgetary wiggle room, yet still directed staff to try to balance the budget using the old rate. On Monday night – Sept. 25, however, after Finance Director Shari Howell presented that pared-down budget, they still voted to impose a one-half mill increase in the rate (slightly less than first advertised).
And it was the narrowest City Commission majority that approved doing so, with Vice Mayor Michael Atkinson and Commissioners Kristine Petersen and Phillip Roland voting in favor, and Mayor Mali Gardner and Commissioner Julio Rodriguez opposed.
Ms. Petersen’s motion to approve the higher millage rate of $6.5314 per $1,000 assessed property valuation specified, though, that the tax increase would remain in effect for only three years before it would “sunset.” Mayor Gardner asked City Attorney Gary Brandenburg, who was listening in by telephone, whether that was legally possible, and he replied, “You can put language in there that it’s your intention to sunset the millage in the future, but it’s not binding on you or future commissions.”
Ms. Howell noted that throughout the commission’s and staff’s discussions during the past three months of workshops, “we discussed the fact that the city has basically over the last several years just been maintaining, that is to say, we have replaced very little capital, we have a lot of aging equipment, we haven’t really done a whole lot other than the few grants we’ve gotten to take care of our infrastructure, our buildings.” That was what led a commission majority to OK a rate three-quarters of a mill higher than the current rate of $6.0314 per $1,000 assessed valuation.
“At the city manager’s direction, we did balance our budget this year utilizing a 6.0314 millage rate, and anything that we had left over from the 6.7814 is currently in our contingency fund,” she explained. Ms. Howell also noted that the budget still included all the capital items deemed priorities, plus a 2 percent merit raise for city employees, by making cuts elsewhere.
Mayor Gardner noted that it was a public hearing and asked if anyone wanted to speak about the millage rate and budget.
Planning and Zoning Board member Jerry Cochrane came forward. “The public is so upset about this proposed millage increase that I showed up,” he said. “Because other than city employees and press, there’s nobody from the public here. So I don’t think they’re too upset about that proposed millage increase. I think a lot of us realize that millage increase is needed.”
He suggested the commission specify that any increased revenue from a higher rate be used only for capital improvements or emergency spending – “like if a hurricane comes through. It would take a super-majority vote to spend that money. I think the public would understand that.
“We still don’t know where we are on storm pickup” after Hurricane Irma, he added. (That was a topic of much discussion at the last commission meeting Sept. 18.) “Are we getting reimbursed 75 percent [of costs], 90, 100? I suspect it’s probably going to be 100 because the governor’s running for senator next year. But if for some reason we’re on the hook for 25 percent, we don’t have any money to pay for that. So we better have a little bit in reserve. I would like to see that three-quarters mill increase,” Mr. Cochrane said.
He noted, and Ms. Howell confirmed, that it would give the city slightly over $200,000 in reserve. “For a budget our size, that’s not a lot of money. It doesn’t mean we’ve got to spend it,” he said. “According to the TRIM notice I got, it’s going to impact me about $95. I can live with that.”
Mr. Cochrane noted that Clewiston is facing infrastructure problems that will get more expensive to fix as time goes by, and said city officials need to look at their options. “I know you all are interested in cutting money where we can, and I’ve been up here numerous times on these two 800-pound gorillas, the police department and the golf course. I’m not saying to get rid of either one; I’m saying you all possibly should look at forming some type of a blue-ribbon committee to look at options. We’re paying several million dollars a year to protect 5 square miles. … That’s a lot of money that’s going for police protection. And I know the [golf course] deficit’s come down, but at a quarter-million dollars for a city this size, folks, you’re spending more on that golf course than you are on repaving our streets. I don’t understand that.”
Mayor Gardner agreed that serious questions had to be addressed and called for a special workshop in October to examine those issues, but she defended the proposed balanced budget with the 6.0314 millage rate. “I believe that this is a good budget, it’s a better budget than last year’s, and I think that next year’s budget is going to be better as well. But I do not believe that increasing the millage is the answer since we have been able to fund over $500,000 in projects, as well as garnering other funding for other projects, and use a small amount, $56,000, from reserves to fund it, plus give city employees a 2 percent raise.”
In the end, however, the mayor was overruled and also cast the only “nay” vote on the budget itself, saying that she believed the “contingency” money would be spent in any event since it now will be there for the taking.