published: Sunday, September 08, 2013
County leaves property tax rate level
By BARRY FOSTER
SEBRING -- It may be hard to believe, but Highlands County commissioners have been able to reduce taxes in a down budget year. Commissioners voted Thursday evening to leave the property tax rate at 7.1 mils for the upcoming 2013-14 fiscal year to underwrite a $122 million budget.
That works out to a $7.10 assessment for each $1,000 of taxable value.
Although the millage remains unchanged from the current budget year, due to declining property values, the 7.1 actually represents a 2.65 percent decrease from the current fiscal year.
The rollback rate for this year would have been 7.2931.
That millage would have produced the same amount of money as was produced last year at 7.1.
It has been as been a long, grinding process over the past few months with commissioners cutting their own expenditures to the bone while holding a number of constitutional officers to only about a 1 percent increase in their respective budgets. Commissioners did some horse trading with both the Highlands County Sheriff and Clerk of the Courts offices to help finance a number of extra programs they have taken on for the board or for other constitutional offices.
Several thorny exchanges occurred during Thursday night's session when a new proposal for funding was discussed for the county's Industrial Development Authority/Economic Development Commission. Previously, commissioners had told the group they would have to live on their savings -- said to be about $160,000 -- for at least the next six months.
The commission had hinted that it wanted to see both more productivity from the economic development group as well as additional support from the private sector. Paul McGehee, IDA/EDC chairman, assured commissioners that there is a new membership drive under way as well as a new fee structure that will bring additional money into the coffers on the economic development side.
However, sharp words were exchanged after McGehee indicated that notion the group had six months of operating expenses may have been misstated. That drew the ire of Highlands County Commission Chairman Jack Richie, who also serves as the board's liaison to the IDA/EDC.
"Why didn't we have that information the other three times?" asked Richie. "To come in at the 12th hour and say 'We don't have what we thought we had' ...I don't buy it."
When pushed by the board, Richie pointed out the commission had taken three different votes on funding for the IDA/EDC, which was more than any other single item in the budget.
"We spent more time, more money, more everything and now we're told we have inaccurate numbers," he said. "I am a little bit disturbed by something of this nature at the last minute."
Richie cut the discussion short after IDA/EDC Executive Director Stephen Weeks brought forward "approximate numbers" to illustrate what the group currently had in its coffers.
Commissioner Don Elwell subsequently suggested a policy that would allow the economic development group to come back to the commission "on or before April 1" to again discuss the issue.
Richie told the group the commission would keep a "sharp eye" on their progress, especially efforts to raise money from private sector memberships on the EDC side of the organization.
Commissioners drew praise from a number of residents for their ability to find budget cuts and creative financing to keep from raising property taxes to help underwrite the upcoming budget year.
"We asked you to make the hard decisions and you made them," said Highlands Tea Party Chairman John Nelson.
Former Avon Park mayor Tom Macklin congratulated the commission for what he termed "difficult and courageous choices," and even longtime commission critic John Drennan told the board they had done "a pretty good job."
This was the first year of commissioners' attempt at a two-year budget. They have agreed the county now is out of "one-time fixes" and other single revenue sources. It has been suggested that the county -- and all three municipalities -- now begin to look at more creative ways at financing some of the services provided by government.
Among the areas to be explored in the upcoming months will be user fees, non-ad valorem assessments and the possibility of establishing municipal services taxing units to help pay for the services citizens say they would like to have or continue.
(by: Blindman~ - 9/10/2013)
Miracles still happen once in awhile.
Taxes (by: Just my opnion. - 9/9/2013)
Congratulations on a job well done, but correct me if I am wrong but non-ad valorem assessment fees is another form of tax.
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