CLEARWATER - The scheduling of the first of two Clearwater Budget hearings was unusual, but the outcome was not, as the Clearwater City Council approved the city's 2006/07 budget and property tax millage rate on Tuesday night.
The city's 2006/07 General Fund expenditures will amount to $123.6-million, an increase of $12.2-million, or 10.9 percent, over 2005/06 levels. Public safety, consisting of police and fire/rescue services, will consume 49 percent of the General Fund, with quality of life services, consisting of library and parks and recreation services, swallowing up 23.5 percent.
The plurality (42 percent) of General Fund revenue comes from the city's ad valorem property taxes. While Clearwater will reduce its property tax rate by nearly 6 percent to 5.42 mils, the city's general fund tax revenue will grow to $51.94-million, an increase of 15.7 percent over 2005/06. The increase is fuelled largely by the rising taxable value of existing non-homesteaded properties.
Unlike last year's budget hearings, which according to Councilmember Bill Jonson drew only one citizen who questioned a sharp increase in the number of city employees, Tuesday's hearing drew a large number of participants; with only one exception, all called for budget cuts.
Sand Key resident Cheryl Hopler questioned the Council's reliance on citizen input during a series of "visioning" meetings as the justification for maintaining high levels of service. She said that a lot of people did not realize the costs involved, and now are thinking, "I want a Mercedes and now I have to go back to the Toyota." She recommended that the Council make an across the board budget cut, allowing each city department to decide how to manage it.
Realtor Paul Gibson thanked the Council for the 6 percent millage rate cut, but complained that the assessed value of his rental property went up 75 percent; "To say the mill rate went down when the assessed value went up like this is just not a great accomplishment in my opinion." Gibson said that people are selling their beach condos because of their rising taxes, claiming that as a reason for the glut of condos on the market today.
Gibson later said, "If you think there are no inefficiencies in this budget like this, I'm not at a loss for words - I just won't use them."
Island Estates resident Ken Humphreys, referring to cost savings found by the management of the Jolley Trolley, thanked the Council for "cutting $8-thousand out of our $400-thousand budget." He questioned whether the participants in the city's "visioning" meetings would have asked for more services had they realized that their taxes would rise as a result. Referring to the 85 percent increase in the city's general fund expenditures over the last 5 years, Humphreys said, "It seems like we're headed in that direction for the next 5 years. That level of increase is just not sustainable."
Councilmember Bill Jonson explained his dilemma in evaluating the budget; "We're cutting the millage rate by about 5 or 6 percent and we're not cutting services, so that's good. On the other hand, we're raising the total amount of property taxes that the city collects by about 15 percent, and we aren't getting any increased services either. So you've got those two sides, and trying to decide which one is right," he said.
Jonson could find only one budget item to cut on Tuesday, and moved to eliminate the additional $300-thousand that was requested by Ruth Eckerd Hall, reducing the millage rate an additional 3/100 mills. Not only did Jonson receive no support for his motion, but he was also chastised by Mayor Frank Hibbard for later voting against the proposed budget.
Hibbard said to Jonson, "Councilmember, I find it interesting that you didn't find $300-thousand elsewhere, and, quite honestly, it seems like a political move to me." Jonson explained that the $300-thousand was an addition to the budget, one that he had voiced earlier opposition to. "I just think that we have not been addressing some of the issues that we could have been addressing in this budget cycle, and this is about the only way I can say that I am disappointed and I think we've missed the boat in not addressing those at that time." A sustained applause erupted from the audience.
Jonson went on to call for a Six Sigma quality approach to control the budget rather than eliminating or reducing specific services. "It's darn hard to look at a budget book and say, 'that number should be $25-thousand less'," he said. Jonson endorsed the across the board budget cut proposed earlier by Cheryl Hopler, empowering department managers to decide how to best reduce costs. Another sustained applause erupted from the audience.
For the record, the Council approved both the millage rate and operating budget by votes of 4-1, with Jonson voting against. The capital improvement budget was approved unanimously.
The second, and last, 2006/07 budget hearing will be held during the regular City Council meeting on Thursday, September 21st.
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