Local News

Commissioners to tackle $11 million budget deficit

— On Tuesday and Wednesday, Highlands County commissioners will discuss how to solve a $10.8 million shortfall.

To Greg Harris, it’s a choice between raising taxes and severe budget cuts.

“We can close the libraries, we can take away $300,000 from recreation — all the non-essential stuff. But we’ve looked at that already,” Harris said. In five previous years, tax-cutting commissioners have laid off library employees and slashed the recreation budget by $200,000.

“We can keep the $30,000 we give to Safehouse,” said Harris, who chairs the five-commissioner board. “We don’t have a lot of other options. We can take money from the fire departments and we can take a million dollars out of the sheriff’s budget. But nobody wants that.”

“I’ve asked (County Administrator June Fisher) to go through the 900 pages they’re going to give us,” Harris said, referring to the Fiscal Year 2014-15 budget, “and put together a synopsis of each department. But we’re not going to find much. Those departments have been trimmed and trimmed. Out of a $120 million budget, we only have control over $17 million of it. And we’ve got to find a way to cut $10 million out of that, which is obviously very difficult.”

“This is the seventh year since we’ve had any (salary) increase for our employees,” Commissioner Jim Brooks reasoned two weeks ago. “There’s actually been a decrease, because they have to pay 3 percent more to the state retirement system. It’s going to be a tough budget year, unless we cut a lot of services.”

“We’ve literally emptied every pocket,” Commissioner Don Elwell said at the July 16 meeting. “We’ve gotten down to the point now where it’s mostly revenue related.”

In the past, commissioners have also raided the rainy day fund, but those reserves are depleted. Two-and-a-half months remain, which the county auditor calls a minimum amount.

Two weeks ago, four of the five commissioners said that after five years of budget cuts, they may have no choice but to raise taxes this year.

“I hate that,” Harris said. “We all hate that, but we do not have a lot of other options. I asked June Fisher how many employees we’d have lay off to get to $10 million, and she said we could lay off all of them and that’s still wouldn’t do it. We have to have people to run the business.”

Commissioners certified 9 mills at their last meeting, a clear notice that property taxes could go up from the current 7.1 mills.

The owner of a $100,000 house without homestead or other exemptions currently pays $710 in annual property taxes, Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre said. If commissioners move to 9 mills, the county’s property tax on that fictional home would go up $190.

However, most property owners have $50,000 in exemptions, and Harris said the commissioners would not need to raise taxes the full 9 mills to make up $10.8 million. If, for instance, the commissioners settled on 8 mills, the tax increase for the owner of a $100,000 home with $50,000 worth of exemptions would be $45.

Most citizens would prefer a small tax increase to drastically cutting services, Harris thinks.

The commissioners will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday at Government Center, 600 S. Commerce Ave., to handle the regular agenda, then turn to the budget in the afternoon. Budget talks will continue at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

“We encourage anybody with thoughts and suggestions to attend either one or both of those meetings,” Elwell said. “A lot of decisions are going to happen during those two meetings.”

Tuesday’s agenda also includes a proposed salary survey for county employees, constructing a new $831,000 EMS station and office on George Boulevard to replace the current modular housing, a new security camera for Highlands County Courthouse, and a recommendation from the county engineer that golf carts not be permitted on roadways at Avon Parks Lakes.