Local News

County official: Up budget by $6.4 M

SEBRING - Administrator June Fisher recommended on Tuesday using $2.6 million of Highlands County's rainy day fund to balance next year's $123 million budget. Fiscal year 13-14's budget is $6.4 million larger than the current year because it includes pay raises, a property tax increase, and more money for each of the five constitutional officers. "While we have been able to absorb the reductions of the last five years, our capacity has been significantly reduced," Fisher wrote in her budget message. "To successfully execute the initiates of the board, we must ensure that the county remains competitive in retaining and attracting well-trained, highly motivated and innovative employees. For this reason, a pay adjustment has been included," Fisher wrote. "It is a cost of doing business to retain and motivate valued employees."
The cost of living adjustment totals $328,952. As Commissioner Jim Brooks noted, it's been five years since county employees had a raise. "The Highlands County Property Appraiser reports that property values have dropped by 2.59 percent countywide," Fisher said in her July 1 letter to the commissioners. That will result in an estimated $600,000 revenue loss. Fisher hopes to make up that loss by raising property taxes from 7.1 mills to the rollback rate of 7.2931 mills, which would bring in $32.31 million. Utilities will rise an estimated 5 percent and insurance is expected to go up 12.71 percent. Budget Director Tim Mechling's presentation also showed gas tax and building permit revenues are still falling slightly, while the one-cent sales tax is projected to rise slightly. If $2.6 million of the money is not spent in the current FY 11-12 budget it can be used to balance next year's '13-'14 budget, Fisher suggested. That will leave $4 million for the 2014-15 budget, and $10 million will still remain in the rainy day fund. Fisher also offered ways to cut her budget: hold the five constitutional officers to their current budgets. The sheriff, for instance, is asking for an additional $1 million. Responding to a question from Richie, Chief Deputy Mark Schraeder said $680,000 is to pay for the 3 percent mandatory contribution to the Florida Retirement System. "The FRS has just clobbered the sheriff's department," Richie said. "All the constitutional officers got clobbered." The clerk of courts is also asking for $224,000. Bob Germaine explained that his office has absorbed the county's telephone system and the information technology systems of the tax collector and supervisor of elections. That saved all money for three but shows up in his budget. "It looks like I'm spending more money, but I'm just bringing more people on board," Germaine said. The commissioners could also cut $330,000 by not funding the recreation programs of the three municipalities, cut the $10,000 Ridge Area ARC request, and defund two new positions Fisher is asking for: a $31,000 caretaker and $34,000 equipment operator. Commissioner Greg Harris was opposed but finally voted for a request from Affordable Transport to start a non-emergency medical transport service in Highlands County. "I don't know why we're doing this," Harris said. Positive Medical Transport hires employees from Highlands County, buys gasoline and tires here, and is part of the community. "Affordable is from Lakeland." Does Highlands need another private ambulance company, Harris asked? "This is for a license," EMS Director Harvey Craven answered. "There is no certificate of need. The law doesn't require it." "Just like we don't restrict roofers or contractors," Brooks said. "To me, this is the same deal, I appreciate Positive and the job they are doing, but competition is good for the marketplace." "It's not really our place to say, 'Yes, you can,'" Commissioner Don Elwell added. "They've jumped through all the hoops. I don't see a reason to deny it." "If the requirements are met, the license must be issued," County Attorney Ross Macbeth agreed. "I think we've had a ruling from our attorney," Commissioner Jack Richie said. The vote was 4-0, with Commissioner Ron Handley absent. Facilities Management Director David Flowers requested approval to purchase a $26,300 Checkpoint Security Screening System for the courthouse. The current X-ray machine is 19 years old. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828