Local News

County taxes may go up

— This time, it looks like the Highlands County commissioners might really raise taxes.

Faced with a $10.8 million deficit and no additional revenues in the FY 2014-15 budget, Commissioner Jim Brooks said at Tuesday’s meeting, “Personally, I don’t see any options except raising the millage and possibly some additional cuts.”

Commissioners certified 9 mills, a clear notice that property taxes could go up from the current 7.1 mills. For the owner of a $100,000 house, that’s an additional $190 annually, excluding homestead and other exemptions.

“This is the seventh year since we’ve had any (salary) increase for our employees,” Brooks reasoned. “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. “We’ve gotten down to the point now where it’s mostly revenue related.”

Property tax revenues are $18 million below 2006, but the county is charging 7.1 mills now compared to 8.5 mills then, according to a table presented by Budget Manager Tim Mechling.

“We’ve also got to also be preparing for next year’s budget,” Commissioner Jack Richie referred to the FY 2015-16 budget. Since the value of agricultural land depends on productivity, citrus greening will reduce the taxes collected.

There are a few bright spots, Mechling said: building department revenues are increasing, and a slight increase is predicted in gasoline taxes.

About $11.6 million is in the rainy day fund, but if the county is to keep two months in reserve, $9.7 million will be needed.

Certifying the millage at 9 doesn’t mean they’ll go that high, commissioners pointed out.

“We can go as high as we need to now,” Chairman Greg Harris said. But if more tax money is needed, the commissioners can’t raise taxes above 9 mills.

“How much do we need to $10.6 million?” Elwell asked.

Between 9.5 and 9.75, Mechling said. A 9 mill rate will produce an extra $8 million in taxes.

“You’re going see a lot of folks concerned out there, especially the commercial folks,” Elwell said, arguing for a lower millage. “I don’t believe it’s going to have to go to nine, and our goal is to lower it.”

“I’d rather do it now and know we’re coming down,” Harris said. Brooks and Richie agreed.

The commissioners, constitutional officers and citizens will meet in several budget discussions before the Oct. 1 deadline. Two are scheduled on July 22 and July 24.

Although tea party chair John Nelson and others tried to convince commissioners that the Central Florida Regional Planning Council and the U.S. Air Force is part of the one world order and the United Nation’s Agenda 21, commissioners voted 4-0, with Ron Handley absent, to adopt the Military Airport Zones overlay district. In part, the MAZs would regulate lighting.

However, Nelson said, pilots don’t look at the ground anyway. “They’re looking at their screen or in their helmet.”

“This is Russia, folks,” Nelson said. “I’m sorry, but I’m done.”

The MAZs are only “a planning tool for the county,” Development Services Director Mark Hill said. They protect the future mission of the Air Force bombing range.

Nellis Air Force base is now in downtown Las Vegas, Brooks said. “There are certain things they are charged with doing that they can’t do today.”

The MAZs keep houses and apartments from being built near the runways, said former Avon Park range commander Buck McLaughlin, and the commercial lighting fixtures use a lower wattage but are already common in Highlands County.

Current commander Lt. Col. Paul Nielander said the mission of the base is unchanged. “There is no expansion.”

Are there any plans to acquire another 32,000 acres, Nielander was asked.

No, he said.

Has he been asked by the federal government about the ability to imprison illegal aliens here?

Yes, Nielander said. A week ago, the Department of Defense asked if military installations could hold 5,000 illegal immigrants. His answer was that the Avon Park range lacks access to toilets and showers.

“But,” he added, “truth in advertising: if the government wants to spend the money to put those facilities there, they could do it.”

After an impassioned speech from Veteran’s Service Officer Denise Williams, commissioners changed the rules to allow veterans with honorable discharges or general discharges under honorable conditions 180 days instead of 60 days to apply for a Combat Grant after returning from an overseas deployment. Veterans spoke both for and against allowing veterans with general discharges to apply for the grant, but Williams said all are combat veterans, and some got into trouble with drugs or alcohol, usually because they are unable to handle Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

By a 4-0 vote, the board signed a $105,000 contract with Massey Communications Inc. of Orlando to promote Highlands County arts and culture. Sports and nature-based tourism won’t be promoted.

“This is not a consulting job,” Tourism Director John Scherlacher said. “It’s not like they’re going to tell us how, and we do it ourself, they are putting together a promotion, printing and distribution.”

“It just seems like a tremendous amount of money to be putting into that area,” Richie objected, although he voted for the measure.

Instead of leasing the Avon Park clay pit for a shooting range, commissioners decided to sell it. “That way we don’t have to oversee it,” Administrative Project Manager Chris Benson said.

“It just needs to be made clear,” Brooks said. The pit is not zoned for a shooting range, and potential buyers should not believe that a special exception will be needed. “And I’ve heard some comments from neighbors who are not too keen in establishing a shooting range there.”