Local News

The $6 million hole How Highlands County found itself in a deficit

SEBRING - Fewer property taxes, sales taxes, communications services taxes, ambulance transports. More money for tax collections, elections, aerial maps, retirement, salaries. Those are nine reasons why Highlands County is in a $6 million budget hole, but there are more, said Tim Mechling, Office of Management and Budget senior manager. "There are two major reasons why," Mechling said. His explanation is 10 minutes long, but the short answer is that revenue estimates have continued to decline in 2013 by $1.3 million, and budget requests from Highlands County and the five constitutional officers are up $2.1 million. His guess is that $2.6 will be needed from the rainy day fund.
The bottom line of those three estimated figures is $6,034,337. "Those are all estimates," Mechling said. The only real numbers are last year's revenues and expenses. On the revenue side, property tax collections dropped from $31 million to $30.5 million. The estimated loss is $572,877. "The market continued downward in 2012 sales," said Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre. "That was the tail end of the housing collapse. Houses sold for less than they were sold for the year before. We've been on a downward spiral." The good news, McIntyre said, is that based on sales he's seen this year, the trend seems to have leveled off. Commercial properties were also worth less, based on the poor economy. The other large component on the revenue side is EMS, Mechling said, which is down $647,000. "Due to sequestration, we took a 2 percent cut in Medicare reimbursements," said EMS Director Harvey Craven. Because Congress has sharply cut Medicare reimbursements due to the Affordable Care Act, bonus payments for urban, rural and super-rural transports will expire on Dec. 31, Craven said. Medicare amounts to 41 percent of EMS income. The rest of the EMS comes from a county commission decision to stop transporting non-emergency patients. That business was left to private-sector ambulances. "We have drastically reduced our inter-facility transfers," Craven said. "That was an area where we actually made a little bit of money," Mechling said. Other estimated revenue cuts: local commercial services taxes, $51,000; state shared revenues, $138,000; half-cent sales tax, $200,000; miscellaneous revenues, $490,0000. On the budget request side, the tax collector asked for an additional $36,000; supervisor of elections, $182,000; property appraiser, $274,000; clerk of courts, $224,000, sheriff and law enforcement, $1.2 million. The constitutional officers justified their increases: the elections supervisor needs more money to conduct the 2014 gubernatorial primary. The property appraiser is required by the state to pay for aerial mapping every three years. The sheriff is short 25 employees. The tax collector has to take over the driver's license bureau this year. The clerk of courts took over technical support for the county telephone system, information technology support for the tax collector and supervisor of elections, and the pre-trial release program from the sheriff. His employees will replace the video camera system, if the commissioners agree. The sheriff has included salary increases, and since the clerk of court and county employees haven't seen raises in five years, Bob Germaine and County Administrator June Fisher have included more money in their budgets, although they didn't specify how much. "We must ensure that the county remains competitive in retaining and attracting well trained, highly motivated and innovative employees," Fisher wrote in her July 1 budget message to the commissioners. "It is a cost of doing business to retain and motivate valued employees." gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828