By DOTTY NIST
Walton County taxpayers will get a break in the new fiscal year as compared with the property tax rate that the county had previously been eyeing for the 2013-14 fiscal year. As the result of a decision of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) the county-wide millage rate is to stay at 3.5563 mills, the same as for the current fiscal year.
The decision occurred in a 3-2 vote, at the first of two Walton County budget hearings, on Sept. 9 at the South Walton Annex. A good showing of residents and county staff turned out for the hearing.
Ad valorem taxes on property fund a large part of the county’s budget, with the amount a property owner pays being determined by their taxable property value and the millage rate adopted by the county. One mill equals one dollar on each $1,000 of taxable property value.
The total taxable value for properties in the county was reported to have experienced an increase of about $600 million over the current year value, with the result that approximately $2 million more in ad valorem taxes would be collected by the county without any increase in the ad valorem rate. However, among the budget challenges faced by the county this year are a state-mandated increase in retirement rates at a cost of $1 million and Medicaid increases, also mandated, at a cost of $250,000.
Also included in the budget is a $1.68 million cost in the Walton County Sheriff’s Office portion of the budget as funding for six school resource deputies (SRDs). The SRDs were added earlier in the year at the county’s elementary schools in response to the Sandy Hook incident. According to Gerry Demers, assistant county administrator, half of the SRDs’ salary expense is being provided by the Walton County School District. However, the county is to pay the remainder needed to fund the SRDs, which, when vehicles and other expenses are included, comes to about 75 percent of the cost for the deputies, according to Demers.
Proposed at the outset of the Sept. 9 meeting was a preliminary millage rate of 4.1060 mills, representing an 18.4-percent increase over the Rolled-Back Rate. The Rolled-Back Rate is the one that would essentially result in the same amount of ad valorem taxes being collected as in the current year. A total budget of $111,536,521 was proposed, with the operating budget to be $109,286,521.
Citizen comment at the meeting was overwhelmingly against the millage increase.
One of a number of attendees expressing this sentiment was Don Riley, president of the Walton County Taxpayers Association (WCTA) and president of the homeowners’ association at the Grand Dunes Condominium. “I urge you to seriously consider a smaller increase,” Riley told the commissioners.
Riley said the WCTA had yet to take an official position on the budget—but that he was sure that the organization would not be in favor of such a large increase in the millage rate.
“Try to figure out a way to do more with less or either do less, because it’s not sustainable for people,” urged a Freeport resident.
Santa Rosa Beach resident Bob Hudson identified an attempt to keep reserves high as a major reason why the large increase was being proposed. “What we’re doing is throwing money in the savings account,” he said. He asked the commissioners to consider whether they needed to keep so much money in reserves. Hudson also suggested that the Walton County School District (WCSD) fund more or all of the cost for the SRDs.
Mary Nielson also advocated funding the SRDs totally through the WCSD budget.
Carlene Anderson, Walton County school superintendent, discussed the WCSD’s budget constraints. She noted that 50 percent is the traditional amount by which the school district has funded SRDs. She pointed out that these officers are important to adults as well as to children, because the SRDS are called upon to break up fights between parents at the schools and remove parents who become belligerent toward teachers and school administration.
Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson commented that his department is researching ways to reduce costs for SRDs, including the use of part-time personnel or volunteers.
Jacquee Markel said she did not have a problem with the proposed millage increase, that she appreciated county services, and that she did not want to have those services cut. She spoke in favor of devoting additional resources to code enforcement.
County Commission Chairman Kenneth Pridgen suggested going to the county’s constitutional officers to see what additional expenses could be cut from their budgets. He was in favor of reducing the millage rate, but not below the current 3.5563 percent.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander discussed possible cost-saving measures such as turning off computers when they were not in use, reducing travel expenses for county staff to attend meetings by utilizing web cams, and even putting off all road paving projects for the next year.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows was not in favor of the latter measure, stating that she saw road paving as one of the essential functions of government. However, Meadows pointed out items from a list of expenses that she had obtained from staff and suggested areas for potential savings. She spoke to the need to “get a handle” on consulting fee expenses, costs for rent and leases, repairs, and other items. With cost savings, she was hopeful of the county being able to achieve a millage rate of from 3.55 to 3.75 at the maximum.
District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman expressed caution about dipping into reserves to balance the budget. warning that reducing general fund reserves could negatively impact the county’s credit rating and ability to borrow money. He added that reserve funds are needed in the case of storms or other disasters to pay for emergency expenses during a time period when the arrival of federal funds is being awaited.
Comander moved to keep the millage rate at 3.5563 mills at least for another year, expressing hope that within the coming year the economy would pick up. Meadows seconded.
District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld was in favor of setting a preliminary millage rate between 3.5563 and 4.1 to provide for more flexibility and give staff the opportunity to research a combination of the use of reserves and cost savings in order to lower the millage rate from what had been proposed at the start of the meeting.
He later proposed an amendment to Comander’s motion. The proposed amendment called for setting the preliminary rate at 3.5563 plus the amount needed to account for the unfunded state mandates that had been discussed previously. Imfeld’s motion to amend was not seconded.
In response, Meadows commented that the state could add $4 million in unfunded mandates next year. “Do we just keep upping the budget?” she asked.
Meadows suggested that staff look at what cuts could be made in order for reserves to be reduced less, while staying at the current millage rate.
A vote was taken, and Comander’s motion carried in a 3-2 vote, with Imfeld and Chapman voting no.
A vote was taken on the budget figure proposed at the outset of the meeting, which carried unanimously to set the preliminary budget amount.
After the meeting, in response to a question, Demers stated that, due to the BCC decision, in the absence of any cuts being identified it would be necessary to reduce general fund reserves from $11 million to approximately $5.5 million in order to balance the budget.
Walton County Finance Officer Wanda Quimby said that staff would be working over the next two weeks to identify areas for cuts and cost reduction. In response to a question, she said that $26,123 that had been proposed to fund the operation of county libraries on Saturday would possibly have to be cut from the budget as a result of the BCC decision.
By law, it would be possible for the millage rate to be reduced at the BCC’s second and final budget hearing but not raised. That hearing is scheduled for 5:01 p.m. on Sept. 23 at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.