By DOTTY NIST
Holding the first of two required budget hearings on Sept. 12, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) approved a tentative budget for the new fiscal year with no millage rate increase.
The hearing was held at the South Walton Annex. All commissioners were present with the exception of District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson, who was ill. Melissa Thomason, Walton County financial officer, presented information on the proposed budget.
Per approvals at the meeting, the countywide millage rate for the 2022-23 fiscal year will remain at 3.6363 mills, with 0.4912 mill applying to the North Walton Mosquito Control District (NWMCD). Both rates are the same as for the current fiscal year.
This represents a 17.91 percent increase over the rolled-back rate, the rate that would essentially generate the same amount of ad valorem taxes as were generated in the current fiscal year.
One mill equals $1 on each $1,000 of taxable property value. Ad valorem taxes for NWMCD are collected only on properties within the NWMCD service area.
The commissioners approved the tentative millage rate by resolution. Also tentatively approved by resolution was a Walton County budget of $256,911,567 for the 2022-23 fiscal year, $948,298 of which is for NWMCD.
Thomason provided a brief review of the budget, highlighting significant items since the county’s July budget workshop. The budget includes a three-percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) and a one-step increase for non-exempt employees, with exempt employees budgeted at an overall five-percent pay increase.
Included was $460,000 for partial funding (matching funds) previously agreed to by the BCC for the new Paxton Health Clinic, with an interlocal agreement for the funding to come before the BCC at a future date for finalization of this assistance.
The restaurant at the county-owned Eagle Springs Golf Course had not been budgeted at the time of the county’s July budget workshop and was done so with the preliminary budget coming before the BCC at the Sept. 12 hearing, with restaurant revenues projected to pay all its cost of operation in the new fiscal year.
Included was $20,000 to begin a discretionary grant program that the BCC had approved on Aug. 23 providing a mechanism for nonprofits to apply for county funding.
Included was $81,062.91 for payout to retirees who had previously not been receiving the county matching portion of the Florida Retirement System health insurance subsidy and who are now signed up to receive this portion, per previous approval of the BCC.
Included was $1.5 million for work on the Mojo Building on Montgomery Circle in DeFuniak Springs, which had been purchased by the county and is to be readied to serve for expansion of the Walton County Public Works Shop.
The tentative budget included a request by the Walton County Sheriff’s Office to use $1 million budgeted for the new Choctaw Beach Fire Station for personnel pay increase in order to be more competitive with surrounding counties, with the hope of filling vacant WCSO positions—as a grant has been obtained to fund construction of the new station. Vacant positions were reported to number approximately 50, and the WCSO also has plans to add three deputy positions.
In response to a question, Thomason said that accounted for in the budget is a new requirement effective Oct. 1, 2022 that anyone enrolled with Medicaid be paid at least $15 per hour.
In public comment, Donna Johns, Walton County District 4 commissioner-elect, observed that it appeared the amount budgeted for the Eagle Springs Golf Course and Recreation Center was being increased by over a million dollars in the proposed budget. She inquired about the reason.
Thomason responded that the largest increase for the facility would be in the building account, with $680,000 budgeted for a new maintenance building now under design and for remodeling of the restrooms for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. She continued that also budgeted were $100,000 for parking and a fence around the maintenance building, $70,000 for a back-up well, and $45,000 to re-sod the fairways in order to stabilize the property. Thomason added that two new full-time employees were included to serve inside or outside as needed, She indicated that, aside from simply the cost of living, these items accounted for the increase.
Johns asked about an existing maintenance building on the property. District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell responded that there are actually three maintenance buildings but that they are in bad shape and would cost more to fix up than constructing the new one. He also explained that the new maintenance building would be placed at the back of the property where it could be accessed by delivery trucks away from the public area, presenting less conflict with users of the facility.
Glidewell said plans were for the old maintenance buildings, which are closer to the front of the facility, to be torn down and for that space to be utilized for basketball, tennis, volleyball, and pickleball courts.
The only other public comment was from south Walton County resident Barbara Morano, who encouraged the officials to see that the pay for lifeguards in the beach safety program was competitive with neighboring areas, particularly since these employees have difficulty finding housing in Walton County. She also voiced her appreciation for the lifeguards’ work.
Walton County Commission Chairman Mike Barker responded that he thought something was “in the works” to increase lifeguard pay soon.
Both the resolution to adopt the tentative millage rate and the one setting the tentative budget amount for the new fiscal year were approved with all aye votes.
In the wake of the tentative millage rate adoption, it would be possible for the officials to lower but not raise the millage rate at the final budget hearing, which is set for 5:01 p.m. on Sept. 26 at the Walton County Courthouse.
The tentative budget is available for viewing online on the Walton County website at https://tinyurl.com/3cdjh3pj