By DOTTY NIST
There is to be no increase in Walton County’s millage rate for the new fiscal year resulting from a Sept. 12 decision of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC).
The decision took place at the first of two BCC budget hearings for the year at the South Walton Annex.
Proposed for the 2016-17 fiscal year were a millage rate of 3.6363 mills and a millage rate of 0.4291 mills for North Walton Mosquito Control, both the same rates as for the current fiscal year. (One mill yields one dollar in ad valorem taxes on each
$1,000 of taxable property value.)
The proposed millage rate, BCC Chair Sara Comander stated, is 8.43 percent higher than the rolled back rate, the rate which would generate essentially the same amount of ad valorem taxes as were generated for the current fiscal year.
Melissa Thomason, Walton County finance manager, summarized changes to the budget since the July budget workshop. Among these were a $12,938 contribution to the Coastal Seniors program in south Walton County, to match the amount going to the DeFuniak Springs Senior Center, and additional Walton County Tourist Development (TDC) beach code enforcement officers to bring the total number to 10.
Thomason said the TDC was still in discussion with regard to funding for $130,000 requested by the new educational nonprofit volunteer group Friends of South Walton Sea Turtles. She explained that sufficient funds are available in the TDC budget for the item upon approval by the TDC and then the BCC.
Also included, Thomason noted, were cost of living adjustment (COLA) increases for county employees. These included a 4-percent COLA for employees earning $60,000 or less annually and working a 40-hour week, a 3-percent COLA for those earning more than $60,000, and a 1.5-percent COLA for probationary employees, some of whom have that status due to transfers within county government.
Thomason added that design is underway for the new county landfill transfer station, which had not been included in the budget as presented. She said landfill reserves were the anticipated funding source.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows brought up a budget request from the Scenic Corridor Foundation in the amount of $131,000. This was for a county partnership with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to provide an increased level of maintenance of the medians and rights of way on both sides of U.S. 98 beginning spring of 2017.
The partnership would increase mowing, edging and trash pickup to approximately 18 times per year in the center medians and 10 times per year along the sides of the highway. Meadows indicated that DOT currently picks up trash 12 times a year, mows seven times a year, and does edging 12 times a year along the highway.
She said that an average of 51,000 cars per day traverse the corridor containing these medians. “It is our tourist corridor; it is an economic driver,” she commented.
“I’d like to look at it as the Mossy Head of south Walton,” Meadows said of the U.S. 98 corridor.
“We just can’t afford to let our ‘Mossy Head corridor’ down here just grow into weeds like it’s doing,” Meadows urged. “I would like to add that in the budget this year,” she said of the maintenance program.
District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld concurred on the need for the program and keeping the corridor “looking good.”
“It’s where the bulk of the TDC bed tax collections are occurring,” he said of the highway corridor. Imfeld said he would support use of TDC bed tax revenues to fund the maintenance program with an appropriate legislative finding by the BCC, also mentioning that the program would include “gateways” by which tourists enter south Walton County.
Meadows suggested adding the program to the regular county budget for the present while determining whether the TDC could fund it. She also brought up the possibility of funding it through South Walton Tax Increment Financing (TIF) revenue if TDC funding was not possible.
Meadows also commented that part of the work in the program would be done by DOT and that part would be done by the private sector.
Bob Hudson, executive director for the Walton County Taxpayers Association, spoke in support of gateways being mowed but raised an objection to the possibility of TIF funds being used, saying that it had not been his understanding that these funds would go to this type of program but rather for infrastructure-related projects.
Jay Tusa, TDC executive director, indicated that the TDC had committed to maintenance of a number of miles of “gateway” areas on the east and west ends of U.S. 98, along U.S. 331 south of the bay bridge, and east and west of U.S. 331 along U.S. 98 between Blue Mountain Road and CR-283. This was at a cost of approximately $57,000 for the year, which had not been included in the $131,000 amount, he said.
Tusa clarified that it would be an approximate $188,000 total expense to the TDC budget if the program under discussion were funded through bed tax revenue. He said the TDC had not discussed the additional responsibility and would need to do so before the additional funds could be committed. However, he expressed willingness to bring the matter before the TDC.
Following up on Meadows’ request for the program to be added to the budget, Thomason suggested moving the $131,000 from the contingency portion of the county budget into the TDC budget at least until it could be determined whether the TDC could provide the funding. If so, the contingency funds could be replaced, she suggested.
This was agreed to, with the BCC to make a final determination at the final budget hearing in two weeks whether the program would be included in the new fiscal year budget.
Along with the current millage rate, tentatively approved unanimously at the Sept. 12 hearing was a county government budget of $138,336,764, of which $612,986 is to go North Walton Mosquito Control.
The current year budget is approximately $127.2 million.
The BCC would be able to lower but not raise the millage rate at the final budget hearing, which is scheduled for 5:01 p.m. on Sept. 26 at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.