Budget vote splits county commission
Lee County’s approximately $622 million operating budget for the coming fiscal year is receiving mixed reviews following its adoption Thursday night.
The commission passed the operating budget, along with a capital projects budget of about $289 million, with a 3-2 vote during the final budget hearing. The total adopted budget is approximately $2.01 billion, with $448 million of that for other items and an estimated $654 million of that as reserves.
Commissioners Tammy Hall, Ray Judah and John Manning voted in favor of the total budget, and Commissioners Brian Bigelow and Frank Mann did not.
On Friday, Bigelow voiced his displeasure with the final adopted document.
“We again kicked the proverbial can down the road by not recognizing that we’re got to balance the expenditures and revenues closer together than further apart,” he said.
Bigelow explained that about $50 million in reserves were used this year to help balance the budget, and about $70 million will be used next year again.
“That’s the wrong direction,” he said. “It needs to be less.”
“It’s just going to get worse, not better, when we try to make sense of another budget next year,” Bigelow added.
The total 2010-11 budget is a 2.8 percent decrease from last year’s budget of approximately $2.07 billion. Last year’s operating budget was about $652 million — 4.67 percent higher — while the capital projects was $352 million.
Judah was more optimistic Friday about how the budget played out.
“All things considered, when you put things into perspective with other communities and other taxing authorities throughout this nation, I’d say Lee County fared as best it could in terms of balancing the budget and providing critical services,” he said. “We were still able to meet the critical core-level services for our community.”
Judah defined some of the county’s critical services as public safety, law enforcement, maintenance of parks and roads, human services and others. He said county staffers saved millions of dollars between this year and next with staffing cuts, position reductions and the reprogramming of projects.
County officials said Thursday that more reductions are likely next year.
“At the end of their process, they were able to reduce the budget by some $30 million,” Judah said, adding that they faced a $71 million deficit. “It was a balancing approach in which we were able to take the budget reductions in addition to the cuts that the county commission made last night.”
The commission implemented 10 furlough days for county employees at the tune of about $4.5 million in savings, and increased insurance premiums and co-pays for employees as well as parking fees. Judah said it also is the third consecutive year in which county employees will see no annual salary raises.
One program on the chopping block Thursday was LeeTran. County staff recommended about $750,000 in cuts, but the commission restored the funds and maintained a Sunday bus route that also was under the knife.
Judah voiced support for a transportation system, but pointed out that the current one is costing the county millions of dollars per year to keep running.
“We really need to look at a dedicated funding source, such as in the form of a transit authority,” he said, adding that a sales tax voter referendum or an unincorporated assessed tax could fund the program. “To pay for a reliable and fully functional public transportation system.”
The countywide millage rate of 4.1506 was adopted 4-1, of which 3.6506 makes up the general fund millage rate and .5000 is the Conservation 20/20 fund. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value, or about $415 in taxes for every $100,000 of assessed property value.
The countywide rolled-back rate was 4.8722, of which the general fund was 4.2835 and the Conservation 20/20 fund was .5887. The rolled-back millage rate is the amount of taxes needed to raise the same amount of revenue as the previous year. When the values decrease, the rolled-back rate is higher.
Carla Brooks Johnston, a former mayor and councilwoman for Sanibel and a candidate for the District 1 commission seat, spoke at Thursday’s hearing about dropping the general tax rate even more. She reiterated that Friday.
“I think it’s irresponsible not to have given the taxpayers a tax cut in these economic times,” she said. “I wanted to see the rate cut by 1 mill, and I think there’s ample money in the budget to do that.”
Johnston explained that the move would have helped struggling locals.
“I think now, more than ever, it’s important to get this economy back online,” she said.
Millage rates and budgets for the Lee County Library fund, the Lee County unincorporated MSTU, the all hazards protection district, street-lighting and special improvement/MSTUs and special improvement taxing unit, along with other budgets’ millages and budgets, also were adopted by the board Thursday.