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Council to decide on budget, millage at final public hearing Thursday

By Staff | Sep 17, 2013

Thursday will be the last chance for the public to weigh in on Cape Coral’s property tax rate and other monetary matters related to the city’s 2014 fiscal year budget.

The final public hearing to ratify the millage rate and next year’s budget will be held at city hall beginning at 5:05 p.m.

After a process that has taken four months as well as several unexpected twists, the city council took little more than 30 minutes on Sept. 5 to set the millage rate at and approve the budget at the first public hearing.

The council voted unanimously to set the millage rate at 7.7070, instituting a .25 point cut from the original, not-to-exceed rate of 7.957 mills, but more than the rollback rate of 7.5139.

A mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of taxable assess valuation. The rollback rate is the tax rate needed to bring in the same amount of revenue. Council voted to lower the rate but, due to increased property valuations, the city still will bring in more money from property taxes next year if the final vote maintains the previous approval.

Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz said he supported the quarter-point cut to assure residents they would get some kind of cut. However, he added that on Thursday, he planned to advocate for the rollback rate.

“The rollback would give us as much (ad valorem) money as last year, and with the electric tax it will bring us an added $6.7 million in revenues,” Chulakes-Leetz said, adding the real public service tax tally is an unknown since the city didn’t analyze the true cost. “I can live with that as a compromise even though I didn’t support it. We need to take short steps and not fall into financial quicksand.”

Councilemember Rana Erbrick said she didn’t expect the board to lower the rate any more.

“I think if we were going to go even lower, we would have made the tentative rate lower,” Erbrick said. “If they wanted to go to the rollback two weeks ago they should have voiced it at the last hearing.”

The city council also set the tentative budget at $462 million ($148 million in the general fund) by a 7-1 vote in front of a sparse crowd in council chambers where only one person spoke against the increase in any taxes.

Council expects fewer empty seats this time around.

“I expect a little more chit-chat from the public, as the notices about the public services tax have gone out. I think more people will take notice,” Erbrick said.

City Manager John Szerlag had proposed a “three-legged stool” approach to raising revenues for the city beyond ad-valorem taxes; the pubic services tax on electric bills, which council set at 7 percent; a new fire service assessment; and a 1 mill reduction in property taxes. The approach was intended to raise $20 million more in tax revenue, mainly to pay for capital improvement projects,

However, after the public service tax was passed, the city discovered its proposed fire service assessment needed bond validation, which won’t come until after the new fiscal year begins. The city’s bond council said last month that a 1 mill reduction was not feasible and that it should not be tied to the fire assessment

On Aug. 26, the city council settled on “Option B,” in a 5-3 vote, which lowered the mill rate a quarter point while setting the still-to-come fire assessment at 38 percent of the cost of operations.

This plan still would raise money needed for capital improvements though not the $20 million originally anticipated.

Chulakes-Leetz doesn’t think the city needs the money.

“Nobody will lose jobs. Just because you want $20 million doesn’t mean you need it,” Chulakes-Leetz said. “Most people forego wants for needs and government needs to behave similarly.”