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Council members mull proposed tax rate

By Staff | Jul 27, 2017

Property owners in Cape Coral will pay more in ad valorem taxes and assessments this year unless City Council steps in during the budget approval process to curb additional spending among the many pages of the proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget.

City Manager John Szerlag proposes to trim the millage rate by 0.25 mils, the fourth cut in the past five years, but some on council think it doesn’t go far enough to give taxpayers some relief from the tax burden. Others are not so sure at this point.

“Taxes will increase anyway even if we use the rollback rate,” said Councilmember Rana Erbrick. “Our taxable values have raised 9 percent this year and we’ve had five or six years of value increases in the city. The City Manager decides to give a tiny portion back each year. Handing back a quarter-mil doesn’t sit well with me and hasn’t sit well for the last couple of years.”

Szerlag’s proposed rate of 6.50 mils will generate property tax revenue of $82.3 million, or about $2 million more than the rollback rate of 6.334 mils. The rollback rate is calculated by the Property Appraiser’s office to let taxing agencies know the rate at which expected revenue will be about the same as the previous year.

“I will pitch for the rollback rate in our discussions,” said Erbrick. “The numbers and the money is there. We’ve only had the budget book for about a week and the way it’s laid out it’s very time consuming to go over it.”

Council approved a slightly lower rate for the vacant lot mowing component of the budget at last Monday’s meeting, but solid waste removal, stormwater user and Fire Service Assessment fees all came with rate increases. Those fees are not-to-exceed rates that can be adjusted lower during the budget process.

“I am more apt to look at the spending side over the revenue side,” said Councilmember John Carioscia. “I want to take a look at where we are spending our money. We need to be better stewards of our tax dollars and save through our spending. You can’t know what to cut until you know what the spending is. I don’t know if a quarter-mil is enough yet.”

Carioscia added that he would like to see the Economic Development office get more money for its budget and hire more staff for the Department of Community Development.

Councilmember Jessica Cosden hasn’t decided where she stands on the budget figures.

“I want to hear more from the Budget Review Committee and the city manager,” Cosden said. “I still need to be convinced. I want to hear each department make its case of why they need more money. We just went through that for the Charter School budget. There are things we need and there are things we would like to have.”

Keeping city services consistent is important for Cosden, who said cutting more out of the budget could lead to decisions on cuts in services.

Councilmember Richard Leon believes there are opportunities in the proposed budget that council can look at.

“I’d like to go lower (than 6.50 mils) just because our tax values have raised, and the three-legged stool approach,” said Leon. “It’s still early in the process, but I think we can get rid of some (staff) contracts if we can get council to agree. I hope we have a council that can show the community that we are trying to get a sound budget.”

Leon said he supports the increases in the FSA, solid waste and stormwater fees for next year.

“The stormwater fees are on a track that we decided to take four years ago,” Leon said. “We weren’t collecting enough for a long time. There are infrastructure needs in North Cape that haven’t been touched in 50 years.”

The stormwater fee for 2018 will be $111, an increase of $24 over the 2017 rate.

“It is time the city realizes we have seen tax increases and levels of service improvements, but we have to be careful and look at how government is growing,” said Erbrick. “Back in 2016 the city had $6.5 million that was not spent so it carried over into 2017. I don’t know what that figure will be this year, it’s not close enough to the end (of the fiscal year). That’s money the city didn’t think it had available. I believe we easily can go to the rollback rate.”

The proposed budget components will be discussed in the coming weeks at council workshop public meetings on Aug. 8 and 10 and adopted at two public hearings on Sept. 7 and 21. The 2018 budget goes into effect on Oct. 1.