City 'holds the line' on millage
Staff says this risks deep cuts, layoffs
A St. Augustine City Commission tie vote on the 2012 tentative millage Monday could result in the city retaining its current property tax rate at 7.5 mills next year.
That news may cheer taxpayers, but that level of taxation will hamstring the city's finances, according to Assistant City Manager Tim Burchfield.
If that level is adopted, the city must cut $700,000 more from an already lean budget, he said.
"We're bare bones now. There have been no raises. We're down to salary cuts," he said. "We'll either be forced into layoffs or will lose popular events like our fireworks."
Burchfield had just recommended the tentative millage rate of 8.146 mills, which would have raised an additional $682,000.
"We can balance the budget with 7.5 mills," he said. "But the higher millage would allow us to handle future unbudgeted expenses such as the M&M Market, Galimore pool, Excelsior Building, 450th anniversary and Spanish Quarter."
He said the city's under time pressure to get its recommended millage to the state by Aug. 3.
Later, during budget hearings scheduled for 9 a.m. Aug. 24 and 25, the City Commission may lower the millage rate from 7.5 mills, but cannot raise it.
Mayor Joe Boles made a motion to approve the higher amount, seconded by Commissioner Errol Jones.
However, commissioners Bill Leary and Nancy Sikes-Kline voted against. Vice Mayor Leanna Freeman was absent, so the tie automatically meant the 8.146 millage was defeated.
City Manager John Regan, seeing a stalemate on the board, told them to come up with something.
"We want to walk out of here with a number," he said.
The city's recommended millage would stay the same.
If it had been raised to 8.146 mills, a house worth $100,000 would pay $64 more.
Burchfield said the city's taxable value of $1.116 billion is down from this year's value of $1.213 billion, so there is $100 million less value to tax.
Leary said that with this vote the commission may be tacitly approving the big ticket items.
"I'm not comfortable with that. I voted against the M&M Market and the Spanish Quarter. It's too big a drain. This is just not the time to be doing this. The votes are not here tonight," he said.
Sikes-Kline said a lot of people live paycheck to paycheck.
"There's going to be a tax increase by the county," she said. "We have a balanced budget. We have to hold the line (on raising taxes). We'll just have to keep cutting until we make it work."
She said she believed the other commissioners -- Boles and Jones, apparently -- were using the threat of public safety layoffs to increase taxes.
"I understand you want to close the Spanish Quarter," she said in an emotional blast. "You want to make this (city) a tacky tourist town. I'm really not happy with the way this is happening."
Boles warned Sikes-Kline that once the tentative millage was sent to Tallahassee, "We don't get to do this again. (But) I don't have any problem going into our reserves. I don't see us going out for bonds for a while."
Jones said more money was needed because the city hasn't budgeted street resurfacing, building maintenance, general maintenance or infrastructure improvements since 2007.
"The work you see being done in the city, they're pulling that money from reserves," he said. "We have 31 percent fewer employees since 2007 and our reserves have decreased by 30 percent. (We're supposed to) save that money for a rainy day. Well, it rains every time a water line breaks."