Friday, August 02, 2019

St. Augustine Beach proposes what would be the first tax increase in 9 years. (SAR)

As Senator Howard Henry Baker, Jr. said during Watergate, "There are animals crashing around in the forest. I can hear them but I can't see them."

So MELISSA BURNS left and no one wants to say where or why?

Might have to do with the two fund deficits totaling more than $421,000, publicly revealed July 17, 2019, a week before July 24, 2019:

St. Augustine Beach proposes what would be the first tax increase in 9 years


Mizell Road pond needs a new weir and pump that is estimated to cost nearly $1.2 million for the city of St. Augustine Beach. Of that total, 75% should be reimbursed. [Christen Kelley/The Record]

By Christen Kelley
Posted Aug 1, 2019 at 4:00 PM
Updated Aug 1, 2019 at 6:48 PM

Following the resignation of its chief financial officer, the city of St. Augustine Beach had a rocky start to budget season as it reviewed the 2020 budget at a special meeting Wednesday.

The proposed budget totals to nearly $11 million, and commissioners set the tentative property tax millage rate at 2.6, up from the current 2.3992. If the rate is finalized in September, it would be the city’s first property tax increase in nine years.

With the tentative 2.6 millage rate, the yearly property tax bill for the owner of a home valued at $200,000 would be $520, about $40 more than fiscal year 2019. Commissioners were hesitant to set the rate higher even tentatively, but the city’s financial department says that will likely go down before the end of the budget cycle.

“I don’t imagine that you’ll ever agree to approve 2.6,” City Manager Max Royle told commissioners. “We simply want you to set it high enough so that if some surprise comes at us during the review we’re going to do in August, then at least we’re prepared.”

Last year, the Commission initially set the rate at 2.50 mills, and eventually reduced it back to 2.3992.

Costly projects

The proposed tax hike is needed to cover several capital projects that pose a challenge to the city in the next fiscal year.

Mizell Road pond: The pond weir was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Irma, causing drainage and sewage issues. Replacing the weir and pump is estimated to cost nearly $1.2 million, and 75 percent of that is to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The challenge is that the city is responsible for paying for the project over a two-year period before FEMA will reimburse the cost. $900,000 is budgeted to pay for the project in 2020.

Ocean Hammock Park: The city is on a time crunch to build the park’s $200,000 restroom facilities before a grant application deadline for 50/50 funding match. Additionally, after the city bought the land to save it from development, the debt millage rate was set at 0.50. This will continue into 2020.

Roads: The public works department requested $215,000 to pave various roads in addition to the Third Lane ditch piping project, which will set the city back $200,000.

Public works garage: The city’s public works department also requested $70,000 to create a space for employee training and gatherings. The department is also in need of a new garage to store its sanitation trucks, but this project has been put off for five years and is not included in the 2020 budget. The garage would cost $250,000. Commissioners suggested possibly combining the training space with the garage to create an ideal, permanent location instead.

“If it was to be a more efficient and more effective space in the end, I’d rather put that $70,000 toward the construction project and not delaying it if its going to be a better outcome, a more efficient use of the funds,” Mayor Undine George said.

In total, about $2 million is budgeted for capital expenses in 2020.

Budget season without a CFO

The city’s former CFO Melissa Burns resigned at the end of June to take a position in another city after 17 years of employment. Deputy finance director Patty Douylliez had to prepare the budget under short notice while the city looks for Burns’ replacement.

“We want to give special recognition and thanks to Ms. Patricia Douylliez, the City’s Deputy Finance Director, for the firm way she took control of the process for putting the budget together,” the budget presentation reads. “In addition to her regular duties, she worked after regular office hours and on weekends to assemble the many details of the proposed budget into a coherent document. Without her efforts and the help the department heads gave her, the budget might not have been ready for your review a week before your July 31st special meeting.”

It’s unclear why Burns decided to take another job, or where that new job is. But the City Commission agreed they were overpaying her with a salary of nearly $88,900. Douylliez said applicants were asking for even more, around $100,000. Commissioners questioned whether they need to spend that much on a salary.

“I just don’t think we need somebody with a pedigree or lots of letters after their name in order to do a good job,” Commissioner Maggie Kostka said during the meeting. “Let’s find somebody who can fit the position and do the work we need done without paying an exorbitant salary.”

Wage increase for city workers

Another personnel concern was the employee pay step program that was implemented a few years ago. The 2020 budget allows for a 3 percent increase to all employees who pass an evaluation, aside from the City Manager and Chief of Police, whose salaries are set by the Commission. But commissioners felt that might unfairly benefit those at the top of the pay scale.

Currently there are two open positions in the public works department that are proving difficult to fill, due to the pay not being competitive with other municipalities.

“I feel compelled to do something for these people who are at the lower end of the pay scale because it’s significantly affecting every citizen here,” Kostka said during the meeting. “The more turnover we have in public works, the less likely our city is running smoothly. So it affects all of us.”

Public Works Director Bill Tredik agreed the wages for those positions are not competitive and said he’d look into increasing the wages for those positions.

The City Commission set the first public hearing for the 2020 budget at 6 p.m. on Sept. 9 before the regular Commission meeting.

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