CRESTVIEW — The decision to increase Okaloosa County’s residential property tax rate is an “unpleasant” and “unpopular” one that will not satisfy everyone, County Commissioner Kelly Windes said Tuesday.
But he compared the county government to a big business and said, “It’s unfair to ask it to operate on a shoestring budget, and I’m not going to balance (the budget) on the backs of the employees.”
At the county’s first budget hearing Tuesday, Windes made a motion to give initial approval to increasing the tax rate to 3.83 mills for fiscal 2018, which starts Oct. 1. The item was approved by a 3-2 vote.
Commission Vice-Chairman Graham Fountain and Commissioner Nathan Boyles also voted for the increase, while Commission Chairwoman Carolyn Ketchel and Commissioner Trey Goodwin voted no.
The commission later voted to also give initial approval to next year’s budget, which totals almost $379 million. That’s almost $10 million, or about 2.7 percent, higher than the current spending plan.
The commission plans to vote on whether to adopt the proposed budget and tax rate at its final budget hearing set for 5:01 p.m. Sept. 19 in the County Administration Building in Shalimar.
The tentative tax rate of 3.83 mills is almost 11.7 percent higher than the existing rate of 3.43 mills, or $343 for every $100,000 of taxable property value. If the tentative rate is adopted, the owner of a single-family home with an average taxable value of $138,500 would be charged $55 more on his or her annual property tax bill.
Fountain said while the county has made budget cuts when it could in the past, those reductions led to various problems, such as the loss of Sheriff’s Office deputies and an inability to pay some bills. For example, budget issues led to the Sheriff’s Office letting 20 deputies go between 2009 and 2013.
Fountain also said the county has been taking too much money out of its General Fund reserves in recent years to help balance the budget. And Boyles said the overall tax burden of county residents remains one of the lowest in Florida.
But Karl Denninger, who lives near Niceville, told commissioners the county needs to find a way to tighten its belt and not pass the burden of rising costs on to taxpayers.
Crestview resident Paul Farnsworth told commissioners he supports the tax-rate hike because of the higher operating costs, and he supports putting more money in reserves. But he and Denninger both complained that many working taxpayers were shut out from commenting on the budget issues Tuesday because of the hearing’s 5:01 p.m. start time.
Goodwin noted that because of higher property values, the county’s property tax revenue would go up even if it keeps the existing millage rate for fiscal 2018. And Ketchel said the millage rate hike, along with half-cent sales taxes being proposed by the county and the school district, is a lot to ask of property owners.
Among other items, revenue in the proposed county budget would pay for a 15.25 percent increase in employee health care, dental and long-term disability insurance costs. It also would provide $250,000 to cover the cost of 12 new sheriff’s deputies, $300,000 to boost deputies’ starting pay and $525,000 to cover wage increases for existing deputies.
The pay raises for the Sheriff’s Office are expected to help it recruit deputies and retain existing ones, county officials said.
Also in fiscal ’18, officials plan to give an annual $866 flat salary increase, at a total cost of about $900,000, to employees who are under the commission’s control. That pay boost is about the same as a 2.1 percent cost-of-living increase, officials said.
Earlier this summer the staff anticipated having to use more than $3 million in General Fund reserves to help balance next year’s budget.
But if the tentative tax rate is adopted, the county expects to have enough money to restore the reserves and put in an additional $603,508 to bring the reserves’ total to almost $7.4 million. Money from the reserves is used for emergency purposes such as hurricane recovery.