Where are we racing to

Special to The Log

On Thursday September 8th at 6 pm the Destin City Council is poised to raise our city’s property tax bills by 20 per cent. Of course they will tell you that they are raising the tax rate by only 13.3 per cent. What they won’t tell you is that the actual taxable value of your property has increased by 5.26 per cent since last year.

What does this mean in real terms? If your home had an assessed value last year of $200,000 and you had homestead exemptions of $50,000 then you had a taxable value of $150,000. With last year’s millage rate of 1.5 you paid $225 in city taxes. This year, if your home’s value increased the average amount then it will have an assessed value of $210,520. Once your exemptions are applied your taxable value would be $160,520. With the council’s proposed increase in millage your taxes will be $272.88 or an increase of 21.3 percent.

It’s not that I am anti-tax and anti-government. As a fiscal conservative, I understand the necessity of taxes and believe in limited government with the emphasis being on limited. What upsets me is not that the Destin City Council is raising our taxes per se, it is the fact that they don’t know what they are raising our taxes for. Let that sink in for a second. It’s as if they are channeling Nancy Pelosi by telling us they must pass the tax increase so we can know what it is for.

In a normal budgeting process the city council would hold public workshops and develop specific plans and projects based on public input. This year that logic has evaded us for some reason. The city staff presented a balanced budget at last year’s millage rate of 1.5 mils. The proposed budget included almost $7.3 million for capital improvement projects in the coming fiscal year and increased spending by $383,000 over last year.

The council, on a motion by Councilwoman Ramswell, moved to raise the millage to 1.7 mils for the coming year at the council meeting on July 18th. Two weeks later, in a hastily put together presentation by the staff, the council was presented with various options for spending the increased revenue. This presentation wasn’t even part of the initial agenda for the meeting. When pressed for specifics and documentation there was almost none. The staff seemed like it was reacting to the council’s need to justify the increase. Again, not the best way we should be governed.

At the August 8th city council budget workshop it did not get any better. What was really disappointing was when Mayor Fischer specifically asked the interim city attorney prior to the meeting if he had to allow public comment during the workshop. When told that it was not required, the mayor did not allow any public input into the budget development discussion. While that may be legally sufficient it is terrible public policy. Stifling public input gives the impression that some folks don’t want to listen to facts and competing opinions because their minds are made up.

During the budget workshop the staff was pressed to identify the most pressing needs not included in the proposed, balanced budget. They identified two items totaling $305,000. In a $13 million budget it seems like $305,000 could be found. Even if it cannot, raising the millage from 1.5 to 1.7 increases the city’s revenue by over $800,000.

I am sure the staff has been working hard to come up with prospective projects on how to spend the remaining $495,000 of the council’s proposed additional increase, but they are doing so with no public input, no council vision and no prioritization from the council or the citizens.

We can do better. While we have some good people serving on our council and some excellent staff, we seem to be in a hurry lately but we don’t seem to know where we are going. Let’s take a breath, figure out our priorities, discern between our needs and our wants, engage the public on a path forward and then get the funding in place. That is the leadership we need. Please show up on Thursday and let our council members know that we want a well-thought, transparently produced budget that has received thorough scrutiny from the public and the council before it is thrust upon us.

Jim Bagby,