Commissioners continue to wrangle over how to fund pay raise
Published: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 11:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 11:03 p.m.
The debate over Alachua County’s next budget on Tuesday veered in two distinct directions: One commissioner offered a truckload of detailed spending cuts while another sought to try a rarely used method to raise property taxes.
The County Commission decided against the proposed hike in a couple of its tentative property tax rates, but the suggestion sparked debate among commissioners over the long-awaited employee raises currently in jeopardy.
Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson proposed a little used step of issuing updated truth in millage, or TRIM, notices in order to raise the tentative property tax rates for the general fund and the fire services municipal services taxing unit, or MSTU.
Governments typically stick with the tentative rates they initially designate because changing them at a later date is difficult due to time constraints.
Hutchinson suggested raising the tentative general fund property tax rate from 8.799 mills to 8.990 mills, with one mill equaling $1 of tax for every $1,000 in taxable property value. This could help the county afford raises for its employees, he said.
The general fund rate increase was central to the commissioners’ debate over Hutchinson’s motion. Hutchinson said the board may not need to raise the general fund rate that high but that it needs the flexibility.
The motion, which included a couple of other components, failed 2-3 with Commissioners Susan Baird, Charles “Chuck” Chestnut IV and Lee Pinkoson in dissent.
A 3 percent, across-the-board raise was included in the county’s initial budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year but was later removed due to multiple financial factors, including the commission’s decision to set the tentative general fund millage rate below staff’s recommendation, reducing the county’s projected revenue by around $1.45 million.
Hutchinson said it was unacceptable not to give employees a raise when other governmental units, including the University of Florida and city of Gainesville, plan to provide them. The county, he said, is losing employees after six straight years without a raise.
A 3 percent increase provided to many employees earlier this year that offset their state-mandated pension contributions wasn’t seen as a true raise.
“We can afford to do this,” Hutchinson said. “Our citizens can afford to do this and now is the time to do it.”
Commissioner Mike Byerly said he won’t support a budget that doesn’t include an employee raise. However, he isn’t willing to give raises at the expense of programs he values.
The county has lost about 10 percent of its purchasing power over the last decade, he said.
“We are not raising enough revenue from our citizens to meet the obligations of this community,” he said.
Chestnut said he feels like he is expected to correct a wrong done by a previous commission but didn’t feel he should have been put in that position.
Chestnut said he was uncomfortable raising the millage rate as high as Hutchinson had suggested, saying that if he were going to raise taxes further, it wouldn’t be just for staff raises but for capital projects and other major needs.
“I feel for county employees in terms of wanting a raise, but the revenue speaks for itself,” he said.
Pinkoson said the county should work within its budget to find the funding rather than raise the tax rate further.
He offered a lengthy list of specific places to cut and to shift funds, noting that while these might not provide enough for a 3 percent raise, they might be enough for at least a smaller increase.
County Manager Betty Baker said that finding money in the budget for raises could require painful cuts.
“We looked high, low and in between the lines, and there are opportunities for us to review, but it would mean cutting programs or eliminating people to get an employee raise,” she said.
The county’s troubled gas tax fund was also a point of discussion during Tuesday’s budget meeting.
County Engineer Dave Cerlanek told the commission the county’s yearly maintenance for its transportation system, which includes resurfacing, falls short of what is needed. County staff and commissioners alike are considering ways to improve the situation.
The county’s recommended annual maintenance total amounts to about $26.1 million, according to county staff. For fiscal year 2013, the county’s annual maintenance level amounted to just $11.7 million.
It is getting to the point where there will be significant impacts to service, and residents are noticing the county’s maintenance problems, Cerlanek said.
“We’re seeing it in emails. We’re seeing it in angry citizens,” he said.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.