County OKs budget with 1.5% raise


Published: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 8:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 8:52 p.m.

After weeks of hours-long budget meetings debating employee raises and other fiscal challenges, the Alachua County Commission approved its tentative budget for the upcoming fiscal year Tuesday evening in about an hour with little discussion.

Commissioners Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV, Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson and Lee Pinkoson supported the tentative property tax rates for the general fund and the county's three municipal services taxing units along with their related budgets during Tuesday's public hearing, which was the first of two hearings on the fiscal year 2014 budget.

Commissioners Susan Baird and Mike Byerly accidentally voted in favor of the county's tentative general fund budget due to a misunderstanding of the motion. Byerly and Baird both said after the hearing they plan to vote against it at the final public hearing later this month.

The three MSTUs provide funding for law enforcement, fire rescue and unincorporated services. Baird supported the property tax rate and related budget for the law enforcement MSTU but not the other two, and Byerly voted against all of them.

Baird told The Sun she voted in favor of the law enforcement MSTU property tax rate because she didn't want to risk a financial shortfall that could lead to cutbacks for the Sheriff's Office.

Before voting on a series of budget-related motions, Byerly and Baird talked about their concerns with the county budget for the forthcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Baird was bothered by the commission's decision to increase property tax rates for the general fund and the MSTUs since taxpayers are struggling, too.

"We're taxing the individuals in this county that are having a difficult time," she said.

The county's anticipated property tax revenue for fiscal year 2014 will total about $114.62 million compared to fiscal year 2013's $108.15 million in revenue, an increase of about $6.46 million resulting from the county's tentative tax rate hikes.

The budget for the upcoming fiscal year totals about $325.41 million.

Baird was also worried by the county's deferment of some capital improvement projects and maintenance work in the new budget.

While Baird thought the property tax rates were set too high, Byerly said they were too low. The county isn't raising enough revenue to cover the cost of its services, he said. In good economic times, the property tax rates should come down, he said, but in tough times like this, they need to go up.

If the board wants to keep those rates this low instead of raising them further, it can either hide the effects of that decision by doing what it's doing or it can make real cuts to the budget, according to Byerly. To do so, the county can't just trim the fat off its budget anymore but must instead make significant cuts.

He said the county is doing things in this budget that damage the government, including using one-time funding sources to pay for ongoing expenses. He cited deferring critical infrastructure maintenance and spending down reserves and fund balance money as key problems.

County commissioners and staff will have to put their heads together at their December retreat to figure out how to pull the government out of this financial hole, he said.

"This budget is not progressive. It's not conservative," he said. "It's just poorly considered and unsustainable."

Pinkoson said this budget cycle has been a struggle for the county, partly because it began the process with former County Manager Richard Drummond and is ending it with County Manager Betty Baker, who took over the post in July.

Pinkoson agreed the county will need to deal with the facility maintenance issue later on because it is deferring some work in order to fund a 1.5 percent raise for employees, but he maintained that was the right call to make.

He prioritized doing something for the county's employees, who haven't received a real raise in six years, above maintenance for the upcoming fiscal year. The county originally planned for a 3 percent, across-the-board raise, but that figure dropped to 1.5 percent due to financial constraints.

Although there was talk of finding a way to reinstate the full 3 percent pay raise prior to Tuesday's meeting, the possibility wasn't talked about much Tuesday evening.

The commission approved the tentative budget, which includes the 1.5-percent raise, with little discussion about that issue. A few county Public Works employees were sitting in the back of the room when the public hearing began but didn't speak during public comment.

Pinkoson also pointed out the county faced rising Medicaid and Florida Retirement System costs, among others, that it had no control over and had to factor into its fiscal year 2014 budget. Byerly, however, said those cost increases weren't surprises but were things commissioners knew to expect.

The county's second and final public hearing on the budget will be on Sept. 24 at 5:30 p.m.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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