DUNEDIN – City commissioners are considering the adoption of a 10 percent increase in the tax rate for the next fiscal year.
The millage rate currently is set at about 3.39, and the proposed millage rate for next year is about 3.73.
The commission will hold its two formal public hearings on the 2013-2014 city budget on Thursdays, Sept. 12 and 26, but it voted on and discussed several budget items at its Aug. 19 meeting, in preparation for the official hearings.
In the proposed budget, the only rate increase would be for the marina, said Karen Feeney, finance director. There is no proposed increase for any of the other enterprise funds, which are the solid waste, wastewater and stormwater rates.
Commissioner Ron Barnette said he appreciates city staff helping to create a sustainable budget.
“It’s nice that we’ve approached reality where we can kind of turn the corner and look ahead,” Barnette said. “Budgets should reflect the visions and values of a community, and sustain those. And what we’re doing here is I think right on track toward that end in maintaining an opportunity to not only plan and plan clearly without hoping things change down the way. But we’re in a position to lead and make tough decisions and explain to our residents that you know, if we raise that millage, it will cost them less than $1 a week to sustain what we have as a community, and I think we can take pride in that and is an opportunity to build and grow.”
Dunedin had resisted raising the millage rate during the recession, but a majority of the commissioners believe the rate has to be increased, otherwise the city would start losing assets and services that it has deemed precious.
“In many ways it starts out a bit visceral for me,” said Commissioner Heather Gracy, “but I’ve moved it from that point to a more intellectual one that I feel very strongly about where we can’t avoid this any longer. Much of what I’ve read and learned along the way is there has been too much deferring. There has been deference and at the time it may have seemed to be the responsible move, but I firmly believe that right now is our chance to move away from that austere approach and gain on what is Dunedin and what our residents want from us.”
Commissioner Julie Scales said that when it comes to the budget, emotions can run high, but at the end of the day, one must take the emotion out of it and look at the facts.
“A consensus of this commission asked staff to bring back to us a budget that would sustain us in the future, and staff did that with the recommendation that there would be this modest increase in the ad valorem rate,” Scales said, “which would take us to a rate that’s still lower than it was 10 years ago. And then they were asked to present a budget that did not include a tax increase, which is Plan B.”
The Plan B was not a sustainable budget, Scales said, which is what the commission wanted. It did not address problems going forward, and the city would run into the same problems next year, she said.
“I just think that if you’ve been told that there’s a problem and it needs to be dealt with, you should deal with it,” Scales said. “… The things that so many of our people have said are important to them about this city and the things they like about this city, that’s been done in surveys and numerous venues and forums, I think it’s just time to look forward and not downward.”
However, Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski and Mayor Dave Eggers disagreed with the other commissioners. Bujalski said that in her time as commissioner, through the tough economy years, she has not seen a reduction of services. She also wished that the finance board had the chance to vet the different ways that were proposed in regards to other ways to do things than the ways the city has done them in the past.
Eggers said that even in the rough times, the city has had to make tough decisions, but it has also been able to grow in various ways.
“We want to do what’s best for this community,” Eggers said. “We want to continue maintaining the improvements that we’ve had over the decades. And quite frankly, over the last five or six years, through the toughest of times that we’ve had, we’ve continued to make modest improvements to the community. The vision that we’ve been talking about and being afraid we won’t be able to accomplish, we’ve been doing it. We finished up a large park on the waterfront. We implemented a new small park in the downtown. Those are important things that the community has said that they want. We bought another park in the north end of town. All of these things have happened. I think we have continued to set that stage of what Dunedin has been and we will continue to do that.”
Eggers said he would have preferred a smaller increase in the millage rate, rather than 10 percent all at once. However, he acknowledged that three commissioners support the increase, which is enough for it to pass, so it will move forward.
The commission also discussed other matters related to the budget. Rob DiSpirito, city manager, said staff discussed how to have more sustainable funding for the piping director at the schools. Therefore, he authorized his staff to talk with the Pinellas County School Board about options.
“Discussions with the school superintendent and some other conversations with his staff resulted in a proposal that, as they had many years ago, the school district cost participates in the salary of that position,” DiSpirito said. “… In addition to leading those piping groups in the city, that (position) provides piping instruction in the schools. And I think the vast majority of the time, Mr. Iain Donaldson (the piping director) spends an awful lot of time with youth in the schools and those programs are only growing and growing in prominence, and rightfully so.”
DiSpirito said that the city presented a vision in which they were more like partners with the school district, and as a result, a verbal commitment was given from Pinellas County Schools Superintendent, Michael Grego, to proceed with that plan. Provided that this commitment is given in writing, then the school district would provide $20,000 a year toward the piping director’s salary, and the city would raise its $15,000 contribution to $20,000, provided the commission agreed.
“Therefore the city and the school district would cost-participate in the salary portion of this contract, $20,000 each,” DiSpirito said. “And the concept, in addition to having a more stable source of funding, would free up those funds raised by the very successful Booster group supporters and allow those funds to be applied each year, rather than salary, be applied to the purchase of equipment, instruments, uniforms and travel.”
Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said that many years ago, the school district did help support this position’s salary, but when it stopped, the city stepped in to take over because it values the piping program. It has been a long process in trying to get this funding support back, she said, and part of that was that the city was told it needed to justify the position more in order for the school district to help fund it. To do this, hours have been added to the position, so now the director is going out to the elementary schools, starting the piping and Scottish heritage education at an even younger age.
“We had a representative from all the bands and the various Scottish groups in the community sit down at a table with Vince (Gizzi, parks and recreation director) and Sandy (Keith, the former piping director) at the time, and the end result of that result was the overwhelming importance of the position and of doing everything we can to ensure the position is stable for years to come,” Bujalski said. “We felt that no matter what we did with any other thing, that that position was what was keeping the Scottish culture going for years to come. It was teaching our youth and that we needed to do whatever we could to attract the right person here, which I think we have, but if God forbid, if something happens to Iain, that we need to think of the next person and the next.”
Commissioners unanimously voted to approve this increase in funds for the position’s salary, provided that the city gets a written commitment from the school district that it will do the same.