LARGO – Trying to cope with budget woes, Largo City Commissioners voted 6-1 July 17 to raise the tentative millage rate for the next fiscal year to 4.99 mills.
The action stems from City Manager Mac Craig strongly urging the City Commission at a July 10 work session to raise the millage rate to that level because of projected budget shortfalls.
The current rate is 4.55 mills. A mill is equal to $1 per every $1,000 of assessed property value.
Commissioner Robert Murray said by having the 4.99 mills, the city has flexibility to have discussions on possible budget cuts and make changes if they desire during work sessions. Once they set the rate for county property tax notices, commissioners cannot raise it under state law, but they can lower it.
Murray said he has heard numerous comments about the benefits of city amenities, such as the Highland Recreation Center, which is being rebuilt.
“In the circles I travel, people do say they do want a tax increase in order to continue the services we are providing,” he said.
Mayor Pat Gerard agreed.
“As much as it’s harder to pay a few more bucks in taxes, these are the times when the people need the services we provide,” she said. “Not just police and fire, but recreation and all other things we do.”
Commissioner Curtis Holmes, who cast the dissenting vote, said that taxpayers are about to get “nickeled and dimed to death” because the cumulative aspect of other local governments raising the millage rates.
“We are in the middle of a recession here. Although the city of Largo is running like a finely tuned clock, it’s the rest of them that aren’t,” he said. “We are going to put a burden on these people. That’s a problem.”
He said that it’s not his goal to “remove all joy from the city of Largo,” but it’s his job to make sure that citizens are adequately protected by public safety services.
Commissioner Michael Smith questioned Chief Michael Wallace about firefighter positions that the city may not fund for Fire Engine 43, which serves Belleair Bluffs, Largo and Belleair. The department is looking at operating the engine with three firefighters instead of four per day.
Under federal requirements, firefighters are not allowed to make entry into a burning structure unless there are two on the outside and two on the inside if no lives are at risk. Fire Engine 43 is now in a situation where firefighters wait for the next engine to arrive so “they have two in, two out” to enter the structure, Wallace said.
“Overall, the impact will be that there will be a delay getting interior aggressive firefighting into the structure. There will be some additional damage if some structure fire occurs, but our guys will remain safe ...,” Wallace said. “We will not send anyone in unless we have enough people outside to rescue them should they need it.”
But “all bets are off” if somebody is trapped in the house, he said. That means a single firefighter will enter a house to rescue a victim.
But in situations where the house is unoccupied, the residents of a burning house “are going to watch us stand at the front door waiting for that second engine to pull up so that we can make entry into the house,” Wallace said.
The 4.99 mills represent a 7.30 percent increase in taxes, generating an additional $1.06 million in revenue. If that rate were adopted in September, the owner of property with a taxable value of $60,559 would pay $42 more in annual taxes. Under the proposed tax rate of 4.99 mills, a homeowner whose property has a taxable value of $60,559 would pay an additional $42 in property taxes in the next fiscal year.
Because of shrinking revenue stemming from tax cut measures and the downturn in the economy, city officials have cut their operating budget in recent years – $14.5 million since 2008. Property values have dropped a total value of 31.43 percent since then.
They are expecting to cut $2.6 million in the city’s $61.3 million operating budget for fiscal year 2013.
Two public hearings on the budget and tax rate are set for Sept. 4 and Sept. 20. The 2013 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.