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TREASURE ISLAND — Municipal financial planners warned city leaders that COVID-19 will likely plague city budgets next fiscal year.

Treasure Island Finance Director and Assistant City Manager Amy Davis had that dire warning for city commissioners during budget hearings Aug. 5-6.

Davis told commissioners, in the fiscal 2020-21 budget that will be approved in September, Treasure Island is “holding the line, and coming in with a flat budget across the board in the general fund, to better position ourselves for next year. We know next year will be tougher than this year, because in the public sector everything tends to be delayed.”

She explained “the COVID pandemic did not impact us until March, when the majority of our property taxes and business taxes have already been collected, and we got a partial season of our recreation program.”

“We were in a better position,” she added, because the financial effects of COVID-19 on the local economy “hit in the latter half of the fiscal year; better than if it hit the first part of the year, just by the nature of our cyclical fiscal year,” she added.

However, she advised, “next year we have indications from the property appraiser’s office that it’s looking like we will have a negative property value, because of the city’s commercial sector taking a big hit.”

In Treasure Island the hotel sector, which makes up 17% of the tax base, will be valued lower, so it will not result in a growth of the tax base.

In the residential sector, “while the property values may be going up, they are limited in terms of taxable value, because of homestead exemptions,” she explained.

“We don’t really know what will happen. Everybody has a different theory, and sometimes they are contradicting each other when it comes to when the economic impact will start to wane and how deep it will go. The best strategy is to hold the line, so we are not overreacting or underreacting,” she said.

The city held that line on expenses by not hiring any new employees or granting city raises across the board.

What a difference 0.1 mill makes

However, city administrators decided it could not hold the line on increasing property taxes in order to amass enough reserve funds to pay for future maintenance expenses on the Treasure Island Causeway Bridge.

In his annual budget, City Manager Garry Brumback proposed a 0.1 mill property tax increase to 3.7129 mills to fund future Causeway bridge rehabilitation during the next two decades. A mill is a $1 tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value minus exemptions.

Consultants hired by the city and Causeway Bridge maintenance staff assert that 0.5 mills in property taxes should be set aside each year to have enough savings to maintain the bascule bridge in the next 10 to 20 years and beyond.

The city’s strategy to funding long-term Causeway Bridge maintenance is by asking commissioners to increase a committed portion of the millage rate each year until it reaches 0.5 mills annually; currently it’s 0.3 mills, with 0.1 additional mill requested in 2021 to go to 0.4 mills, until it reaches 0.5 mills annually in 2022.

“We can afford to skip one year, but we cannot afford to not go to 0.5 mills,” Brumback told commissioners.

Commissioners have to decide if the additional cost will be added to the coming year’s budget during budget hearings in September, but at least two commissioners have voiced reservations: Commissioners Tyler Payne and Saleene Partridge.

They say residents are growing weary of the tax hikes and there may be other ways to pay for ongoing maintenance over the years.

On July 21, Commissioners voted 3-2 to tentatively set the maximum millage rate at 3.7129 mills, which is a 0.1 mill increase over last year. However, during two September hearings the rate can still be lowered, with dissenting commissioners favoring a millage rate that remains flat at 3.6129.

Meanwhile, the East Causeway Drainage Roadway Improvement Project, mainly funded by $1.2 million from state Department of Transportation and $275,000 from SWFWMD, will soon be underway.

The city also received a $900,000 pavement and curbing grant from the state. Commissioners credited state Rep. Jennifer Webb and Sen. Jeff Brandes with lobbying and fighting for the grant to survive budget cuts in Tallahassee.

Wishing and hoping

Mayor Larry Lunn told fellow commissioners it would be nice if the city had its own in-house public relations department to promote Treasure Island, “because the name Treasure Island is somewhat magical and that has not been utilized to its fullest.”

“To have some other organization do our work for us doesn’t work out as well as doing it in-house,” he explained. “It would be nice to be able to blow our own horn.”

He said the city could look into whether the reward would be commensurate with the expense, since most other communities have a public relations component to promote their city.

Brumback noted the city currently does not have that expertise in-house.

The idea for the city to promote itself was raised after commissioners questioned why $5,000 is budgeted each year for the Treasure Island-Madeira Beach Chamber of Commerce; they questioned what the city received in return for the funding.

The city manager explained it began 2016 when the city originally gave the chamber $5,000 to publish a membership booklet and “it just kind of continued; they didn’t ask last year so we didn’t put it in, but then they asked for it, so we gave it to them. … This is one of those expenses that took a life of its own; it was originally designed to be a one year thing.”

Brumback said it would be substantially more expensive to promote the city in-house.

Commissioners decided to budget slightly less for the chamber, about $4,700, and use about $300 for a networking dinner.

Marine patrol

Commissioners told Police Chief John Barkley to let them know if and when he wanted an additional officer for marine patrol duties, after it was noted additional and expanded enforcement of no-wake zones and maritime laws would be welcome.

Commissioners learned the amount of overtime the department spends on marine patrolling would pay for the additional officer.