DUNEDIN — Though city commissioners said they recognize residents' financial hardships stemming from COVID-19, they unanimously decided to maintain city's current tax rate for the sixth consecutive fiscal year.
However, one commissioner, Heather Gracy, voted Sept. 17 against adopting the proposed city budget of $103.4 million, saying she's not been able to verify a lot of items pertaining to the budget.
The tax rate is 4.13 mills, which is equivalent to $4.13 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.
Though she acknowledged city officials and commissioners worked hard on the budget, Gracy said she was worried about how the Penny for Pinellas sales tax funds will be used and other issues.
"There is room for improvement. I still see too many consultants in the mix," she said. "I'm concerned about the affordability overall for all of our residents.”
Residents, Gracy said, want to know they are going to be taken care of.
"This budget doesn't give me that security," she said.
Though she said she respects Gracy's opinion, Commissioner Moe Freaney said as the commission addresses tough decisions, "the Penny will be the Penny."
"Those projects will just have to live within the Penny or they are not going to happen," she said. "We don't have room in our general fund to pay for them outside of the Penny."
Over the past several weeks, city commissioners have held numerous budget discussions regarding big projects expected to be funded by the sales tax, such as a new municipal complex.
"I think this is a good budget. We've spent many, many hours on it," Freaney said.
Some speakers expressed concern about the impact of the coronavirus on the community, such as loss of jobs, and how the increase in home values will affect residents’ ability to pay taxes.
"I think we've all spoken to great lengths about the budget," Commissioner Deborah Kynes said. "What I’m hearing tonight (from a resident), I'm wondering if we are reaching out enough to address not only the financial concerns, but the mental health concerns of this COVID," Kynes said.
Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski suggested that city officials use their business consultant to help residents, such as navigating through the process to obtain Pinellas CARES financial assistance.
"I think if we could continue that consultant services but have it for our residents who are facing rent issues or mortgage issues and help them how to apply and navigate the system, I think that might help and go a long way," Bujalksi said.
The adopted tax rate is 6.99% more than the rolled-back rate of 3.86 mills, which is the rate that will generate the same amount of property tax revenue raised for the current fiscal year.
City Manager Jennifer Bramley said the proposed budget is not dependent upon furlough days for staff nor does it decrease the work force or levels of service to the public. No merit increases or cost-of-living increases are budgeted for staff.
She said city officials have met with the city's Board of Finance and had a good dialogue.
Bujalski and other commissioners praised staff for their budget work.
"I do believe in what they have brought forward here," she said. "We have to have a budget and it has to balance."
She said she looks forward to a commission meeting in January to continue examine the budget. At that time, commissioners may make more cuts and delay some projects.