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County to lower millage, boost pay

Because of a nearly 8 percent expansion of the tax base,
county commissioners plan to lower the millage rate, but not quite to the
rollback rate.

At a budget workshop on July 29, the commissioners reviewed
a report from Erin Griffith, the county’s finance director, that indicated one
mill would generate about $2.33 million for the 2021-22 fiscal year. If left
unchanged, the current millage rate of 5.7761, which generated $12.37
million in ad valorem proceeds this year, would generate $13.48 million next
year, or about $1.1 million more.

The rolled-back rate, which would net the same
ad valorem proceeds as this year, not including the added value of new
construction nor the effect of monies transferred to the two cities’ tax
increment districts, would be 5.3991 mills, and would generate $12.6 million.

Instead, the commissioners are eying a tad higher tax rate
of 5.4707 mills, which would generate $12.77 million, or about $167,190 than
this year, or about 1.33 percent over the rolled-back rate.

This property tax component is only about one-sixth of the
overall budget, expected to total about $77 million, about $15 million more
than this year’s $62 million county budget. The growth in the annual budget,
Griffith said, is attributable to a growth in Health Care Trust Fund of about
$1.7 million, swelling the Weems Memorial Hospital fund budget by about $2.9

In addition, the Tourist Development Fund budget grew by almost
$700,000 due to the levying of an additional 1 percent to the 2 percent lodging
tax. Plus, there is about $8.6 million more in grant-funded projects for road
paving and drainage projects, FEMA restoration efforts and the Franklin County

With the exception of sheriff’s budget, which rose by about
$277,000, largely to increased costs for information technology, inmate meals
and other various expenses, most all the county departments will remain

That’s because a hike in employee pay was not figured into each of
the budgets, as is typically the case, but will instead be addressed by what
Griffith estimated will be an additional $450,000 in overall labor costs. This
is due to 2021-22 being the first year of a three- or four-year phasing in of a
newly introduced standardized pay plan.

The county is not expected to decide how to phase in the
new plan until sometime before the budget is approved in early September. “It’s
all up in the air right now,” Griffith said.

Sheriff AJ Smith said that in order to be compliant with a
new reporting system for offenses and arrest, and to address what had been a
costly data breach last year, the county is footing the bill for new servers,
hardware and software. “We’ve kind of been limping through with the old system,”
he said.

Ginger Coulter, the sheriff’s office’s finance director, said
email protocols now require an extra layer of encryption, and that the county
went with a more affordable quote. “We have to still maintain email accounts
even if an employee leaves,” she said, noting that with as many as 87
employees, the licensing costs can be considerable.

Coulter said the costly data breach last year, in which
she had to notify thousands of users connected to the office’s emails, could
have led to as much as $30,000 in additional charges. “They were going to hit
us; we were able to eliminate that,” she said.

“We clearly don’t want to be back in a position where we’re
compromised again,” said Smith. “We were dead in the water for a while. I
wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”

The sheriff said inmate meals will go up 2 percent, half of
the price increase originally sought. “Everybody’s going up on what it costs to
do business,” he said. “Inmate welfare money was paid to fix the air
conditioning. If it’s something we can do ourselves, we’re going to do it.

“My biggest thing is compensation for employees,” Smith
said. “It seems like every single sheriff is in the same boat.”

He said starting pay of $50,000 in Leon County, and $41,000
in Gulf County, makes it difficult for the county to compete. “We have a really high level of
service,” Smith said. “I don’t want to reduce the service because I can’t keep

Health insurance premiums for all county employees, Griffith
estimated, would rise by about $105,000, or 4 percent, while contributions to
the Florida Retirement System would go up by a little more than $88,000.

said a total of $1.37 million in cost increases to the budget, mainly for adding
employees to a few of the departments, will be offset by about $970,000 in
budget reductions, for about $405,000 in net increase.

Griffith said sales tax revenue estimates to be released by
the state forecast a recovering state economy. “Whereas county government does
not rely as heavily upon sales tax proceeds as state government, we are
intertwined with the state economy as far as state-shared revenues are
concerned and approximately 17 percent of the revenues for the general fund
come from sales taxes,” she said, noting that this will remain a boost in state
sales tax proceeds of $315,657 for the general fund and $123,718 for roads and

She said that since homesteaded properties with just values
exceeding taxable values, saw an increase in accessed value of 1.4 percent
based on  the consumer price index, a house
valued at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption that paid $578 in county
taxes in 2020, would now pay $555 in county taxes.

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Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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