Apalachicola holds the line on tax increases

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Boosted by healthy growth in its tax base, Apalachicola plans to adopt the rollback rate for city property owners, lopping off about two-thirds of a mill from the current tax rate of 9.0001 mills.

By a 3-2 vote immediately following last week’s first of two public hearings on the budget, city commissioners approved a budget for the upcoming 2002-23 fiscal year that will tax property owners at 8.3457 mills, and will bring in roughly the same amount of ad valorem property tax revenue, about $1.6 million, than was the case this year.

Commissioners Donna Duncan and Antia Grove voted no on the proposed millage rate, each contending that keeping the millage unchanged at 9 mills, which would raise about $122,000 more in property taxes, was the best way to ensure that a list of infrastructure projects would all be fully funded.

The issue of funding water and wastewater capital improvement projects emerged as a theme at the Sept. 14 public hearing, since in order to achieve a balanced budget, there had to be a clearer accounting and tightening of the dollars available to do the work, and when they might be accomplished.

Commissioner Despina George, an accountant by profession, had introduced the newest form of the proposed budget after she had worked out details with Finance Director Mark Gerspacher.

“We have continuing issues of outdated cost records and estimates, and inadequate accounting records,” said George. “A lot will be subject to change.”

She said close to a half-million dollars in projects budgeted for the current fiscal year but not completed in 2021-22 had not been properly factored into the carryovers into the proposed 2022-23 budget.

“There was a false overstatement of revenue,” said George. “We shored that up by putting projects back on the books.”

The revised budget also called for a 5.5 percent cost of living increase, which will cost the city an additional $109,000 in labor costs, as compared to the roughly $271,000 that adopting the Evergreen Solutions pay rate recommendations would have cost. A representative from Evergreen is expected to address the city commission next month.

Still, a deficit of $234,000 remained, and she and Gerspacher proposed to split that between wastewater and drinking water projects that could be put on hold for the time being.

“What Mark and I suggested leaves all our options open,” George said. “I thought this was the most conservative way to leave our options open and preserve the intent of the budgeted funds, by putting these projects on hold until we can get a better assessment.”

While she voted in favor of the rollback rate and the budget, George objected to a proposal favored by Commissioner Adriane Elliott to fund about a quarter-million dollars in improvements to the Scipio Creek piers out of more than $1 million in American Rescue Plan funds the city has received.

Elliott stressed that the city was already doing $1.5 million in capital improvements on the water and sewer systems. “You got to be patient with it but we are going to get it done,” she said. 

She bemoaned that half of the marina at the Mill Pond, and its shrimpers, “has not had power for four years now. We made promises we’re going to do everything we could.

“Promises made need to be promises kept,” said Elliott. “I can think of no better way to spend a portion of that funding to help citizens who have been impacted. These are people being impacted the hardest.

“If we can find another source of revenue, I'm more than happy to find alternatives,” she said. “I'm not in favor of tabling; we need to get traction on it.”

George disagreed with Elliott’s taking the Scipio Creek money out of American Rescue Plan funding, a federal fund that has poured lots of dollars - about as much all the annual ad valorem dollars - into the city to spend as it pleases.

“We have $1 million left in ARPA,” said George. “We’re basically taking away half of that; why would that be necessary if it’s already included in the budget?”

She said the commission’s consensus had been to “preserve that $1 million to the greatest extent possible.

“We didn't know what our needs would be. We don't know how much we’re going to need,” George said. “We have a myriad of stormwater issues that could be addressed.”

“Everyone agrees it (Scipio Creek) is a necessary project,” she said. “It's already in the budget. It's not like it was going to be on the chopping block unless we can pay it out of ARPA.

“If we spend on Scipio Creek out of ARPA funds, we’re going to chip away at funds previously designated for projects,” George said. The ARPA funds must be spent by the end of 2024.

Gerspacher made the point that whether or not any projects are placed on hold, “there will be at least a quarter million in projects in the first quarter that would not get done.

“There’s no way we would have all these projects down even by the first half of the year,” he said. “They're not going to get done tomorrow; a lot of them won't get done quickly.

“I feel this is a conservative budget and we’ll possibly have some money to do things down the road.”

He backed up George’s assertion that the accounting system is not as accurate as they would like.

“We don't have an accurate depiction of what our carryovers are from previous years, going back a while,” he said. “It seems our carryforwards should have been more.”

Gerspacher said the actual day-to-day accounting is “adequate, but the big picture, over the last 10 years, it is not.”

Duncan and Grove each supported keeping the millage rate unchanged, and pushed forward that infrastructure spending must not be postponed.

“I don’t want to see the fire hydrants get delayed any longer, “ said Grove, noting that the use of ARPA funds spent on the water system had helped reduce disinfection byproducts to regulatory acceptable levels in the chlorine-treated water.

She said $25,000 could be spent to rout out ditches to ease stormwater flooding.

“Infrastructure has been a problem,” she said. “We know we need water done, and sewer done. I want to be sure we’re not delaying any capital improvements, that we have plenty of money for all the things we need.”

Duncan opposed the rollback. “We’re all sitting there hearing fix, fix, fix this, fix this, but we want to do it with an empty purse,” she said.

“It's not going to be holding up the progress of any projects,” George replied. “At the end of two years we’ll have done what we expected in year one.

“The first budget had $480,000 less in capital improvements because of those projects that were not carried forward. They wouldn't have been budgeted if this error had not been identified.”

“I do not agree our system produces reliable information,” she continued. “There were wild variances. There's still a disconnect between cash transactions and what’s recorded in Quickbooks. I don't think that can be understated.”

In shepherding the commissioners to a vote, Mayor Brenda Ash noted that “at some point those (ARPA) funds are going to have to be used. As leaders of this community we need to make hard decisions as to what is best for the entire city.”

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