City Commission Holds Millage Rate, Approves $730 Million Budget

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Lakeland city commissioners on Thursday evening voted to levy property taxes at a millage rate no higher than the current rate of 5.4323 after a lengthy discussion about possibly going as high as 5.7649 mills to pay for the city’s $730 million budget, which was also tentatively approved.

A mill rate is one-tenth of a percent, which equates to $1 in taxes for every $1,000 in a property’s taxable value. A number of different authorities, including counties, municipalities, school boards and special districts, can charge these taxes. In the case of the city’s tax rate, a home with a taxable value of $100,000 would pay the city $543 in taxes.

The commissioners were trying to figure out how to keep the millage rate low and still pay for an additional 12 firefighters, a new northside fire station, and an additional 13 Lakeland Police Department personnel.

Mayor Bill Mutz said if the commission opted for the highest rate permissible – 5.7649 mils – the additional .326 in millage would add up to about $3 a month – about $36 a year — to a resident whose home has a taxable value of $123,000. For a resident with a million-dollar home value, their taxes would increase by $360 a year.

“I think if you were going door to door and asking citizens, ‘Would you invest in that amount of surety to make certain we don’t have to cut back on services, to preserve quality of life, to make sure that we’re growing appropriately with our public safety measurements?’ I think there’s very few people” who would say no, Mutz said. “If you were to relate that to cups of coffee in the course of the year … we’re not talking about some huge economic impact that puts a burden on our citizens at that level.”

Property values, which increased an average of 14.66% this year, along with a population that has risen in the last two years by 7,600 to 120,300, seemed to be enough to add to the city’s coffers and pay for the new personnel. But staff and commissioners also recognized that the booming increase in property values would not continue, estimating next year’s at a 4% increase, with Commissioner Phillip Walker even dropping the R-word: recession.

Several commissioners, who all consider themselves fiscal conservatives, seemed willing to adopt a number higher than this year’s rate to ensure Lakeland could add the firefighters, police officers and a fire house, along with providing raises to the city’s 2,600 full-time and part-time employees and recruit and retain more. But they couldn’t get five commissioners – a super majority – to vote in favor of that.

Walker asked for city staff to crunch numbers during the meeting, to see if there were ways to pay for the additional personnel without raising taxes. He asked Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia if he could get by with seven or eight new officers instead of 13.

“I want to see some scenario as to how we can still provide support, what we need as far as our growth (we’re) experiencing that we have,” Walker asked. “But maybe not do all of them.”

Garcia said it could be done, but LPD would continue to lag behind in the quality of service it renders, including response time and crimes prevented.

“We could do eight – we probably should have done eight in about 2015,” Garcia said. “Every year, we’re getting further behind the eight ball.”

City Commissioner Stephanie Madden said she was shocked when she was elected to learn that the city doesn’t get enough in property taxes to cover the expenses of the police department. In fiscal year 2022-2023, the city is projected to take in $51.97 million in property taxes.  The police department’s expenses are projected to be $52.2 million. The city receives added revenue from the city-owned Lakeland Electric and various other sources.

“So when you think about the services that we get in the city of Lakeland, with our parks and with our fire and the quality of life that we have, it’s all on a millage rate that doesn’t even cover our police,” Madden said.

Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said she and the other commissioners want to fund the additional police and firefighters, recalling when she had to call 9-1-1.

“As someone who’s called 9-1-1 and had a death in the family, as a 36-year-old husband — and they were at my home very quickly to help me mitigate that — I absolutely will die on the hill of public safety, left, right, and center, every time and twice on Sunday,” McCarley said “I really want to be clear, though, that me looking at this number is not about it being you know, against taxes and against, you know, paying for things that we want. I absolutely want to do that. I also understand that our millage rate stays somewhat low because of our commercial investment in the city of Lakeland. So the commercial investments that we have, like your business and Publix and Amazon and all these different places contribute to this bottom line for us.”

Commissioner Mike Musick said he would rather cut from within the budget than raise taxes, although if he needed to, he said he would.

“I could certainly be twisted to the reach what you say especially in this first vote, right, I can certainly see that,” Musick said. “My taste at this point is 100% to include the service and if that doesn’t work, then I would be with Commissioner (Bill) Read. What else do we have to work on and then scrape off to be able to make that, so that is my priority … I’m trying to think about the difference between, you know, being fiscally conservative and fiscally responsible, you know, at the at the same time.”

Lakeland Firefighters at Harry’s on Main Street

Gloria Hodgdon, president of Foxwood Lake Estates Property Owners Association, was the only member of the public to speak on the matter.  She asked Fire Chief Doug Riley if there were plans for a northside fire station, if they were looking at property, and if it were in the budget.

“Here it goes — they’re gonna hate me back here,” Hodgdon said, pointing to the audience behind her, “but if you have to go up on taxes to make this happen, you’d be better do it now before it’s next year and increases more and more and more. So please consider making a top priority for our safety in Lakeland.”

Riley said they have identified several properties to buy for a new fire station.

“We’re trying to be strategic about that because, you know, obviously, if you say I’m interested in that property, the price starts going up,” Riley said. “There is an area that we want to stay in because, if we get too far away from that, we’re not going to have the response times that we need.”

In the end, the commission voted 5-2 on the millage rate, with Bill Read and Mutz voting no, and 6-1 on the city’s estimated $730 million budget, with Read voting no again.

The city will hold one more budget hearing on Sept. 29 at 6 p.m. in the city hall chambers for a final vote.

This story has been corrected. The city’s general fund budget expenses are estimated at $150 million, while its total expenditures are estimated to be $730 million next year.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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