Commission Chips Property Taxes, Declines Homeless Funding

Highlights of tonight’s Lakeland City Commission budget hearing:

  • Commissioners unanimously approved a $612 million 2019 budget as recommended by their staff.
  • They granted a small reduction in the property tax rate. Compared with the current rate, the 2019 rate of 5.4644 mills will save property owners a dime for every $1,000 of taxable property, or a $10 saving for somebody paying taxes on a $100,000 property.
  • No funding was approved — for now — for a proposed $195,000 initiative to reduce homelessness that was recommended by a 23-member steering committee and championed by Mayor Bill Mutz. The vote was 4-3, with Commissioners Justin Troller and Phillip Walker joining Mutz in support of the homelessness plan.
  • Commissioners are supplementing the city general fund with a $300,000 “infusion” from a reserve of about $2.5 million collected through red light camera fines. Under projections used by the city Finance Department, that infusion will allow the city to show a 45-day cash reserve in the 2021 budget, a figure administrators say is needed to continue high scores from bond-rating agencies.

TAXES

Under pressure to offer some kind of relief, commissioners settled on a .1-mill reduction tonight after failing to achieve any cuts at their initial budget hearing two weeks ago.

Troller voted against the cut after pushing for a larger reduction and calling the .1 level “ceremonial and a slap in the face to taxpayers.”

Ironically, he had called for a .1-mill cut in a compromise package that was rejected by the other commissioners. His compromise package also called for $95,000 for homelessness instead of the full $195,000 package and a $600,000 infusion from the red light camera reserve instead of the $300,000 ultimately passed.

Commissioner Scott Franklin represented the .1-mill reduction as the responsible solution, saying that a deeper cut would be harder to recover from in four years when population growth is projected to force the commission to cut services or raise tax rates.

The approved rate is 3.5 percent higher than the “roll-back rate,” the millage that would bring in essentially the same revenue as the current year’s 5.5644 mills did. Properties with higher assessments this year will generally see an increase in taxes owed.

Property taxes provide about 27 percent of the city’s general fund and about 6 percent of overall revenues.

HOMELESSNESS

At the Sept. 6 budget hearing, it looked as if Mutz had secured the three other votes needed to fund four recommendations to reduce homelessness that had been approved unanimously by a steering committee that included representatives of agencies that serve the homeless, businesses, government and non-profits.

But support wavered tonight as several commissioners said they need more time to ponder the recommendations, which came to them the week before the first budget hearing.

A key to passage is Franklin’s vote. After saying he wasn’t ready to vote to support the homelessness measures tonight, Franklin added, “I will and I’m very interested in doing something for homeless. It’s a problem we have that needs to be addressed … I don’t feel comfortable until we do the proper vetting.”

He used a family analogy: “You get to the checkout at Publix and my kids want to keep throwing things on the table and I’ve already got the budget for groceries for today.”

Commissioners disagreed tonight on the degree to which the faith-based agencies that provide meals and emergency shelter to the homeless were involved in the four recommendations made by a steering committee.

Commissioner Stephanie Madden she has heard from many donors and volunteers with those agencies who feel the “housing first” approach being recommended “does not go toward non-profits and faith-based organizations. It goes more toward a low-barrier to housing right away and that’s a concern to a lot of our citizens.” She said she was told that Talbot House was the only faith-based organization serving the homeless that was involved in the steering committee’s deliberations.

But Mutz, a member of the 23-member homeless initiative steering committee, maintained Lighthouse Ministries and the Salvation Army were also represented on the panel.

Troller declared the city needs to take the lead in reducing homelessness. Referring to the faith-based non-profits, he said, “Having them take the lead hasn’t worked before and it won’t work now” because reducing homelessness will reduce their funding.

BUDGET SUMMARY

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