The Lakeland City Commission passed the fiscal year 2024 budget on Thursday evening, green-lighting a $746.9 million spending plan, with the general fund totaling $172.7 million.
The budget is a 2.3% increase over last year’s spending of $730.1 million.
Property taxes are the single largest source of money for the city’s general fund, accounting for 32% of the budget. The property tax rate for Lakeland residents will remain the same as it has been for the last two years, at $5.4323 for every $1,000 of assessed value. That means a home with a taxable value of $200,000 after exemptions would owe $1,086 in property taxes to the city.
However, despite not raising its rate, Lakeland expects to collect about $6.3 million more in property taxes next year — $1.4 million from new construction and $4.9 million from increased value of existing units.
For homeowners with homestead exemptions, increases are capped at a maximum of 3% annually, thanks to the Save Our Homes amendment approved by Florida voters in 1992. However, people with commercial property, rental units, newly purchased homes or second homes might see bigger bills based on higher real estate values.
Priorities for the coming year
Much of the budget is determined by the city’s obligations, including debt service and insurance costs. But commissioners have some discretion over how they prioritize spending within the general fund.
Currently, police and fire protection are the largest components of the general fund.
One of the biggest changes this year is across-the-board pay raises for city employees. After a wage and benefit study found the city was underpaying its workforce, the commission agreed to pay raises of 5.5% to 6% for most general employees to improve hiring and retention.
In addition, the city is reducing the number of steps its takes for an employee to go from a minimum to a maximum salary, from 20 years to 15 years. The raises will cost the city an extra $3 million next year and equates to 3.6% of payroll.
“I just want to sincerely thank the commission from the employees here at the city of Lakeland that are tremendous public servants,” City Manager Shawn Sherrouse said after the budget was passed.
“That’s certainly going to help with the things that we talked about throughout the year, of needing to better retain employees and recruit where necessary and make sure that we’re paying at an appropriate market of salary for that work.”
In addition, the commission earmarked nearly $9.85 million for several strategic areas city officials have laid out in recent months:
- Infrastructure: $2,785,600 for roadway maintenance, new sidewalks and multi-purpose trails, a roundabout south of Bonnet Springs Park and parking improvements downtown.
- Economic Development: $2,536,000 for incentives to attract high-wage employers and smart-growth/mixed-use construction projects downtown. There is also $512,664 for education programs to create a pipeline for in-demand positions within the city.
- Affordable Housing: $2,886,555 for rehabilitation, new construction, home purchases and emergency repairs.
- Public Safety: $923,589 to hire 12 new firefighters in preparation for a new fire station and additional funds to recruit police officers.
- City Hall Communication: $168,900 to improve communication, engagement and training within city departments including employee surveys, leadership programming and awards.
- Resiliency Planning: $64,750 for emergency preparedness.
- Parks and Recreation: $35,000 for a water education and conservation program at the Florida Children’s Museum.
Four other city commission initiatives are receiving $1.725 million:
- Polk Museum of Art expansion – $250,000
- Small Business Development – $200,000
- Mayor’s Council on the Arts – $275,000
- Affordable Housing – $1,000,000
The vote was not unanimous
Budget votes are typically routine and unanimous — coming after months of discussion and debate. Prior to Thursday’s vote, the commission had a two-day strategic planning retreat in February, a budget workshop in July and two public hearings in September.
However, when it came time to adopt the budget, Commissioner Bill Read said “no,” making the vote 6-1.
Read’s dissent was based on his frustration that the budget did not set aside a guaranteed $1 million from either the general fund’s affordable housing allocation or from the daily cash-on-hand account to build a fire station in North Lakeland.
“Public safety is paramount,” Read said as he began a discussion about the firehouse, for which he has been advocating for at least a year.
The fire station is planned and the city has set aside $2.8 million for a land purchase. Sherrouse said city officials have gotten several appraisals on property. However, without a location, some other commissioners said budgeting for construction costs was premature.
Mike Musick wanted to wait for six more months to see what the city’s finances look like at the mid-year point.
Although all the commissioners are in favor of building the station as soon as possible, in the end, Commissioners Chad McLeod, Mike Musick and Sam Simmons, along with Mayor Bill Mutz, voted against Read’s proposal.
Fiscal year 2023-2024 begins Oct. 1.
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