One way or another, Flagler Beach residents are about to get their first significant tax increase since the Great Recession.
The increase likely won’t be as large as the whopping 22 percent the city commission tentatively approved at the end of July. It did so just to give itself maneuvering room as it figures out what to cut and what to keep. But the city will not what it’s done in recent years—adopt budgets that only nominally increased revenue and kept taxes in check. Flagler Beach needs new money to catch up with demands that have been piling up over the years, Jane Mealy, who chairs the city commission, said.
The city manager has proposed three budgets—one that would increase the tax rate 22 percent, another that would increase it 16.6 percent, and a third that would increase it 12 percent.
Some of the proposed increases first submitted by City Manager Larry Newsom, who is going through his first budget year with the city, have already been partly but not entirely scrubbed, including what would have been a whopping 47 percent increase in the fire department’s budget.
The fire department’s budget is currently just over $600,000. The fire department was looking for an increase to $942,332. That included the proposed addition of three full-time firefighters (at salaries of $34,000 each, not including benefits), the addition of an assistant chief, or captain, and the restoration of the fire chief’s position scrubbed three years ago during the administration of City Manager Bruce Campbell. The proposal also included the addition of a secretary who would have spared firefighters the job of filling out reports and the like.
“They’re asking for that because they want to put three people on each ship as opposed to two,” City Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said. “That’s one of the things that the people that opposed that fire truck confronted them directly about—that next thing you’re going to do is ask for an additional people to run that truck.” He was referring to the department’s recent acquisition of the once-controversial “quint” fire truck, a $568,000 piece of equipment that the commission approved buying after getting assurances that it would not be followed by demands for additional personnel.
While Mealy, who has supported the department’s acquisition and usually defers to the department’s request, calls the additional three firefighters “a bit much right now,” she said she still wants to hear from Bobby Pace, the fire chief—actually, the “fire captain,” as the top fireman in the department is referred to since the reorganization three years ago.
“I do want him to be a chief, not a captain,” Mealy said, underscoring the other key, and expensive, change in the public safety budget for next year: both fire and police departments would have their chiefs restored, but at a cost.
Belhumeur agrees with the change. “I think it’s kind of embarrassing to the city not to have a chief,” he said. “You introduce your fire captain then they look to see well, if he’s your captain, where’s the chief? But you can give somebody the title without having to add a whole bunch of money to it.”
In 2013, the fire chef was paid $70,779, the assistant fire chief was paid $47,611. The top position was downgraded to Fire Captain in 2014, at a salary of $58,000. The assistant fire chief position was eliminated. Two lieutenant firefighter positions were created that year at a salary of $38,000. Three full-time firefighter positions had salaries of $32,500. The department had three part-time firefighters, and a total staff of 10.
The police chief’s position was also eliminated, and its salary of $70,000 scrubbed, in favor of a police captain, with a $58,000 salary.
The proposed budget city commissioners will discuss Thursday in a daylong workshop that starts at 9 a.m. includes the restoration of the chiefs’ positions, with the fire department’s total salaries increasing 67 percent (because of the additional positions), and the total fire department budget overall increasing by 37 percent. The increase is also driven by additional costs for operating supplies and retirement and health insurance costs.
The total police budget would increase from $1.28 million to $1.38 million, with salaries increasing nearly 10 percent from the elevation of the captain to a police chief, and the potential addition of one police officer.
The city’s current tax rate is $4.7074 per $1,000 in taxable value, which works out to a $706 bill for a $200,000 house with a $50,000 exemption. If the city were to adopt the rate increase of $5.15, the lowest rate the city manager is proposing so far, it would add $66 to that bill, assuming that the property value of the house has not increase: but that’s not a safe assumption in Flagler Beach this year, where property values have improved significantly. So the bill would rise in proportion to that improvement.
“The reason that it is hard to stay at 4.7074 is due to the fact that in years 2008, 2010 and 2011 we went below the rollback rate,” the city’s budget director told commissioners in a budget message, referring to the rate that would bring in the same revenue year over year. Anything above the rolled-back rate equates to a tax increase under Florida law. (See the explanation of the rolled-back rate here.) “Now we have ample reserves to support capital projects and purchases; but they should not be used to support operations and salaries.”
The proposed budget also includes a raise of $420 a year for the commissioners and the mayor. They are currently paid around $7,500 a year.
The full budget document is here or below.