The Flagler County Commission is a step closer to buying a $5.4 million replacement for FireFlight, the workhorse Airbus emergency helicopter that since 2002 has helped prevent a repeat of home-destroying wildfires, flown hundreds of patients to trauma hospitals, and provided pursuit and reconnaissance assistance to local law enforcement.
The commission in a special meeting voted 5-0 to approve shifting $1.5 million out of a reserve fund the county has been building toward the end for years. The vote to buy the helicopter and finance it will take place later this year. But there are no plans to return the helicopter to 24-hour duty. It currently is on duty 12 hours a day.
The county will get $435,000 in trade-in value for FireFlight. With the accumulated $1.5 million, that would leave just under $2 million to finance, with annual payments of $237,600 to $286,000, depending on whether the county chooses to finance it over 10 years or eight years.
The cost of the helicopter includes law enforcement equipment such as an infrared system and live-feed capabilities. That seemed to leave Commissioner Dave Sullivan peeved that the county was picking up the entire cost. “I thought the sheriff had said he’d be willing to pay for the law enforcement equipment,” Sullivan said.
County Administrator Heidi Petito said there were discussions with the sheriff for several days, focusing on possible grants, which were not forthcoming. Instead, Petito said that by shifting some of the oversight of the purchase back onto the county, away from the manufacturer–such as sending the county’s pilot to the manufacturing plant four times during the process–it would lower costs.
“At the meeting when we approved the helicopter,” Sullivan persisted, “I thought I was under the impression that the sheriff was going to maybe be able to pay for the additional sensor equipment.” If the sheriff couldn’t afford it in the current deal, that equipment would have to be added on later.
“We’re going to fund it one way or another. So we figured out a way to get what we needed,” Petito said. “We were able to get it done.”
FireFlight is one of the county’s most visible, most publicly cherished assets. Including the next steps toward a replacement as part of a pair of budget meetings devoted to next year’s budget was one way to make the rest of the discussion go down easier.
In that busy workshop and special meeting that followed–the seventh of 10 budget workshops or hearing in budget season–Petito outlined her proposed final budget for next year, including a proposed property tax rate that will all but stay the same but for a symbolic decline in its debt-servicing portion.
That means that with tax valuations again surging by double digits, and no effective decline in the tax rate (and none whatsoever in the general fund tax rate), the county will generate $13.5 million in additional money next year, and all non-homesteaded taxpayers will see a substantial tax increase. Most homesteaded taxpayers will see virtually none.
The Commission also approved raising Waste Pro garbage rates for unincorporated residents 45 percent, from $300 a year to $435.
“So we’re able to balance the budget, reduce the millage slightly and fulfill the needs of the constitutional goals and filling some of those gaps,” Petito said. Total general fund revenue would be $152.7 million, with property tax revenue accounting for $109 million of that.
The commission at the special meeting voted 4-1 to set next year’s tentative (or maximum) general fund property tax rate at the same level as it was this year–$8.0547 per $1,000 in taxable value, or 8.0547 mills–and the debt service tax rate at 0.2796, or 0.0119 lower than the current rate. That’s the symbolic decline that will enable the elected official to claim that they have lowered the tax rate for the third year in a row, when, in effect, they have substantially raised taxes all three years, when the state law’s definition of tax increases is applied.
But they’re in the position to split hairs only because taxpayers want their cake and eat it too: they demand services that the county is providing, they demand improvements to infrastructure, law enforcement and other public safety needs, but still wail when told of the cost. The administrator has merely been attempting to use the tax windfall to fill gaps and needs that had been accumulating over the years.
Nevertheless, the tax rate the commission voted on today is tentative. It will not set the final tax rate until two budget hearings in September. Between now and then, commissioners will have time to find ways to lower the rate further, if they so wish. What they will not be able to do is set a higher ta rate come September.
The new money would pay for five new deputies, a new position at the Supervisor of Elections’ office, two at the Clerk of Court’s office. The county will have a $38 million capital budget, an increase of $34.5 million over this year, largely due to a massive infusion of state money. The Sheriff’s Office will have a budget of $41.9 million, fire rescue $19.2 million, capital projects will have a $38.2 million budget, environmentally sensitive lands will be at $8.9 million.
Operating reserves are budgeted at $5.9 million, though currently the account actually has only $2.7 million in actual reserves. The county also keeps two months’ worth of operating reserves. That adds up to $16.3 million, almost $2 million less than the current year. The county also has restricted reserves of almost $3 million, but much of that is committed to buying a new emergency helicopter.
Employees across the board will get a 5.3 percent cost of living pay increase (totaling $930,000). Retirement and health benefit costs will add a $1.45 million burden on the county budget.
The county is maintaining a high grade bond rating as it devotes $10.7 million in debt servicing next year. The general fund is paying on $61.7 million in outstanding debt, which pays for the county’s emergency communications network (just over $11 million), the Sheriff’s Operations Center ($18.8 million) and the debt that paid for the General Services Building ($31.7 million remaining). The county will have a total budget of $278.6 million.
071023 Budget Workshop Tentative Budget