Three commissioners would vote for City Manager Mike Herr's proposed 2019-20 budget, but two commissioners argued for a tax cut.
WINTER HAVEN — The City Commission appears split 3-2 on Winter Haven's proposed 2019-20 municipal budget along a familiar political fault line — taxes.
A majority — Mayor Brad Dantzler, Mayor Pro Tem Nat Birdsong and Commissioner J.P. Powell — indicated Wednesday they were prepared to support City Manager Mike Herr's proposed budget. But Commissioner Pete Chichetto and William Twyford pushed for budget cuts to finance a lower property tax rate.
Herr has proposed a $130.9 million budget that would hold the city's property tax rate at $6.79 per $1,000 of assessed property value, which would raise $15.6 million in revenue. The commission is scheduled to hold its first public hearing and vote at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The debate occurred during an agenda review meeting to prepare for Tuesday's meeting.
Twyford has said he would not support the current tax rate and pushed for shaving it by at least 50 cents. Chichetto said he wanted a $1 cut.
Even a 50 cent cut would take the budget below the city's “rollback rate,” the level needed to collect the same amount of revenue as the current tax after accounting for the rise in Winter Haven's property values. The rollback rate this year would be $6.48 per $1,000 of assessed value, which would bring in $14.2 million.
“The people we represent are the taxpayers; we have to give them a break,” Twyford said.
Dantzler responded that the City Commission voted a year ago to raise the property tax by $1 because of a long list of construction projects and infrastructure improvements that needed funding. Commissioners agreed last year they didn't want to borrow any money to finance those projects and wanted to “pay as you go” with the additional tax revenue, Dantzler said.
The city gets about $2.5 million for every $1 of the property tax, Herr said.
Winter Haven property owners accepted the tax hike in exchange for doing the civic improvements over the next several years, Dantzler said.
“I'm not interested in taking on more debt,” said the mayor, adding the city's current debt burden totals $99 million.
Chichetto focused on where the city might save $2.5 million in order to do a $1 tax decrease.
He raised several possibilities, including trimming the $444,910 the commission had agreed to give various civic groups for community services, hiring fewer people than the 21 full-time employees and 12 part-timers in Herr's proposal and $1.3 million for pay increases for the existing city workers.
“There's enough money in here that we can afford to give a little rebate to the taxpayers,” Chichetto said.
But Birdsong and Dantzler argued the commission cannot micro-manage municipal operations. That would intrude into Herr's management responsibilities, they said.
“I fully support the management we've been getting,” Birdsong said.
The commission has been very conservative in managing the budget during the past decade, when revenue declined because of the Great Recession, he added.
“I'm not prepared to go line by line through the budget and figure out where to cut,” Dantzler said.
Herr told commissioners the proposed 2019-20 spending plan is the minimum possible to meet the policies established by the commission.
“I want to assure the City Commission: I'm not a pushover. I push back on the department heads,” he said regarding the departmental budget requests.
At the $6.79 property tax rate, the owner of a $100,000 home would pay $339.50 next year in municipal property taxes after deducting $50,000 for Homestead exemptions.
Kevin Bouffard can be reached at email@example.com or at 863-802-7591.