News Column

Lake commissioners work to whittle down tax-rate increase

August 28, 2014

By Jayna Omaye, Orlando Sentinel



Aug. 28--TAVARES -- Emotions ran high at a budget workshop this week as county commissioners tried to whittle down a proposed tax-rate increase.

At one point, Commissioner Leslie Campione told her colleagues they were trying to "put me against the wall."

"I know you want to pit me against one group against another group and get mad at me," Campione said. "What we're cutting is an over-inflated budget."

After hours of sometimes heated discussion, including Commissioner Welton Cadwell exclaiming that there is "no big plot," commissioners agreed to changes that would potentially increase the tax rate by 11.3 percent instead of an 18.6 percent hike tentatively approved 4-1 -- over Campione's objection -- last month.

Their efforts resulted in $5.89 million in cuts including deferring funding for a south Lake park and phasing in completion of the new courthouse over the next few years.

"I believe that the lowest millage [tax] rate increase we can get by with is the best way to go," Commissioner Tim Sullivan said. "I also see where we can't get to zero."

Commissioners agreed Tuesday to leave Sheriff Gary Borders' budget request intact. He wants more money to fund pay raises for deputies, who make less than police in many Lake cities and have gone without raises for several years.

"We couldn't ask for a better partner [Borders] in managing money over the past several years," commission Chairman Jimmy Conner said. "Every constitutional officer that we got is very, very fiscally conservative."

City Manager David Heath and Budget Director Stephen Koontz presented commissioners three options to reduce the hit.

"I realize that it's a tremendous millage [tax] increase," Heath said. "However, given the [budget] hole that Lake County has found itself in over the past several years, I stand by the millages."

Campione insisted she didn't want to raise the tax rate, period.

"I don't think they're [residents] very happy," she said. "Everybody wants to talk about economic development. The No. 1 decision you could make for economic development for Lake County would be to not raise the millage rate."

But several commissioners warned that there would be consequences by deferring projects.

"All three of those options use the same philosophy that got us in this hole," Cadwell said.

He said commissioners are responsible for 300,000 people in Lake "and we have to be a body that is representative of those 300,000 people. And we can't continue to do it by funding the way we have."

Commissioners set the tentative tax rate for fiscal year 2014-15, which starts Oct. 1, at $5.61 for each $1,000 of taxable value. The current rate is $4.73. For the past several years, the county has relied on dwindling reserve funds to balance the budget.

Commissioners will present changes to the proposed tax-rate increase at the first of two public hearings at 5:05 p.m.Sept. 9.

"We made a lot of cuts, more than I thought we would get to," Conner said. "The pitchforks will be here on the 9th."

jomaye@tribune.com or 352-742-5917352-742-5917

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Source: Orlando Sentinel (FL)


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