After hosting the first of its budget meetings during the Sept. 12 City Commission meeting, Winter Garden leaders are nearly ready to adopt the proposed budgets and millage rate for the upcoming year.
Commissioners unanimously passed four ordinances that allow for levying taxes and appropriating funds to the city accordingly. A second reading and public hearing will take place at the Sept. 26 commission meeting.
The proposed millage rate remains flat at 4.50, the same as fiscal year 2018-19. Previously, the city’s millage rate had remained static for eight years at 4.25. The 0.25 increase was introduced to make up for an anticipated loss in revenues attributed to a homestead exemption amendment on the ballot last November that was expected to pass. However, the amendment failed.
Commissioner Colin Sharman asked how the budget would be impacted if the millage rate was rolled back closer to what it had been, because the amendment was turned down.
“I know when we voted this in, we raised it, because we were expecting the state amendment to pass, and we all kind of said, ‘Hey we’re doing it, if it doesn’t pass we’ll look about going back,’” he said. “I’d be interested what that impact would be on our budget, how much we’d have to pull from general fund, maybe split the difference.”
City Manager Mike Bollhoefer said much of those extra funds were and continue to be used for investing in public safety.
“When we had our meeting — if you remember during our discussion on the unions we had our closed-door meeting — one of our goals that we discussed was we were increasing significantly our spending on police, fire and safety, so we adjusted our budget to ensure that we’re paying our firefighters and police,” Bollhoefer said. “It actually took up over two-thirds of that funding, and going forward, it’ll eat it up. We said based on that, going forward with these contracts, we felt it was important to agree to all that … (and) also provide the funding to do so.
“At the time, you remember, we were having issues hiring police officers because of our salaries and our benefits,” Bollhoefer said. “So it was our (discussion) at that point if it was advantageous in this situation to use those funds for fire and safety.”
Sharman added he wouldn’t want to take the millage rate back to 4.25, because some of the increased funds need to go to salaries for public safety. However, he said he’d like to see about rolling it back a few tenths of a point.
Winter Garden resident Troy Knight asked the commission to consider Sharman’s request.
“If there’s any chance you could roll back even a portion of that, it would be appreciated,” he said.
Bollhoefer told commissioners keeping the same millage rate also would help fund transportation, parking and parks and recreation.
“It’s not just the fire and police,” he said. “When you look at it, you look at one year what the cost is, but you look at year after year, the long-term costs, and we feel comfortable with that amount. It still puts us in the lowest end of millage rates but it gives us that funding. Even with this addition, we will still have to do some cutbacks on parks and recreation.
“Even at the 4.50, we’re going to have to make decisions on what things we’re going to have to not be able to provide for the residents,” he said.