Demands from the public to cut Volusia County property taxes were not enough for the County Council to bring taxes to rollback at a Sept. 7 meeting.
A tense three-and-a-half-hour Volusia County Council budget hearing began with protests for lower taxes and ended with the adoption of the advertised millage rate of 6.2986.
The approved millage rate is some 8.22 percent over a total rolled-back rate of 5.82 mills.
Some cuts were made since the budget was last brought before the public in July, after the County Council convened a special workshop Aug. 31 to reduce the general fund budget. With a 4-2 approval — with Chair Jeff Brower and Council Member Heather Post dissenting; Council Member Fred Lowry was not present for the workshop — the County Council agreed to cut some economic-development incentive spending and some capital-improvement funding. To save money, the county will also close three beach ramps during the offseason.
Every member of the County Council expressed a desire to reduce the budget to rollback, but between voter-mandated changes, like the minimum-wage increase, and other necessary funds, the council members had a hard time pointing at just what to cut.
More than 20 members of the public addressed the County Council with some variation on a common refrain — some even had signs to drive the point home — “Full rollback now.”
Some compared raising taxes to the taxation that led to the Boston Tea Party, while some reminded the elected officials on the dais that their days of serving the public were numbered if they voted to raise property taxes.
County Council Member Ben Johnson was among the members not amused by the threats to their seats. Maintaining services for the county, he said, was more important to him than slashing the budget to get re-elected.
“You’ve gotta think ahead, otherwise we can sit here on this council and break our county. We can put it in financial ruin in just a matter of three or four years,” Johnson said. “I can’t in good conscience sit here and say I’m going to destroy the future of Volusia County for a vote.”
Brower agreed, but, he said, everyone in Volusia County has to pay bills, and the board should be mindful of that. The County Council did not see a line-by-line budget to edit, he said, and he was unable to point to anything specific.
Like the other members of the council, Brower has repeatedly voiced his support of a full rolled-back budget. But when asked where exactly to cut, the entire council struggled to dig deeper than they already had.
Some members of the public pointed out the stress many have been under due to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is the wrong time to raise taxes,” one speaker said.
But budgeting for a county of more than 550,000 people isn’t as simple as balancing your personal checkbook, County Council Vice Chair Billie Wheeler said.
“I know where I’ve had to cut back in different areas. But with the county, you know, we just got our census … it looks like we’ve got an additional 50,000 people,” she said. “We are forced to make some of these recoveries on some of these expenses that are increasing, that are impacting Volusia County, just because of the growth that’s happening.”
Once the discussion subsided, the County Council approved a total countywide base millage rate of 6.2986, with special taxing districts clocking in at an additional 6.2265 mills, with a 4-2 vote.
The total countywide base rate includes the county’s general fund — including monies for services like jails, courts, and parks and recreation — as well as libraries, Volusia Forever and ECHO.
County Chair Brower and Council Member Post voted against, while Council Members Danny Robins, Barbara Girtman, Wheeler and Johnson voted in support of the budget.
The public will have one more chance for their voice to be heard when the Volusia County Council meets to discuss the budget and taxes — and to vote on them — for the second time at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 21, in the County Council Chambers in the Thomas C. Kelly Administration Center, 123 W. Indiana Ave. in DeLand.
Meetings are open to the public and can be viewed online live and after the meeting, HERE.