After three-and-a-half hours of discussion and public commentary, the Volusia County Council disappointed its critics by failing to adopt a budget funded by the rolled-back millage rate, and moved forward with the proposed increase in property taxes to fund county operations.
The main sticking point was the general-fund budget, which includes funds for services like jails, courts, and parks and recreation. The general-fund millage rate was approved with a 3.43-percent increase over the previous year’s rate by a 5-2 vote. County Chair Jeff Brower and County Council Member Heather Post voted against the rate increase.
The millage rate for the overall countywide budget — which includes the general fund, the library fund and the Volusia Forever and ECHO grant programs — was approved at a figure of 6.2986 mills.
This rate represents an increase of approximately 8.7 percent over the rolled-back millage of 5.7955.
So what gives?
According to Budget Director Aaron Van Kleeck, after a year of economic uncertainty, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, costs are up. Increases are driven, he said, by the voter-approved push to bring staff to a $15-per-hour minimum wage, along with inflation and the need for more staff.
These costs aren’t just localized to the county, though. Many people argued that during the public comment period that lasted for nearly two hours and included roughly 40 speakers.
A resounding theme among them was that now is simply not the time to raise taxes.
“We always just want the good times to keep coming,” one speaker said. “But sometimes the good times can’t keep going, and all you can do is just try to survive.”
Of course, some speakers supported the budget, too.
Supporters included a regular volunteer in county parks and some avid disc-golf players. Their fear was that if the budget were to be cut to get to the rolled-back rate, parks and environmental services would be first on the chopping block.
Brower dispelled this idea.
“I’m not talking, and I’ve never talked, about cuts in the budget,” he said. “I’m talking about reduction in the rates of increase in spending. We can tone it down.”
In place of cuts, Brower proposed an alternative budget plan of his own. Why not pull an additional $7.3 million from the county’s reserve funds to eliminate the 3.43-percent increase to the general-fund millage rate?, he asked.
The county is already using $11 million from the reserve fund, and Brower’s suggestion would have increased that to more than $18 million. The county levies taxes every year, Brower argued. Why can’t the county put less cash into the reserve fund this year and hope for the best next year?
Rolled-back rate versus approved
How does the approved total countywide millage rate of 6.2986 compare to the rolled-back rate of 5.7955?
With a millage rate of 6.2986, property owners will pay approximately $6.29 in county taxes for every $1,000 of taxable property value. The owner of a home taxed at $200,000 after exemptions, for example, will pay about $1,258 in county taxes, along with other taxes, including those charged by the School Board, the West Volusia Hospital Authority, city taxes if the property is in a city, etc.
At the rolled-back rate, that same homeowner would pay only $1,160 in county taxes.
His plan was not met with much support.
Chief Financial Officer Ryan Ossowski argued — even though Brower interrupted to disagree — that the county would be ill-advised to pay for recurring expenses with one-time reserve funds.
In the 2021-22 budget, Ossowski said, “we have to recover from the fact that we funded those one-time expenses with $7.3 million.”
County Council Member Ben Johnson disagreed with Brower, too. While Volusia County has fared well during hurricane season so far, one hurricane could be disastrous for the reserve fund, Johnson argued.
Brower found agreement in Heather Post.
Costs go up every year, Post argued, so why can’t they buck the trend and find a way to not increase taxes?
“Why do we even ever have these discussions?” Post asked. “Why isn’t it an automatic increase every year on the citizens? … With that mindset, that would be the case.”
Debate, which blossomed into arguments, followed.
County Council Member Barb Girtman said she was in favor of a small increase this year to avoid a big increase next year.
County Council Member Danny Robbins said the county can’t just print money to solve its problems.
Another point of contention was that the County Council does not hold budget hearings at which council members suggest changes to a line-by-line budget. That’s up to the county staff.
Post and Brower said they would like to see that policy modified next year. County Council Member Fred Lowry disagreed — that is staff’s job, Lowry argued.
Lowry was attending his first meeting, remotely, after a bout with COVID-19.
Amid the arguments, Johnson suddenly made a motion to accept the budget as proposed. County Council Member Billie Wheeler quickly seconded his motion.
Having a motion on the floor didn’t stop the talking.
Johnson and Lowry tried to move things along by curbing Brower’s continued discussion.
“It’s starting to get counterproductive up here,” Johnson said around 9:30 p.m., three-and-a-half hours after the budget hearing began. “It’s time we just get to the question and get done.”
Lowry pushed for the end of discussion, too, interrupting Brower. Brower did not take kindly to the move and claimed Lowry was out of order.
“I’m sorry, Fred, but you’re not going to shut me up,” Brower said.
When voting began, many of the nine millage rates were approved with a 5-2 vote, with Brower and Post dissenting. The two dissented on the general fund, the library fund, the mosquito control fund, the municipal-services-district fund and the Silver Sands-Bethune Beach fund. The council then unanimously approved rates for Volusia Forever, Volusia ECHO, the Ponce Inlet Port Authority fund and the fire rescue fund.
The county budgets were approved with one 6-1 vote. Brower voted against approval, he said, because he didn’t agree with the millage rates funding the budgets.
Rollback — 5.2025
Approved — 5.3812
Percent increase — 3.43
Rollback — 0.4928
Approved — 0.5174
Percent increase — 4.99
Rollback — 0.1002
Approved — 0.2000
Percent increase — 99.60
Rollback — N/A. This ad valorem tax was not levied in 2020.
Approved — 0.2000
Percent increase — N/A
Total Countywide funds
Rollback — 5.7955
Approved — 6.2986
Percent increase — 8.68