As a new fiscal year quickly approaches, the County Council wants to see spending and taxation further reduced in Fiscal Year 2024.
“The last thing I want to do is put more of a burden on our residents,” Council Member Troy Kent said during the governing body’s Sept. 5 public hearing on the budget and property-tax rates. “We don’t have a revenue problem. … We have a priorities problem and a spending problem.”
Just days after it voted to scrap the county’s communications tax in the unincorporated areas, council members signaled their desire for more tax cuts, especially in a time of widespread inflation.
“Everything the county deals with has gone up,” County Chair Jeff Brower said, adding households are trying to make ends meet. “There’s got to be some shared pain.”
County Manager George Recktenwald told the council his employees have experience in reducing expenses, but it can be quite frustrating at times.
“The costs are rising faster than I can make cuts,” he said.
As proof of its expertise in balancing budgets, Recktenwald reminded the County Council his staff had delivered “three rollbacks in the last five years.”
“We’re asking you to squeeze blood out of a turnip,” Brower told Recktenwald.
To ease the tax burden, one possible solution may be to tap into the county’s reserves. Volusia County has millions set aside in savings for rainy days, emergencies or opportunities for unplanned purchases. The county government has a total of some $389 million in reserves in a host of agencies and departments, the County Council learned.
Kent was not alone in his thinking. Council Member David Santiago said more spending cuts are possible in many departments.
“Generally speaking, the cost of doing business has gone up for everybody,” he said. “I think there are a lot of reserves there, and we could give our residents relief.”
“We should not exclude anybody because of their title,” Santiago also told his colleagues. “There’s probably opportunities in all departments.”
During what was supposed to be the next-to-last step in balancing spending and revenues for the 12-month accounting period starting Oct. 1, the council sought to wring more savings out of a nearly $1.2 billion operating budget. If spending declines, then taxes — especially property taxes — can decline. The calls for lower spending come as county administrative staffers say they have reduced previously planned spending and are still dealing with inflationary pressures for much of what the county purchases in goods and services.
The first public hearing on the fiscal proposals is the near-finish for a long task that started many months ago. The final public hearing on the county’s budget and ad valorem tax rates is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 19, in the County Council Chambers of the Thomas C. Kelly County Administration Center, 123 W. Indiana Ave., DeLand. The meeting is open to the public.
“Our budget process in a typical year begins in January, when we look at capital needs … and possible challenges,” County Manager George Recktenwald said. “We do a five-year forecast of expenses and revenues.”
Recktenwald noted the county has confronted a number of fiscal challenges in recent years, including the coronavirus pandemic, rising prices for construction materials and insurance, and shortages of labor. Nevertheless, the county government has adjusted and improved, he added.
“We’re all about efficiency and effectiveness,” Recktenwald said.
Recktenwald also said he had already rejected $6.7 million in spending requests from various agencies with his hierarchy.
“There’s a lot of things that didn’t make it into the budget,” he noted.
Among the items Recktenwald refused to approve, he said, were $650,000 worth of repairs and upgrades for the Kelly County Administration Center in DeLand. In addition, Recktenwald said he had kept nearly $1 million from being placed in an economic-development fund.
Even though council members have expressed their will to reduce spending, a critic of the county government urged them to do more.
“We certainly have waste and abuse,” Keith Chester said. “You all need to be paying attention, because there is abuse.”
Chester cited the county’s use of federal and state grant funds for rehabilitating older homes, noting the program allocations for repairs and upgrades sometimes may equal the value of a home.
While he voiced support for lowering the cost of the county government, Council Member Jake Johansson expressed reluctance to begin again to slice spending with so little time left before the new fiscal year.
“I believe that today is the wrong day to ask staff to start making cuts,” he said.
“Let’s sharpen our pencils a little bit earlier next year,” Johansson urged.
Council Vice Chair Danny Robins said he would “like to see some service cuts,” but he did not suggest which services he would reduce.
“The budget is our responsibility,” he added.
The County Council voted unanimously to advance the tentative budget and its proposed tax rates to the second and final public hearing, with the understanding that additional tax cuts may be in the offing.
As well as approving an operating budget of nearly $1.2 billion, the council approved a non-operating budget of almost $203.8 million.
While most of the tentative property-tax rates are at the rollback figures, the Fire District’s millage is not. Also, the council set Volusia ECHO and Volusia Forever at their voter-approved maximum levels, 1/5 of a mill, or 20 cents per thousand dollars of taxable property value, rather than the rollback rate of 0.1818 mill for each of them.