As the county finalizes its budget for next year, I want to update Lee County taxpayers on things we did differently from years past that should improve public dialogue about services and spending, and will ultimately benefit taxpayers and our community.
First, we focused on key public policy decisions.
Second, we started the process much earlier to avoid last minute decisions.
Finally, we determined our costs first, as opposed to projecting revenues and then deciding how we would spend them.
In December, the Board began twice-a-month "Work Sessions," informal and open dialogues about key issues facing our county and the public policy decisions that would be required to help move us forward.
County staff can't make those decisions for us. We, county commissioners, have to do it.
It was refreshing to listen, learn and debate among five different commissioner perspectives - finding the common ground as well as working on our differences.
These are some of the topics we tackled: Conservation 20/20 (several times), transit, budget policy, impact fees, solid waste, legal liability, Sheriff's budget, term limits, capital spending, infrastructure and reserves.
We received a first draft of the county's General Fund operating budget by May 27, even before we knew preliminary estimates of property tax revenues (June 1).
This substantiates the BOCC process that begins with a needs analysis versus how much money can we spend. This draft budget is what is called a "continuation budget." What that means is: "What is it going to cost next year to provide the exact same level of services as this year?"
Due to things the county can't control - including mandates (Medicaid, juvenile justice, debt service), law enforcement, external cost increases (commodities, vendor prices), maintenance (things breaking) - that cost was more for next year than this year. That became our first adjustment.
Once we have that "apples to apples" comparison, then we can layer in the costs we do control, such as any service level issues, restoration of prior cuts (such as LeeTran), and pay increases for our own employees.
Otherwise, everything that was in the budget this year will be in the budget next year.
We received a "second" draft budget June 17, which was after the Property Appraiser's preliminary taxable values were released.
The Property Appraiser released the final taxable values June 26, and the Board of County Commissioners will set the maximum tax rates Aug. 4 and evaluate a "third" draft budget Aug. 5, well before final budget public hearings on Sept. 3 and 17.
As previously mentioned the policy initiatives were then introduced as assumptions for staff to construct the draft budget. For full disclosure because often it is misconstrued, 57 percent of the county's General Fund pays for the operations of Constitutional Officers. Here's where we are:
- It is the Board's intention to restore this year's transit cuts.
- We have agreed to fund the ongoing maintenance of the 25,000 acres of Conservation 20/20 properties through the existing General Fund tax rate.
- Conservation 20/20 has nearly $100 million of accumulated cash on hand. The Board has indicated it will not use this for any purpose other than for the program.
- With that $100 million in the bank for conservation lands, here are the preliminary recommendations for future collections: Keep 0.1 mil in the General Fund to pay for maintenance in perpetuity. Reduce the 0.4 mils until the acquisition fund is spent down to a reasonable level. Add back enough millage rate to balance the General Fund's operating budget.
- With the sale of the county's helicopters, we are working to use those proceeds to buy new ambulances.
- The county's Capital Plan is balanced, with the projects we know of, for the next five years except for Homestead Road. We are committed to funding that expansion on time and within budget.
- The reduction of impact fees by 80 percent for two years (action taken last year) did not impact the balancing of our Capital Plan in the short term, and, I believe, helped "prime the pump" of the local building industry. Restoration of the impact fee to 100% is scheduled to occur in March.
- Water quality costs to meet state and federal standards continue to be a concern and one that we work on daily to develop a long-term, sustainable plan.
- The largest is law enforcement and jail operations through the Lee County Sheriff's Office. These costs increased $5.7 million.
- An additional $8 million is for major maintenance projects, including $3.8 million for the Clerk and Public Defender.
- The tax rate should not exceed last year's rate.
No one likes to make decisions at the last minute - in this case we have scheduled the time and the activities to discuss our options in August rather than setting budgets and tax rates with last-minute input in September. This year, August is when we need your input. September we review the results and approve the budget and tax rate.
This year's process is different. It's working. Lee County is moving forward in a positive direction with transparency and optimism that taxpayers should see this year. The work done this year should begin a process that we can follow in the future.
-Larry Kiker is the District 3 representative & BoCC Chair