SEBRING — County property owners won’t see higher taxes this year, at least not from the county.
County commissioners voted Tuesday to hold the county property tax at 8.55 mils for the 2021-22 fiscal year, the same rate as this year. Property owners should expect to see an explanation of that rate soon in the Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices put out by the Highlands County Tax Collector.
Typically, according to County Administrator Randy Vosburg, county staff recommends a rate slightly above the current rate to give commissioners the option of raising a rate slightly to cover budget increases. David Nitz, manager of the Office of Budget and Management, recommended setting the top rate at 9.0 last summer, and commissioners chose to cut enough from the budget to keep it at 8.55 mils.
Vosburg said it was a “big step for David (Nitz) to set it so low.” Commissioner Arlene Tuck said she would have preferred to set the ceiling rate lower than that.
Commissioners won’t have the option of raising the millage rate above 8.55 at this point unless they want to run the risk of not being able to re-advertise the rate in time for the September budget hearings. Their options now, Vosburg and Nitz said Tuesday, are to cut spending and/or use more of the county’s fund balance to cover expected expenses.
Tuesday’s budget workshop involved payments to outside governments, constitutional officers, agencies and organizations. Nitz had asked constitutional offices to hold increases at 2.5%, but those budget average a 8.2% increase, with the largest in the Supervisor of Elections Office (36.1%), law enforcement programs paid by the commission (4.51%), the E-911 Dispatch program (11.41%) and the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office (9%).
The Sheriff’s Office is the largest dollar increase: $2.75 million. Sheriff’s Business Manager Rob Reed said most of that is personnel, while just $500,000 is capital expenditures, such as computers, vehicles and equipment. That personnel expense is not new hires, Reed said. Sheriff Paul Blackman has fully-funded positions for the first time in a while.
Reed started to assure commissioners that Blackman would make “substantial” cuts, but then corrected himself to say cuts wherever possible. County staff gave some good-natured jibes at that.
“We like that word,” Vosburg said of “substantial.”
Clerk of Courts Jerome Kazubowski said his 3.97% increase is necessary equipment, especially data servers for all county departments except the Sheriff’s Office, and the staff to maintain and protect them. He said the county sees hundreds of thousands of attempts per day by outside entities to break into those servers, and he needs the staff to cover them.
As for requests from outside agencies, the county has $857,806 outlined for municipal recreations, nonprofit agencies, the Soil and Water District and the Transportation Disadvantaged program, among other things.
From Nu-Hope Elder Services, Executive Director Debbie Slade and Fiscal Director Brad Stoll told commissioners that their support of the nonprofit helps ensure that seniors — as much as 36% to 41% of the local population — can continue to live at home versus moving into expensive assisted living or care facilities.
Tiffany Collins, interim administrator for the Florida Department of Health for Highlands County, said the county’s support also helps them help seniors and all ages of residents. Bob McNeely, new executive director of the Heartland Food Reservoir, urged commissioners to continue their support of the program, which helps families directly and other local food banks.
Representatives of the Peace River Center also urged the county to continue helping them provide an emergency shelter for victims of domestic abuse, which has included men more frequently, as well as women and children.