DADE CITY — City commissioners set a preliminary tax rate on Tuesday evening that would maintain a balanced budget and avoid controversial cuts to the Police Department, aside from not filling one officer vacancy.
Then, shortly after setting the tax rate at $7.10 for every $1,000 in taxable property, City Commissioner Bill Dennis shocked the audience: He asked staff to draw up a scenario dropping the tax rate to $6 per $1,000 in taxable property. That would mean $264,000 in cuts.
Mayor Camille Hernandez seconded the motion.
"To continue to tighten belts and to do more with less is an interesting proposal," said Hernandez, who earlier this month suggested laying off police dispatchers and charging fees to festival organizers to save the city money.
Residents who attended the meeting to protest any drastic cuts were stunned by Dennis' reversal. Over the years he has supported maintaining taxes — and even suggested raising them — in order to provide quality services.
"You already established the millage at 7.1," said local restaurateur Gail Greenfelder. "And now you want to go back and revisit this? What have you been doing? Haven't you made up your mind? As a business person I don't understand wasting valuable time on something you agreed upon 20 minutes ago. I'm really disappointed."
Local historian Jean McNary responded with disbelief.
"You mean to say that you'll put your staff through more weeks of pressure?" she told city commissioners. "It was great work to keep the millage stable. I suppose the guy who grades my dirt road will probably be the first to go."
But Dennis told the Times he is trying to illustrate a point. He said the exercise will show just how damaging such cuts would be.
"It's an unorthodox approach and I know it will upset a lot of people," he said. "But there are some who want lower property taxes no matter what. These people need to see that we can't cut the millage and have a reasonable budget. It's complicated and in the end I felt that this approach was the only way to demonstrate that."
City Commissioner Eunice Penix joined Dennis and Hernandez in a 3-2 vote requesting that staff prepare a version of the budget with the tax rate at $6 per $1,000 in taxable property. City Commissioner Scott Black suggested that exercise is a waste of time.
"Don't ask staff to do something we won't back them up on," Black said. He also expected the talk of more cuts would prove unpopular. "This is not a service to the community when morale is already low."
The board will hold another budget workshop on Aug. 13 before taking a final vote on the budget on Sept. 24.
Still, the official proposed tax rate remains at $7.10 per $1,000 in taxable property. That's the figure city residents will see on their Truth in Millage notices, although officials can adopt a lower rate if they choose.
City manager Billy Poe and finance director Jim Class said they'd get to work drawing up an alternate budget. They also expressed confidence, however, that drastic cuts wouldn't gain much traction.
"Everyone put in a lot of hard work on maintaining this tax rate," Class said. "I can't remember a time when an issue like this came up so close to our deadline."