INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — It took more than two hours Tuesday for the City Commission to re-do a vote setting the property tax rate and approving its 2008-2009 city budget.
This was the third vote on the millage and budget. Normally, only two votes are required, but the commission made a mistake on its second vote Sept. 18 and had to do it over or lose more than $100,000 in state funds.
The commission's second and supposedly final vote was illegal, violating a state law that required unanimous approval of any rate more than 1.8942 mills.
That limit represented a rate determined by a complicated state formula for tax levies above the roll back rate of 1.6531 mills — the millage needed to raise the same level of taxes as the current year.
City Attorney Maura Kiefer explained Tuesday that since the vote taken on Sept. 18 was not unanimous, the action was "void and unenforceable" under state law.
The commission had voted 4-1 to approve a 2.0 millage rate. Commissioner Daniel Torres was opposed.
At the time no one on the city staff told the commission they needed a unanimous vote.
At the beginning of Tuesday's meeting several residents rose to plead, again, for lower property taxes.
But first, Mayor R.B. Johnson warned the residents not to make "rude, derogatory or snarky" comments about the commission.
"When you start beating people up and taking money they can't afford and you won't answer questions, you can't expect people not to get mad," responded Jim Palamara, a former commissioner.
The commission did manage to find a few new expenses to cut, including cell phone reimbursement for its interim city manager.
Torres reversed his original opposition, arguing that although he still preferred a lower tax rate, he was willing to support the 2.0 millage rate because "we get things that benefit the city."
One of those benefits, he said, was the commission's decision to limit cutbacks in policing services by the Sheriff's Office.
He also called for dropping the millage further, arguing that the consequences of cutting the city's $249,000 emergency reserve, well below the recommended 20 percent reserve of about $600,000, was not as "dire" as some had suggested.
The city's reserves were sharply reduced in recent years by more than $1-million in loans made to cover shortfalls in the city's sewer and waste collection funds. Recently approved rate increases for sewer and garbage collection services will eventually pay back those general fund loans.
Commissioner Terry Hamilton-Wollin said the city needed to keep in reserve enough money to cover three months of payroll, insurance and other expenses.
"It costs money to run a city and we need continuing revenue," she said. "Suppose our money freezes up? We have to be responsible stewards of the city."
"I don't want to put the city in danger in any way, but I believe a lower reserve is adequate for the city," Torres said.
In the end, little had changed. Torres changed his vote and a unanimous commission approved the 2.0 millage rate — and a city budget that still includes a slight cutback in weekend policing services, as well as other across-the-board cuts.
"Politics is all about compromise," Johnson said. "We are down as low as I ever wanted to see the general fund reserves go. We are just holding on by our fingernails."