INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Despite hours of public protest, residents of this city will pay up to 20 percent more in property taxes next year — yet have less law enforcement protection.
The City Commission approved the higher millage rate Thursday night, as well as a $6.5-million budget that includes less money for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to patrol the city streets.
The commission did decide after the 2008-2009 budget was approved to add back nearly $90,000 to keep weekend law enforcement service at the same level as it is now.
The money will most likely be taken out of the city's already low budget reserves in October.
The increase in spending for policing came after Mayor R.B. Johnson, who had been opposed to any cut in law enforcement, repeatedly reminded commissioners that the originally proposed cut would result in less coverage on busy weekends.
"I wish we did not have to do this," said Johnson. "The community servicing aspect will be lacking on the weekends."
Weekday law enforcement coverage of the city will still be reduced, however, from the two deputies now patrolling the city to just one deputy.
"I am quite comfortable with this," said Commissioner Bert Valery.
The property tax rate was set at 2.0 mills, a slight reduction from the 2.1 mills tentatively approved two weeks ago. This is 20.1 percent more than the rollback rate, or 1.6531 mills, which would have raised the same level of revenue as the current tax year.
The new tax rate, which is expected to generate slightly more than $2-million in revenue next year, is actually 36.1 percent higher than the current 1.4695 millage rate.
The new budget also includes a cost-of-living raise for employees.
"All you are doing is trying to raise revenue so you can spend more money," said resident Victor Wood.
Former Commissioner Jeremiah Carmody said he agreed with raising property taxes, but criticized the amount of the hike.
"In good times you cut the millage, in bad times you have to raise millage," said Carmody. "I am actually for raising the millage now, but you might have gone overboard a little bit."
Resident Scott Shapiro told commissioners that they have a "spending problem," not a revenue problem.
Other residents complained that they couldn't afford the new tax rate.
They suggested that the city cut spending on parks and the library before raising taxes or cutting policing services.
"Please don't get rid of our police," said resident Shirley Steele. "Can't we keep our officers and cut down on flowers in the park instead?"
Commissioner Daniel Torres, who was the sole vote against both the millage rate and the city budget, got no support from other commissioners when he proposed a lower property tax rate of 1.89 mills — the level originally recommended by the city staff.
"It is a very lean year. I feel we need to go as low as we can," Torres said.
Commissioner Terry Hamilton Wollin countered that the city needed to rebuild its emergency reserves and "get back to a solvent position."
The biggest issue facing the commission as it deliberated setting its millage rate and budget for the coming year was a shortfall of about $1-million caused by red ink in its sewer and solid-waste enterprise funds.
User fees and rates were increased sharply recently to build back those funds and eventually pay back $1.1-million in loans from the city's general fund, but in the meantime, the city had to cut spending and raise property taxes to immediately rebuild its depleted emergency reserves.
"You spent more money than you had," a consultant told the commission several weeks ago.