SAFETY HARBOR — The property tax rate would jump nearly 9 percent and construction on a long-anticipated waterfront park would finally begin under the budget proposed for next fiscal year.
According to finance director June Solanes and City Manager Matt Spoor's 2015 plan, the current tax rate of $3.73 per $1,000 of taxable assessed property value would rise to $4.05 — aiding a bump in revenue from higher property values by generating nearly $600,000 for city coffers.
The proposed increase would mean a resident who had a $150,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption would see a city tax bill of $405 next year, which is $32 more than this year.
Spoor said constant cuts to personnel and other items during the recession forced the city to choose between spending down reserves or increasing the tax rate for the second time since 2010. His plan calls for pulling $50,000 from reserves to balance the budget.
Policy recommends that Safety Harbor put a portion equivalent to 17 percent of its operating budget in the rainy day savings account, enough to last two months. As of Sept. 30, the city expects it will have $5.6 million, or about 44 percent, in reserves.
Regarding budget cuts, "at some point, your residents are going to start feeling it and I think we're pretty close," Mayor Andy Steingold told his commission colleagues during a recent budget planning workshop. "People who live in a great community expect quality."
Due mainly to a spike in capital projects and ballooning expenses for necessary city services, such as water fees, Spoor said 2015's proposed budget of $63.8 million is 2.8 percent higher than 2014's estimated year-end tally of $62 million.
For example, the city has set aside $1.6 million for design and other startup costs for a park along Old Tampa Bay.
After some back and forth, commissioners tentatively settled on raises of up to 3 percent for the city's roughly 150 employees, plus an increase in health insurance costs of up to 10 percent. The city has budgeted about $150,000 citywide for the potential raises.
The controversial monthly $4.25 streetlight fee would decrease $3.25 per month, or $39 a year — a savings of $12.
Several commissioners, though, questioned the urgency in replacing Safety Harbor's 23-year-old fire boat, which assists with rescues, tows and other disasters from the Courtney Campbell Causeway to upper Tampa Bay, with a newer $150,000 model. The mayor asked staff to research other funding sources, such as assistance from other North Pinellas cities and agencies who benefit from the service, or grants.
Commissioners also asked staff to try to shave costs off a $295,000 community center renovation project, by nixing things like $2,600 worth of updated water fountains and a $14,000 basketball backboard from plans for now.
The city intends to keep routing a combined $77,000 in assistance to the Chamber of Commerce, Neighborly Care Network and Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center despite initial resistance from several commissioners.
They included Commissioner Richard Blake, who said he couldn't reconcile raising taxes to give away to nonprofits. He said he preferred to focus on infusing rather than spending reserves, and that he believes residents themselves have a responsibility to donate to the causes they find important.
But Steingold argued that the groups represent and serve various segments of the city's population: "Part of the quality of living in Safety Harbor is having these organizations. Everybody is looking out for everybody."
Contact Keyonna Summers at [email protected]