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Safety Harbor commissioners struggle with budget deficit

SAFETY HARBOR — The City Commission met Monday to comb through next year's proposed budget.

It wasn't easy. For more than three hours, commissioners grappled with the possibility of needing $635,000 from reserves to balance the budget.

City Manager Matt Spoor presented a series of proposed cuts to help offset the reliance on savings, but some commissioners weren't comfortable with the cuts.

Spoor pointed out that the commission had three options.

"You either have to raise revenue, draw from reserves or make cuts. The council has to decide which programs they want to cut," Spoor said.

At their previous meeting, commissioners discussed cutting employee health and dental insurance, Fourth of July fireworks and other items. They revisited those possibilities Monday.

"I would love to see the benefit reductions disappear," Commissioner Nancy Besore said.

The changes in health care contributions would save a projected $95,800, while cutting dental insurance would save $53,230, according to the proposed budget.

"I don't have a problem with people partially paying for health insurance, (but) I don't like the idea of paying zero percent for dental," Commissioner Cliff Merz said.

The council opted to leave the insurance costs in the budget until they see firm rates from providers later this year.

They also chose to leave money in the budget for the fireworks but to seek sponsorships to defray costs.

Commissioners revisited another item discussed at the meeting earlier this month: raising property taxes for the first time in more than a decade.

Spoor proposed that the city set the millage at $3.7343 per $1,000 of a property's taxable value, up from the current $3.3808. The proposal is expected to bring in an extra $317,045.

Under the millage increase, a property owner with a home assessed at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay $373.43 in city property taxes next year. The same property owner paid $338.08 this year.

Mayor Joe Ayoub, Vice Mayor Nina Bandoni, Commissioner Richard Blake and Merz all supported the increase, while Besore said she hasn't decided.

Florida cities are required to set a maximum property tax rate by Aug. 2. The increase will be certified this week. After that point, the millage can be reduced but not increased.

Residents can ask questions and pose concerns about the proposed budget at two public hearings in September. The council will pass a final budget at the end of that month.

As the meeting closed, commissioners agreed they should remain hopeful that the city's tax base will expand next year, thus bringing in more revenue, but that they should err on the side of caution when factoring speculative revenue into the budget.

"We're at the point … that we either have to cut services, take more from reserves or raise more revenue," Ayoub said. "But we can't just sit up here and say we want more growth. That happens with the environment we create."

Matt McKinney can be reached at mmckinney@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4156. Twitter: @Mmckinne17.

Safety Harbor commissioners struggle with budget deficit 07/30/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 6:10pm]
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