Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Politics

St. Pete Beach weighs tax rate; did commissioner overstep?

ST. PETE BEACH — Property tax bills are slated to drop in 2014, but by precisely how much could become a contentious issue.

Mayor Steve McFarlin wrote a blistering email Monday criticizing Commissioner Jim Parent for what the mayor said was an inappropriate push for higher property taxes.

The incident occurred at last week's meeting of the Finance and Budget Review Committee, which is responsible for reviewing the city manager's proposed budget and either approving it or recommending changes to the full commission.

"It appears that due to the intrusion into your (the committee's) deliberations by Commissioner Parent, the integrity of this process has been severely compromised this year," McFarlin wrote in an email copied to the entire commission, the city clerk and the city manager.

Parent defended himself in a subsequent email. He could not be reached for comment.

"I believe I made (the comments) as a private citizen," Parent wrote. "I don't believe that we, as elected officials, give up our right to care about our City from the perspective of a resident and as a taxpayer."

When Parent spoke at the committee meeting he suggested they consider raising instead of lowering property taxes to cover the $10,000 they wanted added to the parks facilities maintenance budget.

"I would also encourage you to fund an operational reserve for unexpected expenses and opportunistic things," Parent told the committee. "It would be nice in my mind to have $50,000 to 100,000 pocket money."

After about half an hour of debate, the committee vote unanimously to recommend a property tax rate of 3.0 mills, slightly higher than that proposed by city manager Mike Bonfield. The current millage rate is 3.2819 mills.

One mill is equivalent to $1 of tax for each $ 1,000 of assessed, nonexempt real property.

The city manager originally proposed a tax rate of 2.8569 mills. According to Bonfield, that would save property owners $51.28 for every $100,000 of assessed taxable value after all exemptions.

It would also mean a nearly $600,000 drop in revenue for the city.

If the commission accepts the Finance and Budget Review Committee recommendation, tax bills would still drop next year, but not by as much.

The 3.0 mill tax rate would also generate an additional $285,000 over Bonfield's recommended $23.5 million budget.

That money would be put into the commission's budget to be spent on emergency maintenance or repair items, as well as for other unanticipated programs or activities.

One key point during the debate was whether residents are expecting a significant drop in their property tax bills because of the savings created when the city closed the police department and contracted with the Sheriff's Office for law enforcement.

"If you think the public has the expectation that going to the Sheriff would lower millage, you should lower the millage," Bonfield told the committee.

Parent then suggested that the committee could reduce the millage by any amount that would be less than the current millage rate.

"You could still meet several goals and have a lessened tax bill," Parent told the committee.

Following McFarlin's complaint, City Attorney Mike Davis reviewed city policies as they applied to Parent's actions at the committee meeting and eventually discovered a commission resolution approved in 2005 setting conduct rules for commission interaction with citizen committees and boards.

Those guidelines caution commissioners about "influencing" citizen boards or committees or "prejudicing" eventual city commission consideration of those groups' recommendations.

Specifically, commissioners are allowed to attend citizen committee meetings, but the guidelines say they should "be sensitive to the way in which their presence may be viewed as unfairly affecting the process."

Commissioners also are required to preface their opinions with the caveat that they are not representing the commission as a whole.

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