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Dunedin made a risky decision on tax rates

We hope no costly surprises come Dunedin's way in the next year or so, because the city may be ill-equipped to deal with them.

Last week the Dunedin City Commission rejected a 7 percent tax rate increase that had been recommended by City Manager John Lawrence and instead instructed the staff to cut the budget. A 7 percent hike would have amounted to 21 cents more per $1,000 of taxable property.

Dunedin has not raised taxes in 10 years. Consider what would happen to your family budget if you had to get by today on the same income you made 10 years ago. Prices for everything have gone up substantially in 10 years. If you had to get by in 2002 on your 1992 income, you would have to slash your spending. You might eat less, turn out the lights, stop making deposits to your savings account, buy cheaper goods, put a bucket under the roof leak instead of fixing it.

Is that the kind of city government Dunedin residents and commissioners want?

Last year city commissioners were forced to concede that city facilities such as the Stirling Recreation Center, the Community Center and some neighborhood parks were in lousy shape because they had not been properly maintained and there was no financial plan for their upgrade or replacement. Roof leaks, wall cracks, worn out floors and outdated equipment were common. Some residents accused city officials of spending too much money and attention on downtown and the Toronto Blue Jays spring training facilities, and not enough attention on other parts of town. In the last city election, voters did not choose the candidate who most emphasized spending issues.

There could be no denying that Dunedin was underfunding some city services. Yet it continued to lower or maintain a tax rate that was clearly inadequate, while talking about seeking outside grants to pay for some city needs.

Grants are a nice addition, but it is the duty of city officials to plan for sufficient, dependable revenue to meet the city's needs.

Since the vote last week, Dunedin officials have begun to talk about how small a reserve fund they can get by with. The city has had a policy of maintaining a 15 percent reserve fund. Although that may be higher than necessary, the 8.6 percent officials are looking at now is quite low. But if they cut the budget to maintain a higher reserve, what important services will not get the money they need?

It is interesting that the City Commission decided to cut things so close this year. The experiences of our nation since Sept. 11 should have taught all public officials that there is a need to be prepared for surprises. Many cities are trying to pad their reserve funds. Dunedin seems to be going in the other direction.

Dunedin could be negatively impacted in the next year by bills to be paid for its spring training projects and, potentially, by a baseball strike.

A couple of members of the Dunedin commission might have been motivated to take a hard line on a tax increase because they are running for the state Legislature. No politician wants to raise taxes. But sometimes they have the obligation to do so. Dunedin's commissioners instead seem to be leaning toward a decision to patch the roof and turn out the lights.

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