Madeira Beach commissioners agree to keep tax rate the same, continue to subsidize ferry service

The Madeira Beach commission, on a split vote, agreed to continue to subsidize the ferry for another year.
The Madeira Beach commission, on a split vote, agreed to continue to subsidize the ferry for another year.
Published Jul. 12, 2017

MADEIRA BEACH — The commission decided Tuesday to leave property taxes unchanged and make only a few changes to how that tax money will be spent.

The proposed tax rate is unchanged: $2.20 for every $1,000 of taxable property assessments after all exemptions, or $660 on a home with a taxable value of $300,000.

Property values in the city, now totaling $1.1 billion, increased 8.19 percent during the past year and are expected to generate $179,000 more in tax revenue for the coming year.

Property taxes here remain among the lowest in the county, according to Finance Director Walt Pierce.

According to the proposed budget, which still may be revised before final public hearings on Sept. 5 and 19, it will cost nearly $10 million to operate the city next year, and a total of $17.97 million when including special funds such as capital projects, stormwater and garbage collections.

In March, power shifted on the commission when voters tossed out several incumbents to elect Mayor Maggi Black and commissioners Nancy Oakley and John Douthirt.

"For time being, their posture is to keep things way they have been, but to look at making changes in the future," Pierce said.

One change the commission put into place Tuesday was to begin saving enough money to significantly pay down the city's debt, which now stands at nearly $15 million.

The largest chunk of that debt is $6.2 million to fund improvements to the city's stormwater system. Another $4.7 million financed the new city hall, fire station and recreation center.

The city has $5.4 million in unassigned savings, a number Pierce hopes to increase by at least $93,000 in the coming year.

The goal is to save enough over the next six years to either pay off or refinance a portion of the city's debt, Pierce said.

Another proposed cut was narrowly defeated Tuesday when Douthirt, after sharply criticizing the city's $25,000 subsidy for a water taxi service, voted in favor of continuing the subsidy for one more year. Douthirt previously had favored ending the subsidy.

Tampa Bay Ferry & Taxi, based at John's Pass Village and operated by Mark Hubbard, has been in service for about six months. Hubbard admitted that the service is operating at a loss, but said he has high hopes that it will begin showing a profit and even expand to include destinations in other beach towns.

"We (taxpayers) are not here to support businesses. The question is where do we stop?" Douthirt said, warning that he would not support further subsidies.

Commissioners Terry Lister and Nancy Hodges vehemently supported the program, arguing that it is popular, helps to bring people to the city, and "will pay for itself over time."

Black and Oakley were not swayed and voted to end financial support the ferry service.

A 3-2 split has been a common occurrence since the March election, but this time Douthirt did not join the other newly elected commissioners.

During the meeting, he also pointed to other unanimous votes to form new committees as indications the commission may be starting to work together after months of many contentious meetings, a goal Black has called for repeatedly.

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There is still much bitterness, however, as the election battle over the city's previous management and proposed new hotel developments, is re-argued at most meetings by both commissioners and residents.

"The city is not moving forward. The wheels are coming off," Lister said during a debate about whether or not to continue to pay former city manager Shane Crawford to help the city until his replacement is hired.

On a 3-2 vote, the new commissioners declined to rehire Crawford as a consultant.