Budget adds firefighters at Sugarloaf

By Steve Estes

In what he described as a “Happy budget,” County Administrator Roman Gastesi unveiled a fiscal plan for next year that decreases the property tax rate on local taxpayers and cuts county spending by just under $1 million from last year.

Gastesi said the budget he presented last Wednesday to the Board of County Commissioners for the first time is .1 percent below the roll-back rate. Roll back is the tax rate at which the county government would have collected the same money as last year.

The 4.1402 rate means that taxpayers will cough up $41.40 per $10,000 in assessed valuation, a number which has generally remained flat from last year in the Keys. The owner of a home assessed at $200,000 will pay $828 in county taxes.

That, however, does not include the ad valorem assessments from other taxing entities such as the Monroe County School Board, the Fire and Ambulance District, Mosquito Control and others. That total, or the aggregate rate, will again probably top 11 percent this year.

Residents of the Lower Keys will see larger tax assessments than normal this year as they will get an increase in the District One Fire and Ambulance rate to fund seven new positions in the career firefighting force.

Those seven positions will go to Sugarloaf Fire Department, says Fire Chief Jim Callahan.

Earlier this year, Callahan brought to an end the last remaining all-volunteer fire station in the county by placing two paid firefighters at the Sugarloaf station.

“The career force guys will be in the station 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. That will include a paramedic and an ALS transport service, which the area has never had. After those hours, the volunteer force will take over,” said Callahan.

The BOCC also has yet to set a tax rate on the Municipal Services Taxing Unit that will begin collecting from property owners in the proposed Cudjoe Regional wastewater system service area. Property owners from Lower Sugarloaf to Big Pine Key will be paying into that account to help defray the county’s administrative costs in establishing the Cudjoe Regional sewer system.

The maximum levy that can be placed on the MSTU is .07 mils. Other areas have been set as low as .028.

According to Gastesi, the lower rate will bring $77.2 million into the county’s coffers next year and covers about $5 million in additional mandates that aren’t funded by any other agency.

The county has to cough up $1.9 million in back Medicaid charges that were handed down by the state this year, it will have to absorb the three percent of employee’s salaries for the state retirement system that the courts took away from the state this year, it will cover costs in implementing a county-wide Americans with Disabilities Act property upgrade and will pay for the costs of the new permit process as a result of a court ruling.

That ruling said the county had to be the lead agency in enforcing the Endangered Species Act after a settlement agreement was reached by the environmental groups who filed against the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency claiming the former was abdicating its responsibilities for species protection by allowing the latter to continue to issue flood insurance policies in sensitive habitat areas.

Gastesi said the proposed budget covers the implementation costs for a new electronic building permit system that he hopes will speed the process for issuing permits to homeowners and contractors.

“We need something in place that allows all the reviewers and inspectors to look at the file concurrently instead of passing it from desk to desk only after the issues are worked out at one desk,” said Gastesi.

The county is also undergoing a space planning analysis that Gastesi said he hopes will allow the county government to consolidate the spaces it has to operate and rent for various functions, saving operational costs in the long term.

There is also money for physical renovations to parks and beaches in the county.

He said that the budget proposal does dip into $5.8 million of the county’s surplus fund balances to make ends meet at the lower tax rate, “But still maintains slightly more than five months of operating revenue in reserves and keeps the $10 million hurricane reserve.”

“This budget marks the fourth consecutive budget prepared under weak economic conditions, and the fourth consecutive year that we have reduced property taxes,” said Gastesi.

He told the BOCC last week that revenue streams other than property taxes continue to show an upward trend and account for about 16 percent of the county’s planned spending in the coming year.

Gastesi said that staff was told while preparing budget recommendations to continue cost-reduction strategies, implement organizational and operational changes to improve productivity, and propose service or program enhancements that saved money in the long term.

Some of the programs and projects covered by this budget include:

The beginning of construction of the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System

Improving efficiency in the permitting process by using interactive voice and plan review software

Completion of work on the new 2010-2030 Comprehensive Land Use Plan

New positions for implementation of the FEMA/FWS biological opinion settlement

Renovations for Marathon courthouse, Freeman Justice Center and Drug Court

A space planning study

Upgrades to county beaches, parks, boat ramps and museums

Road paving master plan

Phase Two of the canal management master plan, a plan for prioritizing eventual residential canal clean up and restoration

“Despite the challenges, including some lingering uncertainty about the economy, the financial outlook for Monroe County remains sound,” said Gastesi. “This proposed budget reflects a cautious optimism.”

The BOCC took its first hard look at the budget details yesterday, and will hold public hearings prior to adoption September 5, 10 and 13. The new budget year begins October 1.

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