County won’t feel sequester sting yet

By Steve Estes

The federal funding cuts that were allowed to take place earlier this year won’t have a seriously detrimental effect on Monroe County’s budget picture prior to the new fiscal year, but next year is an uncertain premise.

That was the message passed out by County Administrator Roman Gastesi recently during the county’s first budget workshop in preparation for the 2014 fiscal year budget cycle.

The biggest loser may be the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office where the corrections division stands to lose about $400,000 as immigrant detainees are cut back at the jail.

According to Gastesi’s chart, planned road projects for the remainder of this year and next year should not be affected, but the county stands to lose some $80,000 in its Health and Human Services budget to support programs for the aging, meal programs and caregiver programs.

The county receives about $317,000 per year from the federal government as payment in lieu of property taxes. Lands owned by the federal government, which is a significant portion of Big Pine and Boca Chica, are not on the county’s property tax rolls. To offset the county’s costs in providing services to those lands, such as fire protection and growth management, the feds pay a lump sum. Gastesi says he expects that payment to drop by about $17,000 next year.

He also said he expects future grant funding in the areas of Environmental Protection and Energy to be sliced next year by the average across-the-board cuts at the federal level of five percent. The county recently used an EPA grant to fund the beginning studies of its canal restoration project. Weatherization grant monies come from the Department of Energy and may result in fewer lower income residents receiving those services.

Gastesi said he also expects federal cuts to hit several areas of child welfare, public health, substance abuse and mental health, rental assistance, child care, after school care and homeless assistance.

That won’t directly impact the county budget since those programs subsist on federal grants, but it might mean that more agencies turn to the county to take up the funding slack through the Human Services Advisory Board funding mechanism.

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners has already determined that it will keep HSAB funding for the next fiscal year equal to this year.

Gastesi said the loss of that funding might impact county residents who make use of the programs.

He anticipates that the county will be able to lower its property tax rate this year after initial information from the property appraiser’s office that assessed values here are going up for the first time in five years.

Valuations peaked in 2008 at almost $27 billion, but have steadily declined over the last four years to roughly $19 billion last year.

“We have seen the bottom of the housing collapse and are starting to see an upward trend,” said Gastesi. “We’re about back to the levels we saw in 2002 or 2003 and we’re seeing a more normal rate of increase.”

Historically, Florida Keys properties rise about six percent per year in assessed value. That’s the number Gasetsi believes the county will see this year.

He told commissioners that the early budget projections show a healthy fund balance of about three months of operating expenses, as well as the hurricane recovery fund of about $10 million.

“We still have to be careful and prudent,” said Gastesi. “But our economy is showing definite signs of recovery.”

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