The battle of the levy

By Jelani Yancey

If the recently elected City Commission majority ran on anything this past campaign, it was on a platform of fiscal conservatism. That platform is about to be tested.

On Tuesday, city staffers will formally present their 2012 budget projection. It will call for a 20 percent overall spending increase and a three-mill rise in the property tax levy.

That’s not the half of it. The same report will forecast the need for a 10-mill levy increase next year, taking the levy from its present 41.916 mills to 54.821 mills by 2013. In raw dollars and cents, it means that the owner of a $175,000 home would – assuming no valuation change – pay $260 more in city property taxes in just two years, from $843 this year to $1,103 by 2013.

And to judge by the spreadsheets, there won’t be a whole lot the newly elected folks will be able to do about it.

Most of the projected property tax increases fall into two areas that are outside its control. The first and by far the most important is the city’s debt retirement situation. City officials project that by 2013, the current 5.497 mill bond and interest levy must more than double – they put it at 12.165 mills – just to keep up with the payments needed to maintain the city’s credit status. This is all the result of a series of conscious decisions made by prior and more free-spending commissions, and there is no getting around it.

A second smaller but significant and equally untouchable area involves what the city refers to as “outside agency” requests for funds. Those include the RCPD, the health department and the library, all of which set their own budgets and pass them along to the city (and in some cases the county) for funding. City officials have long complained about their inability to control these “outside agency” requests, although historically that complaint has rung hollow given the acquiescence of city commissioners who served as members of those other bodies to the budgets. The city cry is more acceptable this year given that a majority of commissioners actually voted against the law board budget, which was passed anyway over their objections.

Assuming the new commission wants to ease the property tax burden, it’s not at all clear it will have the power to do so. Of the 44.951 mill levy the city staff projects will be needed next year, 38.83 mills are eaten up by the bond and interest and outside agency lines. That leaves just 6.1 mills that commissioners could eliminate if they wanted to. But close to half of that is levied in support of employee benefits or fire department reserve funds. To even hold the property tax line next year, commissioners will have to essentially “zero out” all other property tax appropriations.

We’ve no doubt that the newly elected commissioners were sincere in their expressed desires to hold the line both on budgets and property tax impacts. Beginning this week, rhetoric meets reality, and the battle will be interesting to watch.

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