A return to steady growth in Gulf County will be good for county taxpayers next year, although motorists may not see it that way.
Gulf County commissioners last week unanimously approved a budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year that will see a drop in the ad valorem tax rates.
At a special meeting July 21, the commissioners voted to lower that the 7.1 mill county-wide levy to 6.8 mills, and still raise $13.8 million for the general fund, about $1.07 million more levied in new monies. This is about 5.32 percent above the rollback rate.
In addition, there will be a significant reduction in the three Municipal Services Taxing Units established to help pay for beach restoration, with gulf-front properties dropping by nearly 20 percent, from 1.0232 to 0.8537 mills; gulf-interior properties dropping from 0.7785 to 0.7065 mills, or a little more than 10 percent; and bayside properties dropping by about 14 percent, from 0.8175 to 0.7115 mills.
The tax levy to fund the county’s four fire districts remains unchanged at a half-mill.
“The board instructed me to cut the millage and we have,” said County Administrator Michael Hammond. ”We had a good increase in countywide values, especially in the south end Cape area,” he said, pegging it at about a 11.67 percent increase.
The county’s tax base is about $2.034 billion, more than 25 percent over that of the 2019-20 fiscal year.
While the constitutional officers were all in support of the proposed millage, each of their budgets going up slightly due to higher retirement costs and some pay increases, Sheriff Mike Harrison raised concern the county’s agreeing to fund only $211,000 of his $300,000 request for additional monies would not be enough.
“I requested two positions because I need two positions,” he said. “We have a long ways to go beyond two.”
He said he has 13 deputies assigned on patrol, three per shift and one swing officer. “The other swing guy is taking care of problems on the beach,” Harrison said. “We’re spread thin, ideally we need 20 officers working patrol. We need five per shift, we need two north, two south, and a supervisor in between.
“I want to get there,” he said. “I started to really make your heads roil and ask for four positions. Maybe I would have been at two now.”
“We know people are coming,” he said. “You see it every weekend. Not every week. every day. Call volumes up, EMS is up, traffic’s up. We’re busy.”
The sheriff said the challenge in attracting law enforcement officers to Gulf County is as much due to safety concerns as it is to pay. “It’s not because we’re not paying a fair salary,” Harrison said, noting that deputies stretched thin over large distances means back-up is not as readily available as in other places.
“You know the climate in America, not a lot of people are running to get into the profession,” he said.
Harrison said countywide growth is going to continue, and he would like to accommodate that by adding two deputies a year for the next four years.
“This agency is prepared to take care of 15,000 permanent residents. We’re not prepared to handle the 30,000 to 40,000 who are here on a regular basis,” he said. “It’s about being prepared for the future. We know the growth is here, there’s a lot of construction going on and I want to be prepared ahead of time with what we’re dealing with.”
He said the additional staff will enable him to seek larger grant opportunities, as well as perhaps to fund body-worn cameras, which he said he anticipates may be mandated soon from the federal level.
“I need your help in this,” Harrison said. “Initially I was going to put a traffic officer out there. My guys are busy taking calls; you need to have someone dedicated to that issue. That takes a load off the guys and gals out there taking regular calls.”
Beacon Hill resident Gretchen Mayes spoke out in favor of Harrison’s request.
“Every day it takes me 10 minutes to back out of my driveway,” she said. “I think we all want to live in a safe community.”
Commissioner Phillip McCroan spoke in support of Harrison’s request.
“I’m for as tight a budget as anybody,” he said. “With speeders, traffic, we can all stick our heads in the sand but that’s the plain fact about it. I’m telling you, you ride through the town, the traffic is off the chain. At the end of the day, we have to make hard decisions.”
Chairman Sandy Quinn also voiced support.
“Traffic is not going anywhere, there’s no off-season in Gulf County anymore. We’ve got to help him out,” he said. “We got to give him something now before we vote on this millage.”
Hammond defended his staff’s budgetary allocation decisions, noting the sheriff’s department, which is the largest chunk of the county budget pie, would be getting more than two-thirds of the sheriff’s original request and a quarter of the entire budget’s new money.
And as for traffic, he said “FHP (Florida Highway Patrol) sucks. It’s their responsibility, not the sheriff’s office responsibility. We used to have three, we have none now.”
“I take public safety seriously,” Hammond said. “If you want to cut taxes, we can’t fund everybody (and have to) find other ways other than soaking the taxpayer.
“Your staff did the best we could with what we had to work with, without pulling from somewhere else,” he said. “If you’re going to cut taxes this year it can’t work out.”
Sherry Herring, the county’s budget director, said the county is waiting on some revenue estimates provided by the state, that could total about $1.8 million, to be factored into the budget by the time of the first public hearing in early September.
“Those are kind of important factors,” she said.
Hammond said that while the county will levy about $1.07 million in new ad valorem monies for the general fund, a drop in the state share of the budget will mean only about $784,000 in net new budget revenue
“They funded the state budget on state money and COVID money but not on sales tax,” he said.
After voting unanimously to set the tentative millage, which can be lowered from here on out but not raised, commissioners set the first public hearing for Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 5:01 p.m., and the final hearing for Monday, Sept. 20 at 5:01 p.m.