County keeps maximum tax rate at 2017-18 level

Hendry County commissioners unanimously approved a Truth in Millage (TRIM) notification to taxpayers setting the maximum county property tax rate for fiscal 2018-19 at the same level as last year, 8.4909.

However, they’ve already instructed their staff to find budget cuts so that they may instead adopt what’s called the “rollback” millage rate — which would keep their overall revenue roughly the same as they received in 2017-18. That rate will be lower, but due to increased property valuations for residents, the amount they’ll pay in property tax is not likely to fall by much, if at all. As of July 1, that rollback rate was estimated at 8.2053 mills.

A mill is $1 in tax per $1,000 in a property’s assessed valuation, so for a house valued at $150,000 after the homestead exemption, an 8.4909 rate would mean a tax bill of about $1,274 while the rollback rate would make the bill approximately $1,231. On May 22, the Hendry County Board had voted to make adopting a budget using the rollback rate their top fiscal priority.

The county commissioners also set their tentative and final hearings for adoption of the fiscal 2019 budget. The first will be at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, in the Clewiston City Hall commission chamber; the final, at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25, at the Hendry County Courthouse in LaBelle.

County Administrator Charles Chapman presented the latest estimated revenue and budget numbers to the commissioners at their regular meeting Tuesday, July 24, in LaBelle, with his recommendation to set the TRIM rate at the same figure as last year’s final tax rate. When he finished, Commissioner Darrell Harris asked, “Were you going to try to work back to get it to the rollback rate? Is that right?”

Mr. Chapman responded affirmatively, explaining, “The guidance document that I sent out for the budget requests (from department heads) asked for substantial reductions in the budgets where possible.”

But there are more numbers yet to plug into the budget, he said. “The biggest process that we have to still identify is the final state revenue numbers; What are the bids on the health insurance RFP (request for proposals) going to result in, in terms of savings; and those types of information moving forward.”

He added, however, that everyone in the county courthouse knows it’s the county board’s intent to hold the line on spending. “Staff is very clear that we’ve heard the board’s desire, and we’re going to do our best to present that back to you,” said Mr. Chapman.

Commissioner Michael Swindle asked, “As well as whatever our loan situation may look like for capital improvement projects that we need to get done?”

“Yes, sir, we’ll have that information soon as well,” Mr. Chapman answered.

At a June 22 special meeting, the commissioners had voted to authorize him to approach financial institutions and price lines of credit ranging from $4 million up to their rough “total needs” price of $5.4 million. Staff members are in the process of doing that now.

Mr. Chapman’s report also listed measures he and the department heads have taken in past fiscal years to keep spending down: a hiring suspension, unless a position is justified by revenue generated and public demand; removal of funding from all vacant positions that are not required; utilization of the county’s Solid Waste Reserve Fund; and identifying county properties that can be sold to private parties.

The report also notes that two cost increases are out of local control — Medicaid spending and health insurance costs. But the board previously voted to put health insurance out to bid for the new fiscal year; Mr. Chapman’s report said the health insurance committee is waiting to receive an analysis of the bids from the county’s insurance broker and will not decide what to recommend until at least the first full week of August.

The county board’s top four priorities, previously set, are to: balance the budget using the rollback tax rate; secure financing to address facilities repairs and renovations; rebuild the disaster relief and general fund unrestricted reserves; and fund the road resurfacing improvement plan.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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