Possible property tax increases

Last year a group of fiscally conservative residents who opposed a city property tax increase gathered to fight the rise. Citizens for Responsible Spending reconnected Feb. 14, but this time the group is requesting the city revert to its original property tax rate.

The CRS has more than 50 members broken into various subcommittees. It formed informally last year when a small group of residents decided to publicly condemn the initial 27 percent increase proposed by former City Manager Anita Favors Thompson.

The main members of CRS are local businessman T. Michael Hines, former City Commissioner Penny Herman and president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch Dominic Calabro.

The three met with city manager Rick Fernandez and senior staff, including the new budget director Robert Wigun. CRS asked Fernandes and Wigun to come up with a new budget that returns the property tax rate to its old level.

In September 2015, the city commission approved a 13 percent increase on the amount city residents pay in property taxes. This year the increase is expected to raise about $6.3 million to help pay for 18 additional police officers.

Everyone is in agreement for the increase. Fernandez said he doesn't anticipate another property tax increase in this round of budget negotiations.

While it is still early in the budget process, going back to the old rate may be something staff could consider,” Fernandez said.

The group repeatedly claimed city staff and commissioners weren't doing enough to find savings in order to offset the costs of the new officers. Some complained the budget process was not transparent enough.

Mayor Andrew Gillum was steadfast in his defense of the increase.

The city needs to rely on recurring revenue, not one-time payments, to build a sustainable government,” Gillum said.

CRS members were left miffed in December, when the city announced it ended 2015-16 with a $17.6 million surplus, all of which was used to shore up reserve funds. The General Fund which is supported by property taxes and funds police posted a $1.7 million surplus.

In a letter last week to Fernandez, Herman said the surpluses confirmed the increase was unnecessary.

"So many of our residents are state workers who have gone eight years without a raise, or are retirees who have seen their accounts depreciated by past economic downturns," Herman said. "Returning millions of dollars to their pockets is the best economic development tool."