OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee City Council approved a new fire assessment resolution that could lead the way to a fee to help fund the city fire department Tuesday.
While specifics have not been discussed, the resolution was approved 5-0, and allows the city to collect non ad valorem assessments for partial funding for fire protection services, if they choose.
That decision likely won’t be made until budget time in August.
The resolution noted 549 out of 2,017 residential properties in the city play less than $100 in ad valorem taxes to the city each year.
City Councilman Dowling Watford said he thinks the assessment is a good way to make everybody pay something, “They don’t have to pay an awful lot.”
City resident Frank Irby spoke in favor of the fee but questioned the need for additional revenue in the city. He said he had examined audits of the city books from 2009-2014. Mr. Irby went on to state that city revenue is down $200,000 per year while expenses rose from $5.9 million to $6.3 million in those five years. He noted at the same time fund balances have remained the same at $11.4 million. He noted the unrestricted fund balance had dropped slightly from $10.7 million in 2010 to $10.67 million in 2014.
“It doesn’t appear to be a problem with money because there is a significant fund balance,” he said.
The council said they would like to use money collected by the fire assessment to reduce the tax millage.
Mayor Jim Kirk said the city tries to keep the tax rate as low as they can in the city.
“Revenues and expenses are not matching up. The rubber has to meet the road at some point,” he said.
Mayor Kirk added there is a disparity in the wages the city can offer compared to other governments and jobs and they can lose good employees if they don’t pay them well. He went on to state that he didn’t like the long term trends for city finances.
“We can’t keep moving in the same way were moving unless we dramatically raise taxes.”
Irby said the assessment is still a tax and noted he spoke out when the county adopted a fire tax of its own. He said the audit tells a different story than the city council has stated about their finances.
“You haven’t eaten into your fund balance. It is taxpayer’s money that is just sitting there,” he noted. Mr. Irby said all businesses should have reserves but suggested a 170 percent fund balance was too much.
Councilman Dowling Watford predicted local governments might impose a drainage assessment in the future. He said while he understands the philosophy of raising fees and cutting taxes, it rarely happens in government.
Councilman Gary Ritter said he’d had to know the fire tax was a necessity before he voted in favor of it at budget time.
“The devil is in the details. We will increase our services or stay the same? My decision will be based on what it really means to the taxpayer and our budget in general,” he said.
In other action, the council approved sending a letter to the Heartland Regional Transportation Organization to support red lights installed at the intersection of South Parrott Avenue at SW Sixth Street, and North Parrott Avenue at NW Ninth Street.
The Council approved the temporary closure of SW Fourth Avenue and the 300 block of SW Park Street from 5 p.m. on January 22, 2016 to 5 p.m. on January 24th to accommodate the Top of the Lake Art Festival. They also approved a temporary street closed for SW Fourth Street between SW Fifth and Sixth Avenue from 6-11 a.m. to accommodate a 5 K fundraiser race proposed by Rock Solid Christian Academy.
City Mayor Jim Kirk presented a five-year longevity service award to Josh Sanders of the City Fire Department.
The council adopted a resolution that opposes state legislation that would restrict the cities authority when they set municipal election dates.
The Council also awarded a $62,552 bid to Everglades Farm Equipment for the purchase of a John Deere Compact Track Loader with a 72” pickup broom and heavy duty pallet fork for public works.
Charles M. Murphy is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News