Punta Gorda budget OK’d despite crowd’s opposition
PUNTA GORDA — Despite a chorus of
objections from a crowd of seniors all wearing red shirts to express their opposition, the City Council unanimously approved a $43.7 million budget that includes an
18 percent hike to the property tax rate, at a final budget hearing Wednesday.
“There’s a sense among the citizens the council does not get that these are difficult times for everyone,” said Barry Jollett, a resident who helped mobilize others to attend.
Some 50 packed City Hall chambers, and several said they came after getting an email, phone call or knock on the door from a friend or neighbor informing them about the proposed tax hike.
“I look at the city budget as I would my family’s budget,” said resident Peggy Parsons. “We have necessities, we have wants, and we have would-likes.”
She cited bike paths, Charlotte County’s proposed acquisition of the former IMPAC building, grants for Mote’s proposed aquarium and two community gardens among alleged city projects of dubious priority.
“I think you pushed us far enough,” added Lois Hamilton, a resident of Bobolink Court. “When you can afford to have empty police cars sitting in vacant lots and three (police) motorcycles devoted to Punta Gorda Isles, I wonder how much money is being wasted.”
Mayor Bill Albers emphatically pointed out the city has “nothing to do with” the county’s proposed purchase of IMPAC. Also, the Harborwalk, the Linear Park and a bicycle path project are to be funded in 2013 with an infrastructure sales tax, not property taxes, he noted.
He also pointed out the council held a half-dozen discussions about the budget beginning as early as January. Numerous alternatives to reduce spending were considered.
“As the mayor said, we have scrubbed the budget time and time again, and the alternatives are limited,” added Councilman Harvey Goldberg.
He pointed out the council has eliminated 48 city staff positions in the past five years. The 2013 budget makes no changes to staffing levels.
“We could cut back,” he said. “There will be a penalty on service.”
Grass, trees and sidewalks could go without maintenance, he said. Even a $355,000 repaving allotment could be cut. But such amenities “say something about where you live and what your community looks like,” he said.
defended a $5.1 million allocation for the police department, pointing out only four patrol officers and a lieutenant are covering the city at a time. Yet the city has the second-lowest crime rate on a list of 19 similar Florida cities, he said.
Also, the fire department staffs each of the its three stations with just two firefighters. That’s below guidelines, he said. Yet the department’s response time of 4 minutes 20 seconds is laudable, he said.
$3.2 million budget includes funds to extend an Advanced Life Support paramedic program to a second station. The ALS service, launched less than a year ago at Station 1, already has saved three heart attack patients, Goldberg said.
“I’m raising my kids in this town,” said Councilwoman Rachel Keesling, in declaring her support for the tax hike. “I want to preserve this quality of life.”
She also called allegations the city has failed to communicate its budget plans “offensive.”
City Manager Howard Kunik has said the property tax increase was needed to “bring recurring revenues closer to recurring expenses,” amid both rising costs and a six-year decline in taxable property values. The total value dropped
3.8 percent this year.
The council hiked the rate from 2.7462 to 3.2462 mills. A mill equates to $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value. That amounts to a $31 increase to $301 for the owner of a $150,000 homestead “at parity” under the state’s Save Our Homes valuation cap, and a $64 increase for such a homestead not at parity.
Under SOH, for properties “at parity,” when the property value decreases, the taxable value also drops. For those not at parity, the value will increase annually by the state-allowed cap amount — meaning their taxable value also will rise — until the property reaches parity.
People can view the city’s budget at its website: Go to www.ci.punta-gorda.fl.us, then click on “FY 2013 Proposed Budget.”