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Vero asks taxpayers to help set priorities

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of August 4, 2011)

With Vero Beach residents looking at either a $1.3 million hike in property taxes or deep cuts in municipal services. Vero Beach leaders want taxpayers to help set budget priorities.

Councilman Brian Heady, Councilwoman Tracy Carroll and Vice Mayor Pilar Turner voted for the safety valve of  hiking the tax rate to give citizens the chance to be heard over the next six weeks before final action is taken on the budget and tax rate.  Mayor Jay Kramer was the lone dissenter as Councilman Craig Fletcher was absent.

Vero’s general fund budget currently hovers just below $21 million, or about $1,200 for every man, woman and child living in the City of Vero Beach.

Roughly $11.6 million of that comes from either transfers from the utilities or utility taxes and more than half of that is a subsidy unwillingly provided by utility customers who live outside the city.  The airport, marina and solid waste enterprise funds contribute another $485,000.

Only $4.1 million of the general fund revenues came from property taxes this year. That number would leap to $5.4 million should the council opt for the maximum tax rate when the budget shakes out next month. The balance of the budget is funded through Vero's share of the state and local gas tax, communications tax, sales tax, business tax, licenses and permit fees.

"I don't want to do anything that will let us off the hook of being disciplined," said Kramer.

Currently, the Vero Beach Police Department is set to lose four employees and to undergo a major restructuring which would demote some supervisors and  put them back on road patrol. Special divisions of the department such as K-9 and traffic would remain, but would be mostly stripped of funding and personnel dedicated to those activities.

Recreation, which has taken big hits year after year, will scramble to offset reduced funding of $75,000 by limiting access to programs and facilities and by increasing user fees.

During its fifth day of hammering out a preliminary budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year the Vero Beach City Council voted 3-1 on July 27 to set a maximum tax rate of  $2.66 per $1,000 of taxable assessed value. If that rate holds, it would mean a 73-cent increase over the current rate of $1.93 per $1,000.    

The council can go lower than that rate, but it cannot exceed it as budget talks continue into mid-September. The budget, as presented in recent weeks, called for the tax rate to be set at the "rollback rate" of 2.03 mils, but contained in that plan are sharp cuts in public safety and recreation which have stirred a high level of interest from taxpayers.

Heady said after the meeting that he's not only concerned about the new staffers discovering "surprises" in the budget, but also about large financial hits such as a possible $3.6 million in money granted the city by the Federal Emergency Management Agency which may need to be paid back to FEMA.

"There are too many big-ticket items hanging out there," Heady said.

Combined with the FEMA matter, the city's electric utility is operating on a very thin margin with unknown costs to come next year related to consultant and legal fees for proposed the sale to Florida Power and Light.

The budget requires two public hearings, the first of which has been set for 5:01 p.m. Sept. 9 and the second for 6 p.m. Sept. 20.