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County plans only slight property tax hike

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of July 14, 2022)

Taxpayers can expect to pay only slightly more in property taxes next year to fund the $452 million budget County Administrator Jason Brown presented to county commissioners this week.

That’s because a 13.5 percent increase in the county’s tax roll – a $9.4 million windfall produced by an influx of new residents, construction of new homes and a surge in real-estate values – allowed officials to maintain the current property-tax rate.

Brown’s proposed 2022-23 budget is $90 million less than the $542 million budget under which the county is operating this year. It’s 4.3 percent lower than the county’s $472 million budget in 2006-07, when there were 25,000 fewer residents.

He said he and his staff took a “cautious and conservative approach” in putting together the budget, citing the “uncertainty regarding the overall economy,” which is being impacted by inflation, supply-chain issues and labor shortages.

“It wasn’t easy because we’re dealing with inflation, as are the people who live here, but we were able to get the budget to where we wanted it to be,” said Brown, who served as the county’s budget director for 12 years before becoming the county administrator in July 2016.

“We’re all dealing with rising costs, but the increase in our tax roll gave us the means to fund our priorities without raising the tax rate,” he added. “While the economy seems to be strong – from an employment standpoint, anyway – inflation is still a threat, so we don’t want to extend ourselves.

“We want to be good stewards and spend tax dollars wisely.”

Brown said county commissioners scheduled budget workshops for this week and, with possible minor tweaks, he expects them to approve his proposal.

Under the proposed tax rate, a property owner whose home is assessed at $275,000 – based on the average assessed value of all homesteaded properties in the county – will pay about $57 more in property taxes next year.

That’s roughly $4.50 per month, but the exact amount of the tax increase will depend on where in the county a resident lives.

“We know our taxpayers are facing increased costs for food, fuel and housing,” Brown said. “We didn’t want to add to that burden.”

According to Brown, the county’s funding priorities were public safety, the health of the Indian River Lagoon and maintaining conservation lands.

Nearly 75 percent of the total General Fund budget will cover the costs of funding state mandates and the county’s five constitutional officers – sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser clerk of circuit court, and supervisor of elections.

After negotiations with Brown’s staff, Sheriff Eric Flowers agreed to a $67.25 million budget – a $7.25 million (12.1 percent) increase over his current budget, but well below the $11 million (18.3 percent) increase he was seeking.

The Sheriff’s Office’s budget includes funding for an additional 29 full-time employees.

“We have a good relationship, and the negotiations were cordial,” Brown said.  “In these times, we need to make sure we’re investing enough in law enforcement. So this was basically a pocketbook issue.

“We couldn’t afford $11 million, and we worked to find common ground,” he added. “We arrived at a number that was less than what he wanted and more than I wanted to give, but we’re in agreement on this.”

Brown said the biggest impacts on the proposed budget are the increased costs of fuel, utilities, chemicals and the bills from the various vendors with which the county has contracts.

In fact, the budget includes a 42 percent increase to cover fuel costs. Brown said the average price of gasoline jumped from $2.94 per gallon in June 2021 to $4.79 per gallon last month.

Salaries also are going up to offset the recent increases in cost of living.

“If you want to attract and retain quality employees, you’ve got to pay them,” Brown said. “We have to give raises to remain competitive in the market.”

Fortunately, Brown said, most of the county’s rising costs will be covered by new dollars generated by the strong tax roll.