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Irma costs sweep away any possible Monroe County budget cuts

Hurricane Irma, which hit the Lower Florida Keys as a powerful Category 4 tropical cyclone, destroyed many smaller homes, trailers and downstairs enclosures where many people in the workforce lived.
Hurricane Irma, which hit the Lower Florida Keys as a powerful Category 4 tropical cyclone, destroyed many smaller homes, trailers and downstairs enclosures where many people in the workforce lived. Upper Keys Reporter

Faced with unknowable needs looming in the post-Irma era, Monroe County Commission members held firm on their property-tax rate and $457 million budget for the new fiscal year that begins Sunday.

“The demands on this county, we can’t even begin to evaluate them yet,” Commissioner Heather Carruthers said of hurricane-recovery costs. “This is not the time to take more money out of our pockets.”

At a final budget-and-tax hearing Wednesday in Key West, county administrative staff and commissioners acknowledged that their proposed budget crafted for an array of services and projects will be largely overhauled in Irma’s wake.

“It will be changed, but I can’t tell you how it will change,” County Administrator Roman Gastesi said. “We need flexibility...We’re still in recovery, still under emergency orders.”

The budget written earlier this summer includes an $11 million reserve for disaster response, Finance Director Tina Boan said. “I expect we’ll use that and probably have to come up with more,” she added.

While the property-tax millage is decreasing, Commissioner Danny Kolhage said he would not vote for a budget that exceeds the rollback rate — the ad valorem tax needed to collect the same $80.9 million raised this year — by 3.84 percent. Property taxes are expected to bring in $83.8 million in fiscal year 2018.

“I have great trouble raising taxes in this environment,” Kolhage said. “People that are in the most affected areas are going to be paying taxes based on [property] valuations that existed in January of this year. Right now, they’re sitting on nothing.”

He cast the lone no vote on the bulk of the tax rates and budgets. Kolhage said state law gives the county no flexibility in valuations with a budget due Oct. 1, “but I sure don’t want to make it worse.”

The county is waiving many building-permit fees while adding staff to process the demand for permits, Commissioner David Rice and Carruthers said.

“We knew before the storm that we needed a small increase this year,” Rice said. “That’s before the storm, guys.”

Mayor George Neugent said he believes most residential taxpayers will see their tax bill arrive as “neutral, maybe lower, or just a few dollars higher.”

The approved aggregate property-tax rate of 3.4149 mills will require a homeowner with a taxable assessed value of $300,000 to pay about $1,024.50 for county-related taxes. Those levies do not include local school taxes, incorporated municipality taxes or other special-district taxes.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206

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