At Tuesday night’s county commission meeting, the board set the tentative 2017-18 millage rate and budget. Much of the rest of the meeting was taken up in Hurricane Irma-related issues.
The commission voted to place the tentative millage rate at 8.4909, with a roll back rate of 8.2645. That’s the rate that would be required to bring in the same amount of taxes as the previous year. The tentative budget was placed at $70,501,029. Four commissioners voted for the suggested rates. The only dissenting vote came from Commissioner Karson Turner, who wanted to provide some tax relief.
The tentative rates can still be changed until they are finalized at a special meeting on Tuesday, October 3. The board will meet for that purpose at Clewiston City Hall at 5 p.m.
The vote sparked discussion of the county’s financial situation with Commissioner Karson Turner expressing his concern that young people in particular are being “taxed out” of living in Hendry County because the board is increasing the roll back rate. He said many residents cannot afford additional taxes that he estimated can average about $400 per year.
Commissioner Mitchell Wills said next year, if the county can “get back on its feet,” he would definitely be on board with tax relief. However, the reality is that the county is in dire need of repairing and replacing buildings and infrastructure, he noted.
Commission Chairman Michael Swindle joined the discussion, saying that hurricane recovery could deplete the county’s emergency fund by some $3 million. Before the hurricane he could possibly have supported lowering the county’s tax rate, but that now is not the time to lower the roll back rate in a fiscally constrained county.
Commissioner Emma Byrd agreed, saying the county needs that money now.
Commissioner Darrell Harris noted that from 2007-10, the county millage stayed at 6.5 and connected Hendry’s tax rates with the fact that it has one of the state’s lowest growth rates.
Commissioner Turner wants to put data together on ad valorum taxes and property values to get a better handle on how to improve Hendry’s appeal to potential residents.
In Municipal Services Benefits Units (MSBUs), residents basically “tax themselves” to provide lighting, drainage, roads, mosquito control, solid waste, recreation and other services the county cannot provide. That evening the board also approved tentative taxing rates for each of 19 special assessment districts.
There was also praise all around for the diligent and on-going response of staff, sheriff’s and other emergency services employees and volunteers throughout the county.
A summary of hurricane damage throughout the county had no estimate of damages, but included an initial list of impacted properties. More reports are coming daily, but as of Tuesday’s meeting the list showed 2,100 buildings damaged – 57 of them destroyed. Also listed: 85 commercial/business buildings – 11 destroyed, 828 single family homes - three destroyed, 1,170 mobile homes – 43 destroyed, and 17 multi-family homes – one destroyed.
For the most part life has basically returned to normal, but the discussion on hurricane recovery is far from over.
Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner focused the discussion on debris collection. All the board members were more than sympathetic to the problem and questioned staff on the specifics of debris removal: when would the piles be removed – how many trucks would be involved and what is their cubic yardage capacity – how long might it take to clear it all away – what will be the ultimate cost – and how will the process be monitored?
There are two designated DEP-approved debris collection sites, one on either side of the county. Commissioner Turner suggested that they might be able to find more logistically practical sites and get them approved.
Although no solid answers were available, they did learn from County Planning and Community Development Director Melissa Eldridge that removal could begin as early as the following day.
As it was the board’s first regular meeting since the hurricane struck, it officially ratified the continued state of emergency it had declared and approved it for another week. The board also declared its intention to continue the state of emergency through October. Such a declaration may only be in affect for seven days, so the board gave the chairman authority to continue it every seven days till the time is elapsed.
Commissioners got into the unknown costs of disaster response and clean up, including nine days’ overtime for sheriff’s employees. The overtime was approved, but could not guarantee when the $300,000 requested would come through from FEMA.
Commissioner Turner stated that the county needs to set more money aside for immediate response to emergencies because, “We can’t have critical infrastructure down.”
There was good news – the just-completed repairs/renovations to the Courthouse served well during the hurricane. The two-week old roof came through fine and any leakage there came from small windows and some exterior cracks, not part of the renovations.
There will be three county commission meetings in October:
Tuesday, October 3: final approval of the budget, 5:30 p.m.
Tuesday, October 10: regular meeting 5 p.m. at Clewiston City Hall.
Thursday, October 26: regular meeting 5 p.m. at the Courthouse. This meeting was rescheduled from the regular fourth Tuesday of the month meeting.