OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee City Council had its first budget workshop of the year on Aug.12. City Administrator Marcos Montes de Oca presented the proposed budget, which he said included a few increases. Overall, the increase would be 0.9% over last year’s budget, he said. The proposed budget was based on the millage rate in place now. (Millage rates are the tax rates used to calculate local property taxes. On mill equals $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of taxable property value.)
Finance Director India Riedel went over the finances for 2019-2020, and said basically, the first half of the year was very strong. The state’s fiscal year runs from July to June, and in July, the state received more revenue than what was estimated. They were at 103% of what they estimated. Going forward, it stayed high, from 102% to 103%, which is a good thing, she said. “The economy was getting better.” Later in the year, the economy began to suffer because of COVID-19. In April, we began to see a change in the revenue. It was over $800 million less than estimated, and in May and June, the trend continued. The state’s estimates for the next few months are 19-20% less for sales tax revenue than last year. Overall, the state received 94.3% of its estimated sales tax revenue for the year. An estimate from the state shows a decrease in tax revenue to Okeechobee city of about $160,000 in the 2020-21 fiscal year. In addition, they estimate a decrease in gas tax revenue of about $100,000. “This is going to be a really rough year as far as revenue is concerned,” said Riedel. She also explained that revenue from utility taxes and franchise fees were down, because some utilities lowered their rates, and because many businesses used the utilities less while their businesses were shut down or partially shut down. “I know I’m the doom and gloom lady tonight. I wish I could paint a prettier picture, but I think you probably knew,” she said.
After going over each item of the proposed budget, the council decided they wanted cuts in every department.
Councilman Bob Jarriel said, “The council represents the taxpayers of Okeechobee, whether it be a resident or a business. We didn’t have a good year. They didn’t have a good year. When I look at businesses that have been closed — like the bars, and I don’t drink, so that doesn’t have an effect on me — but that’s their livelihood and their businesses. I don’t know how many will be back. The movie theater and gyms, restaurants, you can just go on and on with people who had terrible years. I just want to make sure that we recognize it. We represent the taxpayers of the city of Okeechobee. I think we’ve got to do something for our people. We have to take a stance. We have a reserve. The county has a reserve. I don’t know that the mom and pops out there have a reserve. The restaurants at 50% can’t make a profit. The mom and pop stores that haven’t reopened, they can’t make a profit. We are far from being back to where we were at. I just ask the council to look at that as we make our motions tonight…”
While going over the proposed figures for the police department, Council member Monica Clark said, “I know this is going to be not a very popular item, but I’m gonna ask, and I know I’m up for election, and I don’t really care. If we do not do steps this year, what does that total dollar amount to in this budget? Just a rough idea.”
She was told it would amount to approximately $54,000.
According to Maj. Donald Hagan of the Okeechobee City Police Department, the step program is the method used to issue raises to employees. When he was hired, they had a benefit called the Longevity Program. Under this program, each employee received a certain amount based on the number of years with the city. Employees who worked there from one to three years would receive $300 a year. Those working from four to six years would receive $600. Seven to nine years earned $900, etc. The purpose of the Longevity Program was to reward those who stayed with the city long-term. When City Administrator Bill Veach was with the city, he changed this from a benefit to a raise of 1.5% of the employees’ salaries. For newcomers, this did not make a lot of difference, but for those who have been with the city for a long time, it made a huge difference, he explained. For example, take an employee who makes $40,000 per year and has been with the city for 30 years. Under the Longevity Program, this employee would make $3,000. Under the Step Program, this same employee would make $600, he explained.
Councilman Bobby Keefe said he agreed completely with Councilman Jarriel, “I firmly believe we are up here representing the city taxpayers, business owners as well as residents. A lot of small businesses in town are hurting. I’m glad council member Clark brought up the step and how much it would be. Shops in town have closed or are at 50%. Everyone in town is feeling a decrease, but we are willing to increase pay in salaries here at the expense of our taxpayers, who are hurting and not making money. I think we need to think long and hard about that.”
Clark said, “I can’t believe out of all these departments, we can’t cut something. Our budget is going UP $400,000. We can’t afford it.”
Mayor Dowling Watford Jr. said, “I have confidence in our administrator and our finance director and our department heads. I think they have provided us with what they feel like is the best budget they can give us.”
Despite his words, the council asked Montes de Oca to find a way to cut the budget.
“We only have so much money in reserves,” said Clark. “Last year it was $1.2 million we were taking out. This year, it is going to be $1.6 million to balance our budget, and I think it’s gonna be a tough year next year. We don’t have the money to operate, and if you don’t have the money, you cut the budget.”
“At the current rate, if we keep going into our reserves, in seven years, we would be out,” said Councilman Wes Abney.