The Volusia County Council will have its first public hearing on the budget and millage rate come Tuesday, Sept. 7, and after some tweaking done in a special meeting, residents could face a 3% tax rate increase.
Per council direction, Volusia County Manager George Recktenwald and other department heads explored two possible budget cuts to its original over $1 billion budget— a 3% and 5% cut —and presented options to the council at its meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 31. The council voted 4-2 to move forward with a 3% budget cut, with County Council Chair Jeff Brower and Councilwoman Heather Post voting against. Councilman Fred Lowry was absent.
While Brower said he appreciated the effort, and that progress was made, he voted against the reduction as he wished to adopt the rollback rate.
The largest budget cut came from Economic Development new infrastructure funding, which will be reduced by over $1.5 million, and includes dollars for incentives. The fund also supports the county's small business incubator program and Team Volusia.
"This is most unfavorite part of economic development," said Brower of the incentives. "... These are funds that many of our taxpayers despise. It's where we're giving money as incentive to another company to come into Volusia County to do business and I would much rather see some tax relief for our local citizens or for other programs in economic development."
The chair wished to further cut the new infrastructure funding by an addition $221,164, as presented in the 5% budget reduction scenario. But County Manager George Recktenwald said the incentives, which come before the council for approval, are often used to pay for infrastructure improvements like turn lanes and water line extensions that should exist regardless.
"Companies that come in don't expect to have to pay for that," Recktenwald said. "They expect most of the infrastructure to be there."
Post said she was willing to leave the economic development new infrastructure funding as is in the 3% budget reduction scenario because she trusted the department would put the dollars to good use, as the money is used for other programs. County Councilwoman Ben Johnson added that when he ran, good-paying jobs were one of the things the public sought, and incentives play a role in bringing them into the county.
"If [companies] have a choice of going to Lake County, Flagler County, Leon County, and they're going to put the infrastructure in versus Volusia County, it's short-term gain for a long-term loss," Johnson said.
Brower disagreed; he said what works is spreading money around at the county-level to improve infrastructure. He believes incentives hurt the tax base. A motion to not reduce the fund further passed 5-1. Brower voted against.
Despite the reduction, there are still $8.2 million in the fund.
The budget cuts didn't stop there. The council, following a suggestion by Post, did delve into other cuts in three different departments: Coastal, parks and recreation, and growth and resource management, and all budget reductions were proposed by the respective department heads.
"These kinds of reductions that have been offered here do not put in a financially-irresponsible position," Brower said. "It's savings. It's reductions in the rate of increase."
Item by item, the council decided whether or not to reduce funding. Among the cuts were: The closing of two beach ramps (Williams Avenue and Florida Shores Boulevard) during the off-season; the beach ramp at Crawford Road in New Smyrna Beach will only operate on weekends in the off-season; the frequency of beach ramp sweeping will be reduced; outsourced educational printing for beach kiosks will be eliminated; two positions in growth and resource management were downgraded; an almost $40,000 reduction in grant match funding for water quality and sustainability projects (as the department states it has never used it in full) river clean up allocations were reduced because dollars are later reimbursed; and one vacant parks and recreation position was unfunded.
That amounted to a 3.8% decrease in the general fund, to the tune of $2.8 million. The proposed millage rate is now 5.3812, which is 3% higher than the rollback rate of 5.2244. It is also 1.26% lower than the originally-proposed millage rate of 5.45, which was 4.3% higher than the rollback rate.
The public hearing for the budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 7, at the County Council Chambers at the Thomas C. Kelly Administration Center, located at123 W. Indiana Ave, in DeLand.