Last evening I received the following email from Winter Park Mayor Steve Leary and share it here.
Regards, Pete Weldon
Peter, I received your email “Commission Increases Taxes 11.5%,” and other questions from concerned stakeholders since the City Commission voted to increase the Tentative Millage Rate during our most recent meeting. I offer the following for clarification: Did the City Commission vote for an increased Millage Rate (Tax Rate?): Yes. By a vote of 4-1 (I was the lone dissenting vote), the City Commissioners voted to increase the operating millage, or tax rate. I have heard some claim that the commissioners did not vote to raise taxes. During the regular City Commission meeting of July 22nd, the first vote to set the Millage Rate for Fiscal Year 2020-2021 was taken and by a 4-1 vote a 11.48% increase was moved, which will be advertised on the TRIM (Truth-in-Millage) notice that property owners will be receiving shortly. Unless there is a vote to undo this increase, property-owners will be paying higher taxes this coming fiscal year. From my perspective the most troubling aspect of the vote to increase our millage rate, was that as we look at declining revenues, we should first look toward reducing expenses. Yet during our July 22nd discussion on the Millage Rate I cannot recall a single question or recommendation on cutting expenses. Once staff presentations ceased, Commissioner Sullivan proposed a tax increase which Commissioners Weaver, DeCiccio and Cooper supported. Why did I make a motion to maintain the same Millage Rate that we have had for the past 13 years?: City Staff has been working on this budget for the past few months. They are the experts. Collectively they have hundreds of years of budget planning and city operational experience. Although we anticipate a budget reduction of -2.3% versus our current fiscal year ($59.4 million vs $60.8 million), staff presented a balanced budget with no decrease in services, to the Commission on July 22nd. The proposed $59.4 million budget is actually +3.15% GREATER than our 2018-2019 budget. Yet during 2018-2019 fiscal year city staff operated the City efficiently, providing exceptional levels of service AND put money into our General Fund Reserve. If we were able to manage to a $57.6 million budget then, we should be able to manage to the same or slightly increased budget just two years later. Mayor Bradley set a goal of a 30% General Fund Reserve since he inherited a reserve in the single digits during his term. The City and citizens came together and tightened our belts. We reduced spending and worked diligently to build our reserve since then without sacrificing city services and without ever raising taxes. By year’s end we will have reached our 30% goal with +/- $17 million in reserves. This is commonly referred to as our “rainy-day” fund. What about the “frozen” spots?: We have frozen 15 city staff positions. On an annual basis, on average, we have at least 15 spots unfilled. So there is no expected impact on city services and suggesting so is a fear-based backward rationale for increasing your taxes. The WPPD Chief did not ask for an exception to the hiring freeze fearing for the safety of our city. The deficit in police positions is caused mostly by employee turnover and will not be addressed by raising your taxes. What if we encounter another weather event in Winter Park?: 2004 was an exceptionally challenging hurricane season across Florida. Clean up from the storms in Winter Park was expensive. Yet even with single digit reserves, and without raising taxes, we were able to “weather the storm.” We accessed funds to meet our need and most of the expense from storm clean-up was reimbursed by FEMA funds. If 2020-2021 revenues are off budget by $3 million AND we need to fund hurricane relief efforts to the tune of $3 million (approximately +3x what we spend annually on hurricane relief), we have the wherewithal to allocate $6 million in reserves, STILL have $11 million in our General Fund Reserve AND can expect FEMA reimbursement for the weather related expense. Through sound policy and planning of past commissions and efficient management by city staff, we also have the ability to access millions of dollars from our Water & Wastewater Utility, Winter Park Electric Utility and our CRA. The experts have recommended a 0% tax increase to meet our needs AND we have historically healthy reserves. We do not need to raise taxes and should not be creating unrest by even proposing a tax increase. What else can we do?: We should be looking for ways to assist our families and businesses to help them through this time. We should be encouraging and supporting the private market to invest and create jobs. This is not the time for tax increases, moratoriums or pet projects that detract from our responsibility to our constituents. The global pandemic, civil unrest and resulting economic challenges we are facing certainly qualify this as a national “rainy-day.” Winter Park is well positioned to weather this storm thanks to prior responsible leadership. Now is not the time to increase taxes, but rather it is a time to set an example of responsible fiscal management and concern for residents and businesses. I am hopeful that my fellow commission members will recognize the error of their ways and reverse their vote to increase our taxes. Steve Steven Leary Mayor, City of Winter Park