The Port Orange City Council discussed a small tax increase as it began finalizing a budget for 2010 in a workshop Aug. 27.

The millage rate for the upcoming year was set at a maximum of 4.5677. At that rate, a homeowner in Port Orange could expect to see about a $10 to $25 increase from what they paid last year, depending on the cost of their home and the tax exemptions they have.

With the 4.5677 millage rate, property taxes would generate about $14.95 million. The finance director pointed out 884 residential properties in Port Orange, or about 4%, do not pay any property taxes due to exemptions.

The proposed budget is about $1.3 million more than last year’s budget. The majority of the increase is due to increased personnel costs in salaries, health insurance, worker’s compensation and retirement contributions. Those costs make up close to 70% of the budget increase over last year.

Most of the discussion centered on general fund expenditures. The finance director explained that for the enterprise funds, including stormwater, solid waste and water and sewer, the rates for customers would remain the same. Because those funds operate separately from the general fund, they do not have an impact on the millage rate or property taxes that people pay. City Manager Jake Johansson added that in the near future there will be some discussion on the need to raise garbage rates, which is something all local governments are having to contend with.

In reviewing some of the other areas that show increased expenditures for next year, the city manager explained to the council employee training and travel per diem are proposed to be increased to allow employees to attend conferences, training seminars and other networking opportunities that he feels are invaluable to keeping staff up-to-date in their respective fields.

The travel per diem is proposed to increase $38,265 and employee training $24,695. These represent a 36% and 21% increase respectively.

Councilwoman Marilyn Ford questioned whether those increases could be reduced.

City Manager Johansson was adamant about the value of the educational opportunities. “I feel this is so important. I would forgo my wage increase in October to get this because my people are more important than that raise to me,” he stressed.

Councilwoman Ford responded. “Mr. Manager, the only thing I’m asking is that you understand that this is taxpayer dollars and I’m asking you to take another look. I’m not questioning that staff isn’t valuable, but when we first met in July, we were presented with a document that said this is what you need to add. Council directed you to go back and take another look and low and behold, you came back with economies. That’s all I’m asking you here and I’m pointing out that there are some areas to do that,” she explained.

Staff provided a list of items the council had discussed in past meetings, but said they would like more time to decide whether to include them in the budget. City Manager Johansson said they were all in the budget, but if the council wanted to remove some or all of them, they could see what the end result would be to the proposed millage rate heading into the public hearings.

The council by consensus approved keeping the fire station equipment, a new forklift, a turf machine for the ballfields, a truck for the fire inspector and replacement of the air conditioning in the adult center in the budget.

To reduce the cost of some of the proposed new positions, the council included funding for certain positions for either nine months or six months rather than the whole year, saying that by the time they advertised and interviewed, it would move them further into the fiscal year before those expenses were realized.

Councilman Scott Stiltner voiced his opinion they shouldn’t short change the additional code enforcement hires.

“My thoughts are that there’s a lot of places in the city that are aging, that need more code enforcement oversight,” he said. “And we have kicked the can for a really long time and have without question outgrown the abilities for our current code enforcement staff to deliver that type of oversight that we especially need in the older areas of the city. You have to have people if the objection is to keep the city looking good.”

Although Mayor Don Burnette agreed with him the need was there, he also agreed with Councilwoman Ford, who felt they had to balance the code enforcement staffing needs with the other personnel additions requested. By holding off on some of the hires until later in the year, they were able to approve everything else on the list.

After taking all the changes into consideration, the end result was a proposed millage rate of 4.5461 heading into the September public hearings. The finance director noted the proposed rate was 4% over the rollback.

Vice Mayor Chase Tramont said at the conclusion of the meeting he wanted to explain his position on certain items.

“While I say ‘no’ to a lot of these items, it’s not that I don’t think they’re not important,” he said. “And I think we have got the best staff imaginable. Where I’m conflicted time and time again is that every dollar that I agree to is a dollar we don’t have. I’ve got to go and ask for it from the taxpayer. I don’t operate my personal funds that way. I can’t in good conscience operate with other people’s money that way. It’s not to discount the importance of things.”

Councilwoman Ford urged staff to keep working. “Well, I think we’ve moved the rate down a little,” she began. “I’d like to see it go down another half percent. I suspect that the department directors know where they can squeeze some and I would hope that the city manager could work with them to wring out a little bit more because I think that would be the best for our citizens, for them to have confidence that we’re doing all we can. If we can’t find another half million dollars in a $40 million budget, then we’re not doing our jobs,” she said.

The public hearings on the budget are scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Sept. 11 and 24.

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