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Ormond Beach Observer Tuesday, Jul. 20, 2021 18 hours ago

Volusia County Council sets maximum tax rate in 5-2 vote

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The first budget hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 7.
by: Jarleene Almenas Associate Editor

Volusia County Council Chair Jeff Brower asked for a 5% budget reduction in all divisions except public safety. But, he was met with opposition from some council members who denounced him for that, saying it would put the county in financial danger in the long run.

This came after a few members of the public asked the council at its meeting on Tuesday, July 20, for the county to adopt a rollback rate for next year's property taxes. In a 5-2 vote, Volusia County set a tentative operating budget of $1.048 million and a millage rate of 5.45 mills, which is the same as last fiscal year's tax rate and is 4.3% higher than the rollback rate of 5.2244 mils. Brower and Councilwoman Heather Post voted against. 

Councilmen Ben Johnson and Danny Robins were Brower's harshest critics on the dais regarding possible cuts to the budget. Johnson said that while tax increases aren't popular, they as council members had to look at the issue from a future fiscal standpoint. He said if the millage rate was lowered at the meeting, the council wouldn't be able to raise it before the budget hearings in September. 

The council, however, can still lower the millage rate before the budget hearings.

According to a county press release, the proposed budget includes the equivalent of about 34 new full-time positions, many of which are in public protection. The budget also includes capital improvement project like technology upgrades for the Volusia Sheriff's Office and the construction of a new fire station.

Johnson said the county can't rely on one-time federal funds to lower taxes, as he said that could mean higher tax raises down the road when those monies are no longer available, or other county services and staff cuts.

"If we hold public safety harmless, this money has to all come from out of these other funds," Johnson said. "And what we could do is we could set this county back so far, so quick that we could be known as the council down the road...that put a county that was in great financial situation and put it in a bad situation in the future."

Councilwoman Barb Girtman said that a lot of the budget items that contributed to the tax increase — Volusia Forever, ECHO, Amendment 10, SunRail and the effects of the $15 minimum wage increase process — were issues locals voted in favor of. She said there may be some areas where the budget can be cut, and that can be discussed at the budget workshop, but for now, said the council should "hold the line."

Post said that every year, the council hears the same reasons for not going to rollback, such as inflation, possible storms and raises for staff, but that there are potential avenues to look at saving money. Maybe, Post said countering Johnson, they should be known as the council who took advantage of federal funds to assess how to better conduct business. 77 million let of federal funds 

"There are potential avenues where we could be shifting our gears a little bit and maybe shifting priorities and really look at saving monies without doing the pink slips, without having all this stuff happen," said Post, referencing the threat of staff cuts. "Maybe that's what Volusia County needs."

Brower said the council did have possible new revenue sources brought before them for review: The naming rights idea for beach approaches he suggested, and the revenues the county could have brought in managing short-term rentals. They can't ask for revenue sources and them turn them down when they appear, he argued.

"For me it's not a promise, it's a philosophy," Brower said. "I want government to have less power so that people can keep more money in their pockets."

The first public hearing for the budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 7.

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