By Erika Webb
City leaders were mostly all ears June 20, as a handful of residents told them what's needed -- and what's not -- in Deltona.
A range of emotions erupted from the relatively small group assembled at City Hall for the 2013-14 budget roundtable meeting.
Jennifer Luke tried to hold back tears as she talked about her home on Indian Rock Court being one of thousands placed in FEMA-designated flood zones. She wants the designation removed.
"It's time the city takes responsibility for placing homes in flood zones that should not be," Ms. Luke said.
She requested budgeting for an engineering study.
Mayor John Masiarczyk was sympathetic and reassuring.
"There are areas that have never flooded but the feds come in and in their wisdom, or lack thereof, they just plot it on a map based on elevations," Mayor Masiarczyk said.
Recently he received correspondence from Tetra Tech, a national engineering firm that has, in other cities, provided floodplain modeling and mapping for submittal to FEMA for a Letter of Map Revision.
The mayor told Ms. Luke the city manager's office is looking into Tetra Tech's informal proposal to assist in Deltona.
Commissioner Webster Barnaby also commiserated with Ms. Luke, saying the overreaching arm of government deeming neighborhoods flood zones adds insult to injury with economic development lagging.
"I would do anything to help remove these labels," Commissioner Barnaby said.
Streetlights, empty houses, stricter code enforcement and the creation of a downtown came up repeatedly.
Maritza Avila-Vasquez said she remembers when Sanford was deserted, featuring little but abandoned buildings; now she likes to go there and have coffee. Revitalization efforts created an atmosphere that reminds her of New York City's Greenwich Village.
She wants a downtown district in Deltona.
"Sanford is beautiful," Ms. Avila-Vasquez said. "And DeBary is getting there. DeLand has a beautiful downtown. I don't understand why Deltona can't do that."
The question is where to put it.
"Our city does not have any connectivity," Mayor Masiarczyk said.
He said the downtown idea came up years ago during his first tenure as mayor.
"We couldn't have a downtown because of the way (Deltona) was laid out," he said.
He noted the once vital, now desolate Deltona Plaza "almost brings tears to your eyes."
He'd like to create a city center there modeled after the one in The Villages but, he said, the city doesn't own the property.
Nor does the city own the property upon which sits the talk of Deltona -- Epic Theatres -- but the mayor assured citizens that Epic president Frank DeMarsh would love to have a restaurant and retail hub around the theater complex. First the property needs more roads and utilities.
Vice Mayor Zenaida Denizac agreed the city lacks what attracts corporate business.
"Can we make a cat bark or a dog meow?" the vice mayor said. "The city of Deltona was born with huge handicaps. It is what it is."
She explained Deltona is a city of transplants desiring to recreate what they miss in their own hometowns: Some want the vibrancy of New York City while others want the country quiet of Tennessee.
"I'm from Puerto Rico. I want to see old San Juan," Vice Mayor Denizac said.
"We lack infrastructure," she added. "Little by little we're building it ... I think we've done a lot."
Several attendees complained about vacant houses attracting squatters, vandals, and negatively affecting the tax base, property values and overall quality of life.
In recent years, Deltona's tax base, which is 82 percent residential, has been hit hard. When property values fell by more than 60 percent, the budget plunged right along with them -- from $20 million to $12 million -- scaling back everything except public safety services.
Financial Director Robert Clinger presented a report to illustrate revenue to expenditure ratios.
He said Deltona is at the bottom of the list of Volusia cities in its ability to generate property tax revenue with average market values three times lower than New Smyrna Beach and four times lower than neighboring DeBary.
Mr. Clinger said the city is running lean with one employee for every 277 residents and 97 cents a day per resident to provide all services.
"(That's) the lowest in the county. No one is lower than that," Mr. Clinger said.
Deltona resident Tom Premo feared city leaders were trying to ready residents for higher taxes.
"Are you trying to prepare us because you want to raise the millage rate?" Mr. Premo said.
"We're not that devious, sir," the mayor replied.
Commissioner Chris Nabicht and Vice Mayor Denizac explained the meeting was designed as a listening session to determine what residents want.
"Deltona is just not a desirable place to live," Mr. Premo said. "Water rates are difficult to keep up with ... I want to live here and I want to stay here, but I don't feel that way when I look at what's going on in the city."
Since the millage rate is simply a multiplier, a drastic decline in any other number in the equation means that multiplier must be raised to maintain the total -- in this case, money for services, Mr. Clinger explained in a phone interview.
He said it's a matter of prioritizing, and the point of the meeting was to find out what matters most to residents before the budget is finalized.
"The only time I can see us looking at the tax millage is if it's for things you, the citizens, want," Commissioner Nancy Schleicher said.
Commissioner Heidi Herzberg responded to residents by identifying with them. She said there is a vacant house right next to hers.
She said the federally-funded Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which has enabled the city to buy, rehabilitate and sell affordable homes is in its final funding phase. And, she added, the Save Our Homes tax break -- limiting increases in assessed values to 3 percent for homesteaded properties -- helped individuals but hampered the city.
Commissioner Herzberg addressed the issues of sidewalks and roads, money for which has to come from the general fund.
"The bottom line is it costs $70,000 to resurface one mile of road," Commissioner Herzberg said, adding the cost of one mile of new road is $1 million.
Vicki Osbourne said she won't leave her house at night because her street is dark and she feels unsafe.
She wants streetlights.
Mayor Masiarczyk suggested she get together with her neighbors to start a Neighborhood Watch and/or create a street lighting district.
Doug McDonald wants Keysville Dog Park groomed.
It all costs money, more than is being collected.
City officials did not disagree with residents' concerns. They share them.
The mayor invited residents to join commissioners July 8 when they examine the proposed budget, and urged them to keep communicating.
"Send your comments in," Mayor Masiarczyk said. "Don't think we don't read them."