By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
HOLLY HILL - The city commission tentatively adopted its 2012-2013 budget after getting an earful from a few residents about not having budget workshops beforehand.
At a special meeting Monday, Sept. 10, the commission unanimously nodded at a tentative budget and property tax rate. Final budget adoption is slated for the next regular meeting, Tuesday, Sept. 25.
"It's concerning to me that we got to this point without a workshop," resident Steve Smith said. "Perhaps behind the scenes ya'll got together with the city manager and said you didn't need to do that."
In an interview after the meeting, Commissioner Liz Towsley Patton said the city has always had budget workshops before tentatively adopting budgets. She said the practice ended after the hiring of Jim McCroskey as city manager in 2010.
"Historically we have always had workshops and so have other cities," she said. "We didn't have a budget workshop (this year)."
The commission adopted a tentative property-tax rate of $7.35 per $1,000 of non-exempt, accessed value, slightly less than the rollback rate of $7.38. Rollback is the tax rate that would generate the same amount of ad valorem taxes as the previous year, minus new construction and annexation.
The tentatively adopted rate is slightly higher than this fiscal year's rate of $6.95 per $1,000 of non-exempt, assessed value. However, property values in Holly Hill have headed downward. According to the Volusia County Property Appraiser's office, Holly Hill's taxable value declined from about $476 million last year to nearly $453 million this year. With that drop in value, a higher property-tax rate can mean the same, or a lower, tax bill on a property.
In an interview after the meeting, Mayor Roy Johnson said the city commission is on the way to adopting a responsible budget for fiscal year 2012-2013.
"We were trying to get (property taxes) below the rollback rate and that's what we did," he said. "I asked (Kurt Swartzlander, finance director) if we could go as low as 7.35, and he said he could and that's as low as he could go."
The commission also unanimously adopted a tentative general fund budget of $8.8 million, which is higher than last year when it was $7.1 million. The commission is now poised to adopt a package of city budgets that totals $28.3 million.
At the meeting, Commissioner John Penny rejected criticisms about not having workshops before tentatively approving the city's budgets and property-tax rate. Workshops are special meetings at which commissioners can discuss city business, but cannot take actions. He said residents have a couple weeks to review the budgets and talk with commissioners before and at their final adoption.
"If you see something that jumps out at you - if you say, 'Oh, my god, you guys have lost your mind,' we have one more opportunity to talk about it," he said.
However, at the meeting Ms. Patton sided with Mr. Smith and others who complained about the lack of budget workshops.
"I did ask for workshops, even though we meet with Mr. McCroskey," she said. "But there should be some transparency. This budget, I assume, will go through because it's below rollback."
Commissioners may individually discuss city business with the manager, under state law. It's common for city managers to have private discussions with commissioners to find out their priorities when crafting budgets. The mayor rejected criticisms about not having budget workshops.
"Absolutely nobody in this world asked me to have a workshop," he said. "If they had, we could have had a workshop."
In the interview after the meeting, Ms. Patton reasserted that she did ask for budget workshops.
"Over the course of this year, we've spent a lot of money that has not had any transparency with the public," she said.
The meeting was moved to Sept. 10 from its regularly-scheduled time of Sept. 11, because the Volusia County School Board was adopting its fiscal year 2012-2013 budget that day. The state prohibits cities from taking budget votes on the same day as their counties' school boards. Commissioner Donnie Moore, a critic of property taxes, wasn't at the meeting. In a telephone discussion after the meeting, he declined to comment on the commissions' actions until he could get additional information.