EDITORIAL: Additional scrutiny helps city’s budget

Jun. 21, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

The Sanford City Council's decision this week to keep ad valorem tax rates unchanged didn’t sit well with everyone; Mayor Cornelia Olive was among those chafing at the potential fallout resulting from the budget cuts, which were necessitated by the council's late-in-the-game decision to hold the line on taxes. But the process that led to the budget decision gives city residents a little something to cheer about.

Council members on Tuesday passed a $44.1 budget for fiscal 2013-14 and decided in the process to maintain property tax rates at 54 cents per $100 valuation for city residents. You'll remember the Lee County Board of Commissioners’ decision to change the county's sales tax distribution method effectively took $1.4 million from the city's coffers and helped open the door for a probable tax rate decrease for county residents. (Commissioners will vote on the county's budget for fiscal 2013-14 next week.)

That change forced the hand of City Manager Hal Hegwer and his staff; the result was a budget proposing an increase in city property taxes of four cents (or seven cents from the perspective of the county's new property revaluation), as well as increasing water and sewer rates and solid waste disposal fees.

The council ultimately voted to not raise taxes. The trade-offs, of course, resulted in casualties to Hegwer’s budget: funds for paving city streets and curb and gutter maintenance were cut, as were the city's fuel expenditures.

While Olive and some of her fellow council members expressed heartburn over the cuts to Hegwer’s plan, and how the last-minute timing will impact the city staff’s ability to function accordingly, the silver lining has to be noted: this particular budget exercise featured far more debate and discussion than any city budget in recent memory.

Spurred by questions and research throughout the process by council members Charles Taylor and Sam Gaskins, the council engaged in an 11th-hour final budget workshop the day prior to the vote. The council didn't necessarily dislike Hegwer’s spending plan, but struggled with the source of revenues and whether a property tax increase was a feasible and reasonable expectation in this economy.

The cuts were indeed lamentable, but as Councilman Jimmy Haire pointed out: “I don’t want to hold off on paving, but I don’t want to go up on the (tax) rate. All of this is going to bite you someday. We wouldn't have had a problem if the sales tax (distribution) hadn't been changed.”

Lee County commissioners dealt the city council (and the Town of Broadway) a weak hand, but they bear the same grim task as the city and Broadway do when it comes to budgets. Still, it ultimately resulted in most members of the council taking a closer look at the budget than city residents have been accustomed.

We've done our own lamenting here in past years about how little discussion city budgets tend to generate among sitting council members, some of whom have claimed they voted on a budget without ever actually studying it. It helps, of course, that it’s an election year for some council seats, but it's worth reminding that voting on the budget — and setting the property tax rate — are among these elected officials’ most important roles.

Now, had council actually voted on taking a pay cut for their work and engaged in more discussion about subsidizing the city’s municipal golf course?

Maybe next time…