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County commissioners explore lower tax rate

Property values, sales tax revenue rise as do expenses

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Jun 29, 2021

Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Kevin Ruane is expecting to meet with the Army Corps of Engineers in June about Lake Okeechobee releases. / File photo

Rising property values, a boost in tourism and higher sales tax revenues are expected to fill county coffers according to recent county budget talks. How that will affect tax rates is still yet to be seen though Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chairman (R-Sanibel) has expressed a desire to lower tax rates.

The county’s millage rate is currently $4.0506 per thousand dollars of assessed value and the commissioners have not yet set a tax rate change. Those decisions could be based on the level of surplus projections, which are expected to be more than $136 million.

Ruane (R-Sanibel) expressed a willingness to use more of the county’s reserves to lower the county’s tax rate. Ruane said he believes the county should lower its reserves.

Commissioners Brian Hamman (R-Cape Coral) and Cecil Pendergrass (R-Fort Myers) also indicated support for lowering the use of reserves. Hamman said that even in times of emergency, federal aid has made up for losses.

Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais told county commissioners the tax base has increased by more than 6% to more than $94 billion in property values and sales tax revenue was about $10 million higher than the county expected during recent budget discussions. Desjarlais also recommended that the board give across-the-board raises of 3%. Hamman said he supports a merit-based raise system.

“In this size of an organization it is much more challenging (for merit-based raises),” Ruane said. Pendergrass said he also thought merit-based raises would be difficult.

Desjarlais said for merit-based raises to work, “every supervisor has to do a stellar job of evaluating” performances. “We have so many jobs and classifications,” Desjarlais said. “Not all employees (would be) treated fairly,” he said.

Lee County Chief Financial Officer and Assistant County Manager Pete Winton said total revenues were up about $5 million to $472.7 million for the current 2020-21 budget year, doubling the county’s surplus for the year to $12 million.

Revenues are expected to grow by about $34 million to $506.5 million for the upcoming year, with expenses projected to grow by about $44 million to $504.2 million which will chip away at that surplus.

Winton is expecting revenues to be “much higher” this year due to a busy tourist season and the county is also expecting to use those revenues to make higher debt payments.

Debt payments are set to balloon from $5.8 million for the current year to $14.4 million. They are set to rise another $10 million more on top of that for the 2024-25 fiscal year.

The county’s current budget plans also call for an 8% increase in the Lee County Sheriff’s Office budget (which represents 42% of the country’s general fund budget), which would raise the department’s budget to $211 million. That includes 3% pay raises. Starting pay for deputies would increase from approximately $46,000 to $52,000, Winton said.

Ruane said the raises would make the county competitive with other police agencies. “This is more than overdue,” Ruane said.

Pendergrass said deputies would still not be making as much as Cape Coral police officers.

District 5 Commissioner Frank Mann said he was concerned about a “ripple effect” that would lead to other raises in other departments, including fire departments.

The Public Safety Department budget would increase based on 2.5% pay raises.

Major maintenance on county buildings and infrastructure would go up by about $6.5 million to $21.3 million.