Lee County Commission Chairman Kevin Ruane said Tuesday he wants to cut the county tax rate for the 2021-22 budget year.
In an interview with The News-Press following a workshop session of county commissioners, Ruane said using $42 million of the county’s reserve fund is an important factor in reducing the current tax rate.
The county property tax, paid by all residents of Lee County, is $4.0506 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
Also at the county commission budget meeting, County Manager Roger Desjarlais proposed pay raises for county employees.
“My recommendation would be 3% across the board,” Desjarlais said.
Commissioner Brian Hamman continued to argue in favor of making employee pay raises merit based, but Desjarlais said it is too late in the process to create the employee evaluation tools that would be needed.
Ruane did not specifically call for a tax cut during the meeting, but suggested that the county’s accumulated $142 million in reserve funds is more than needed.
Responding to inquiries from The News-Press, Ruane said he wants the tax rate to drop at least one-tenth of 1 percent below the official “roll-back rate” for the 2022 budget year, which begins in October.
The “roll-back rate” is what the tax rate would be if county spending remains the same. Ruane said he wants to use $42 million of the reserve that the county has banked as part of the tax rate cut.
State law requires that taxing authority deliver a “truth in millage,” or TRIM, notice to taxpayers after local government units formally adopt a maximum tax rate. That rate can be lowered but not increased as the final tax rate decision is made.
The TRIM notice also references the current year’s tax rate, the proposed rate for the current year, and a roll-back rate.
For Ruane, the county has enough money in reserve to cut the tax rate. Even if it used $42 million in so-called excess reserves, Lee County would still have $100 million saved for a rainy day.
If commissioners don’t go along with the tax rate cut, Ruane said he will vote against approving the county’s half-billion dollar budget.
The suggested cut would be in the county general revenue tax, which is paid by all taxpayers in the county. It pops up at the top of most tax bills.
On the tax bill, the county tax is merely the first listed in a dozen different property taxes.
Residents of incorporated cities also pay a city services tax, while those with property in the unincorporated county pay an additional local services tax to the county.
There are a dozen or more property taxes in the unincorporated county, for such services as schools, libraries, water control projects and mosquito control.
A cut in the tax rate does not necessarily mean property owners’ tax bills go down. Rising property values can result in an increase in a homeowner’s tax payment even if the tax rate goes down.
County commissioners have hit property owners with tax increases every year since the tax rate was reduced for 2016 to $4.0506 for every $1,000 of assessed property value. Assessed property values have risen each year since the rate cut.
The five year average roll-back rate since the last county tax rate cut is $3.8808 per $1,000 of assessed value. The current county general fund tax rate is $4.05096 per $1,000 of valuation.
The property appraiser’s initial estimate of property tax values in the county is $130.9 billion. A final figure will be released July 1.
The commissioners budget session Tuesday was its first of the year and the first since Ruane became a county commissioner.
Commissioners are expected to set a final tax rate at a meeting Aug. 3.
During Tuesday’s meeting Assistant City Manager Pete Winton, who handles budget matters, said the budget for the sheriff’s department will show a show an increase resulting from some adjustments to the LCSO pay scales.
The proposed budget mean a 3% pay raise for deputies, proposed by Sheriff Carmine Marceno as a way to address some internal inequities in the pay scale as well as making the office pay rates more competitive with other law enforcement agencies.
“Starting deputy pay, I believe, is about $46,000 and change. The sheriff wants to go to $52,000,” Winton said.
Commissioners were also briefed on the reduced funding level of the county’s 20/20 land preservation program. It is now at $32 million when an ordinance says it should be $40 million.
County Attorney Richard Wesch said that while the county ordinance specifies a balance, it does not provide any remedy for the underfunding of the conservation land acquisition fund.
“It is up to the discretion of the commission,” Wesch said.
Future commission budget sessions could include such issues as maintaining county roads and including more money to address the pollution caused by decaying septic systems despoiling the Caloosahatchee waterway.
In what has become an annual pitch to put county employees on a merit-based pay raise system, Hamman said it would benefit the county through the “tremendous sense of pride that employees feel when they know they are getting a merit increase.”
Desjarlais, however, said a merit pay system is “incredibly difficult” and leads to feelings that some employees are not treated fairly.
“We have this conversation about every year,” Desjarlais said. “If your direction is to do something different we are happy to work on that and maybe do a better job finding some best practices out there that is equitable and rewards performance.”