County commissioners tentatively vote to increase millage rate

Higher taxes to give sheriff’s office, fire and rescue departments much-needed revenue

By Wesley LeBlanc wesley@opcfla.com
Posted 9/15/21

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Board of County Commissioners approved a tentative budget during its Sept. 14 meeting with a millage rate higher than last year.

If approved, the county’s new total …

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County commissioners tentatively vote to increase millage rate

Higher taxes to give sheriff’s office, fire and rescue departments much-needed revenue

Posted

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Board of County Commissioners approved a tentative budget during its Sept. 14 meeting with a millage rate higher than last year.

If approved, the county’s new total millage will be 8.3406, which is higher than last year’s 8.101 and 10.8% higher than the roll-back rate of 7.5232. The rollback rate is the millage rate the BCC would need to set to bring in the exact amount of taxes brought in last year. Property taxes went up so even if the BCC kept the rate at last year’s 8.101, taxes would still increase. In order to prevent an increase, they would have to drop the millage rate down to 7.5232.

The BCC approved its 8.3406 tentative rate after nearly two hours of discussion. However, the rate still must win final approval at the last public hearing on Sept. 28.

Many public speakers attended Tuesday’s public hearing to voice their support of the higher millage rate so that CCSO can receive the additional funding it needs to increase salaries and help attract new generations of officers.

“I am pro-first responder and I believe that their budget request is more than fair,” Erik Soles said. “We need this property tax increase because these people need these resources. If you’ve ever needed an EMT or if someone has ever stuck a gun in your face, 10 minutes [the county’s current average response time] is a long time and it feels like forever. We talk about the hardships [of a tax increase] ... but I do believe that waiting on that floor, waiting for an ambulance to get to you, is a greater hardship than any bill you might receive [as a result of a possible property tax increase].”

Sheriff Michelle Cook asked for a 12.03% increase in CCSO’s budget, which equates to a total budget of $70,098,070. This would help her raise salaries since current salaries aren’t currently competitive with surrounding agencies.

“I’m currently a sergeant with CCSO,” Mark Mercts said. “I’ve been employed in law enforcement since I was 19 and my family relocated here in 2003 to get out of Duval. Clay County is our home and there’s no other place in the world where we'd rather raise our kids and reside. I’m here today as a longtime law enforcement officer, but as a longtime resident and taxpayer as well. Over the years, I’ve seen countless people come and go. We train them here and they leave for higher pay elsewhere. It’s unfortunate.”

He said that officers and first responders work so hard and so much for so little and compared to other counties, CCSO officers are grossly underpaid.

Many others spoke out during the public hearing in favor of the tax increase. Nobody spoke out against the tax increase, but commissioner Betsy Condon said she knows people in her district who are against this tax increase who are scared to say so. She said it’s not because they don’t support law enforcement – she said they’d support this tax increase if every bit of it went to public safety, which it’s not – but they have things in District 4 that could use some government funding, including roads and internet.

Condon voted against approving the tentative budget Tuesday evening. The other four commissioners voted in favor of it. Condon reiterated a stance she’s held since the beginning of 2021-22 budget discussions: she absolutely supports law enforcement and fire and rescue and she believes they need more funding. She said if the funds created by the millage increase went exclusively to those departments, she’d change her vote.

“All of the millage increase doesn't go to public safety and ... that’s where my concern comes up,” Condon said. “I have heard from a number of people in my district...not in support of this. I resent the insinuation that if I don’t support a tax increase that I support defunding the police and nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t really know how to vote on this. The entire half-mill increase is not for public safety. It’s just not.”

District 4 resident Jack O’Hara said he applauded Condon for speaking on the millage increase.

“I applaud Commissioner Condon for being the only one on the board striving to keep to the campaign promise that was made by all commissioners to not raise county property taxes,” O’Hara said. “The board failed to adequately research alternative strategies to obtain revenue that could be used toward increasing wages within [CCSO] instead of the usual knee jerk reaction of significantly raising everyone’s taxes.”

The other commissioners said they support the millage increase because CCSO and Clay County Fire and Rescue would receive some much-needed funding.

“I don’t support taxes in general, but I think in this case, the county needs it and I think our first responders need it and I’m going to vote for it,” BCC chair Mike Cella said.

The BCC approved all budget proceedings Tuesday night with 4-1 votes, with Condon dissenting each time. The final public hearing for the adoption of the 2021-22 fiscal year budget will take place in the BCC chambers on Sept. 28.

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