At the first of two public hearings last week, county commissioners along with the sheriff spoke in strong advocacy of the proposed 2022-23 budget as they approved keeping the millage steady.
The unanimous approval came after several criticisms by residents, who contended that in the face of a nearly a 13.6 percent increase in the county’s taxable value, holding the millage steady at 5.4707 mills would adversely affect their pocketbooks.
“Alligator Point and St. George Island are the goose that laid the golden egg,” said the island’s Jonathan Goodson, in leading off the public comments. "Everyone who lives on St. George Island is not uber rich, there are still middle class people like me. My insurance went up an additional $3,000, and you're asking me to pay more to the county when I'm getting clobbered like that.”
Allan Feifer, speaking on behalf of the tax watchdog group Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, took issue with the salary study by Evergreen Solutions, whose pay rate recommendations were approved last year.
“It would be hard to believe that anyone on the commission would have approved this plan, now running on autopilot if they had known what it contained,” he said. “The county will need an additional $5.7 million over the original base year to fully implement the five-year plan rollout in the Evergreen Plan as adopted by you.
“One of the results of the adoption of this plan is that county employees will continue to expand the already large gap that exists today between its citizens and government employees,” Feifer said. “The plan changes every position within the county without cause. The study did not uncover any significant employee quitting due to compensation or benefit reasons.“
Feifer contended the cost of living in Franklin County is lower than five out of 17 markets chosen by Evergreen for comparison.
“The driving factor not mentioned in the study is housing, which least affects the majority of families with established homesteads in the county. This has us ‘chasing our tail’ in a never-ending need to raise pay ever higher due to rising housing costs and a perception of being behind,” he said.
”The equity pay raises, the cost-of-living adjustments, promotional guidance increases, bracket creep, and other factors are forcing a significant rise in future taxation. And, if that is unpalatable to commissioners, forced layoffs or pay cuts as having occurred in the past may be inevitable.”
Island resident Brooke Hunter said she and her husband have two homes, the other in Georgia, and that in the absence of a Florida homestead exemption, they’re going to be taxed 10 percent. “We’re going to be taxed out unless we figure out a way to be homesteaded in two different states,” she said, jokingly.
Sheriff A.J. Smith pushed back at the criticism of the Evergreen study. “A deputy was making $32,000, and now is making $37,000,” he said. “We’re down two dispatchers now and can't find anyone to do these jobs. It is hard to keep folks working at the sheriff's office.
“Law enforcement in the 21st century is different than it was years ago,” Smith said. “We’re trying to provide A-plus service. We do more than just throw people in jail. Could we quit doing those things? Yes, but don't you all want us to continue to give you that high level of service?”
He said he would leave his post “when the people of Franklin County say we’re fine with C-plus service.”
In making a motion to adopt the unchanged millage, which would generate $14.5 million in ad valorem proceeds, about $1.8 million more than last year, Commissioner Noah Lockley said that in his 18 years on the commission, he has seen people “who are not going to be satisfied,” referring to Feifer directly.
“The state said if you have a house in Florida and a house in Georgia you get one homestead. We didn't start that, we got to go by that, and they know that when they bought the house,” he said.
Lockley said In Tallahassee, they start deputies off at $42,000. “They underpaid, all of them are underpaid,” he said. “If you want a high level of service at low pay, that's not going to happen. You pay for what you get
“I want the best service the county can provide, to protect all of us,” Lockley said. “Ain't no need to fuss about the budget. I live on the Hill, I pay taxes, I dont pay as much as everybody. I’m looking out for my pockets too. This budget ain’t been increased, it’s been lowered. We can't satisfy you.”
Because Lockley had referred to Feifer by name. Commission Chair Ricky Jones allowed him to respond to the commissioner’s comments.
“The proof of the matter is you pay almost nothing in taxes,” Feifer said, prompting Jones to note that “Mr. Feifer, we’re not going to go there.’
“I just don't like to be attacked,” Feifer replied. “I believe in fiscal responsibility. The county for a long time has always talked about their ad valorem, you're looking at the highest increase in spending. How are we going to control our spending? This is just the beginning of it, next year is going to be worse.”
Commissioner Jessica Ward, in seconding Lockley’s motion, noted that in her two years on the commission, she’s noted that staffers “have been deserving for so long.
“As long as I’m on the board I’m going to fight for the employees of this county,” she said. “The facts remain, yes, there’s inflation, it's not only here, it is in Georgia, everything is going up.
“I don't mean any disrespect, but there are a lot of people in our county who can't afford one house, much less two,” Ward said. “I’m saying in my heart what I feel. We try to do the best we can with what we have.”
Jones, and Commissioners Bert Boldt and Smokey Parrish noted that the county had tried over the years to hold millage steady or lower it, and that it now must make hard decisions.
“The average taxpayer, the average citizen, is not benefitting from all these people coming here, it’s the average business that is benefiting, and businesses have to thrive or we’ll be a ghost town,” said Parrish. “The average tax paying citizen has to pay these taxes. We still have to provide law enforcement when all these people come here. We have to have the ability to handle the influx of visitors, and that adds to the cost of the budget.
In future years I would like to see jail numbers separated from the sheriff’s overall budget,” he said. “We’re responsible for funding that. I’ve been here all my life and I hope I don't get taxed out of here. I do understand and my heart goes out (but) we have to move forward as a county and this budget is part of that.”
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