WINTER HAVEN – During a three-hour meeting to discuss next year's city budget Aug. 21, which must be finalized by the end of September, city staff pitched several new project proposals.

Staff proposed keeping the millage rate the same as last year. Due to rising property values, however, the amount of property tax revenue collected this year is around nine percent more than was collected in 2018.

According to city documents, when the millage rate was raised a full point last year, and property values were climbing, the city collected 24 percent more than what was collected in 2017.

Winter Haven City Commissioner Pete Chichetto voiced some opposition to the amount of property taxes being collected over the past two years.

“I said it last year and I'll say it again this year — when is enough enough?” Chichetto said. “Two years ago, we didn't have enough money to scratch our heads with and now we have tons of money and we are asking for everything and more. It doesn't make sense to me.”

City Manager Mike Herr responded to Chichetto by saying that it was the commission that passed the tax raise last year, not city staff, and additionally added that Winter Haven property taxes remain the fifth-lowest in the county.

Prior to last year, the millage rate had not gone up for 16 years, according to Mayor Pro Tem Nat Birdsong.

To collect the same amount as last year, a rollback rate of 6.4707 would have to be passed. The commission meets to discuss the tax rate again on Sept. 10. The final rate is scheduled to be voted on Sept. 23.

City staff are proposing to spend around $159 million next fiscal year and collect around $131 million.

The Sun asked city staff how this would be possible without taking on new debt.

“We are using fund equity that is available to be used — not any new debt,” Winter Haven Budget Analyst Mary Zried said.

Zried defined fund equity as money budgeted but not spent last year. Some of the new proposals will be further debated in September.

Herr proposed hiring 30 new city staff at a cost of around $1 million. He proposed giving city staff a two percent cost of living raise and implementing pay for performance initiatives, costing roughly another $1 million.

Herr said the city pays staff less than staff from similar-sized municipalities and that he is concerned about staff turnover. Herr further proposed a hiring freeze over the next two years if his staff proposals are passed by the commission.

Other proposed investments include implementing railroad “quiet zones” through portions of Winter Haven. In certain parts of town, hearing a train horn in the city is fairly common. State and federal laws state that the only way to limit train horns is upgrading rail intersections, making it harder for car and truck drivers to skirt around the railroad intersection gates. City funds will match state funds for the upgrades starting at 21st Street NW, 15th Street SW and the North Lake Shipp Drive intersections.

Around 10 miles of roads in the city will be repaved if taxes are approved as proposed.

Contact Charles A. Baker III at cbaker@d-r.media.

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