City prepares to keep investing

If Winter Haven property taxes are raised to $6.79 per $1,000 of taxable property value, Winter Haven would go from fourth lowest taxes to fifth In the county. 

WINTER HAVEN – Mayor Brad Dantzler, Mayor Pro-Tem Nathaniel Birdsong and Commissioner JP Powell all expressed support for Winter Haven City Manager Mike Herr’s recommendation to raise taxes by a full millage point during an agenda review meeting Sept. 5.

Commissioner Pete Chichetto did not say he would vote to oppose raising taxes but spoke with some dissent. Commissioner William Twyford did not speak on the subject Sept. 5. It takes three votes to pass an ordinance such as a proposed budget.

The last opportunity for the public to comment will be Sept. 24 when the final budget vote takes place at city hall.

In comparison to other municipalities in Polk County, if the commission votes to raise taxes by a full millage point Sept. 24, Winter Haven would move to having the fourth lowest taxes in the county to fifth lowest of 17 municipalities.

Mayor Dantzler said the city has made many capital investments since the crash of 2008 by taking on debt and that he was in favor of the tax increase so that the city could keep investing but without having to take on additional debt.

Commissioner Chichetto said that with the county commission on the verge of raising taxes $122M over the next 10 years and the city $23M over the same time frame, his personal property taxes would be going up by around a thousand dollars per year.

“There is never a tax decrease once you increase it,” Commissioner Chichetto said.

If taxes are raised by a full millage point, effectively that would mean the city would have 24.3 percent more income than it did last year between property value increases and a property tax increase according to Winter Haven Financial Services Department Director Cal Bowen.

City Manager Herr presented three options to the city commission in July, not raising taxes at all, raising them by a half of a point, and raising them by a full point.

According to documentation Herr released in July, as a result of debt associated with the $25M Chain of Lakes Field House project, if the tax rate were kept the same, many capital projects would have to be deferred for years in order to make ongoing debt payments on the Field House. A half of a point raise would allow the city staff to finance some capital projects and a full millage point tax raise would give city staff enough money to make debt payments on the Field House and finance most other public investments on the city wish list.

After Commissioner Chichetto expressed some dissent Sept. 5, City Manager Herr replied.

“Can (the budget) be changed by future city commissions?” Herr said. “Of course, and you know that.”

Herr went on to say that whichever commission decided to do that would have to face the public and, “say why are we not going to continue to invest.”

Mayor Pro-Tem Birdsong expressed support for a tax increase saying taxes have only been raised one time over the past 16 years. Commissioner Powell said roads, sidewalks, Sertoma Park, MLK Park, the Northeast Complex, Nora Mayo Hall, and Cypress Gardens Boulevard have all been capital projects that have been deferred over the past few years.

“Citizens won’t complain if they see us doing something,” Commissioner Howell said.

Mayor Dantzler said the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, Winter Haven Main Street staff, Legoland owners, and large city property owners all embrace a full millage point tax increase.

City and county staff are both considering raising taxes as property values, and the tax income associated with them, has been skyrocketing of late. Property values went up 12.4 percent last year according to the Winter Haven Finance Department.

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