VENICE — The Venice City Council formally adopted a city budget Tuesday based on 3.700 mills for Fiscal Year 2020.

It’s the same millage rate as this year.

As far back as June, council members stated they weren’t interested in approving a tax increase this year. One mill equals $1 per $1,000 of a property’s assessed taxable value.

In addition, the FY 2020 Debt Service Millage Rate was set at .6200 mills, which is a decrease from the current .6380 mills.

The unanimous vote to keep property taxes the same wasn’t without some controversy.

Criticism given

Some Council members criticized the fledgling Venice Taxpayers Watch, and its leader Mike Rafferty, a Bay Indies resident, for what the Council called the dissemination of incorrect information.

Bob Daniels, who is running for mayor following three consecutive council terms, took the opportunity to read from a prepared statement, calling Rafferty’s “false statements” a tactic to blame the city for the mobile home park’s tax rate.

“One statement from Mr. Rafferty was that Bay Indies taxes will be raised by the amount of 188%. It was their landlord property owner who will be raising costs because the Sarasota County appraiser reassessed land values and will be raising taxes,” Daniels said. “This land tax increase has nothing to do with the City of Venice tax millage rate. No tax millage rate is being increased by Venice.”

Mayor John Holic said Bay Indies renters were given a chance to purchase their lots at around $30,000, but they’d lose the homestead exemption.

“Very few wanted to purchase their own lot, so a trust took over. That is a choice homeowners made at that time,” Holic added.

Daniels also accused Rafferty of inflating numbers to paint the city’s mill rate history in the worst light.

“Mr. Rafferty said that we had raised taxes over 44% since 2010. His numbers included the voted debt tax for police station and road resurfacing that residents voted for,” Daniels said.

Council Member Rich Cautero noted that some of that increase was mandated by the state pension program, otherwise the tax rate would have risen only 15% over the same period.

“I find that most of Mr. Rafferty’s numbers do not reflect what is truth and continues to waste tax payers’ money in paying for staffs’ time to research these issues,” Daniels said. “What needs to be understood in all of our budgeting is that we are always faced with a (annual) 10% health care increase, and 3% to 4% annual employee raises to keep competitive with other employers. Also, inflation reduces revenues.”

Criticism returned

Rafferty responded by email Tuesday, saying Daniels was wrong.

“I have always fact checked my information” Rafferty wrote. “The comments at the meeting regarding my ‘many errors,’ ‘misinformation,’ and ‘fake news’ are unfounded.”

Regarding the statement about Bay Indies taxes will be raised by the amount of 188%, Rafferty said, “to the best of my ability I have searched my data and have not found anywhere that I have used that figure. I was not the source of that figure and Mr. Daniels has wrongfully attributed that to me.”

He stood by his claim that the city tax rate has gone up 44% since 2010.

“The statement that ‘many incorrect statements and false data were reported’ is a wildly generalized statement without substantiating information,” Rafferty said.

Rafferty has consistently criticized growth in the city, and Council specifically for approving land development projects.

Daniels pointed out the city Finance Department has reported for the third straight year that the budget is “based on property tax largely from 300 new homes.”

“Without that, a millage increase would be needed,” he said.

Bottom line: Property values went up last year, and so will taxes this year for that reason, but it’s not the city’s doing, Daniels said. Sarasota County’s total estimated taxable property values rose by 6.2 percent over last year to $62 billion. Venice’s total property values went up 5 percent to $5.2 billion.

Bay Indies Mobile Home Park, in particular, will see a 10% increase in their rates, capped at that level, due to the reappraisal ordered by Sarasota County after the ownership transfer, suggesting the park may have been undervalued for a period of time following the Great Recession.

Budget

In separate action, Council formally adopted next year’s city budget of $129.4 million.

It largely follows last years budget with a few significant changes. One is taking over ambulance service from the county. The new service will cost an additional $1.2 million next year. Add that to several big ticket capital projects and you have the rationale for tapping into excess General Fund balance monies to make up the difference.

Council lauded staff for its creative financing that was able to handle so many large projects without causing a millage increase.

“When you see what has happened, it shows some excellent management, with support from this and previous councils,” said Council Member Charles Newsom. “Having had real estate in many other states in the U.S.” over the years, he said, “I can tell you our tax rate here in Venice is a real bargain. Excellent, maybe to a faul,t because our services are so good.”

“Many municipalities have raised their millage significantly (this year) while Venice has not,” he said. “Kudos to our staff city manager for a job well done.”

During the audience participation of the meeting no members of the public rose to speak to either setting the mill rate or next year’s budget.

A final public hearing on the mill rates and budget is set for 5:01 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 24.

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