Since the City Manager informed the City Commission on June 16, 2105, that a 27% increase in property taxes would be needed to balance the General Fund budget and to meet community needs, a spirited debate over the budget has ensued between elected officials, city staff, and number of business groups and interested individuals.
The debate intensified after the 3-2 vote on July 8, 2015 set the tentative millage at 4.55 mills, which is a 23% increase.
Mayor Andrew Gillum, City Commissioners Nancy Miller and Curtis Richardson supported the 23% increase, while City Commissioners Scott Maddox and Gil Ziffer opposed the increase.
Since that vote, a group of individuals, calling themselves the Budget Hawks, stepped up their request for information, fired off emails, and met with elected officials.
Business groups like NEBA and the Tallahssee Board of Realtors continued their opposition to any tax increase and offered alternatives to the increase in public hearings.
At the August 19, 2015 City Commission meeting, a 45 minute discussion among City Commissioners revealed some evolving positions on the budget.
So, where do the City Commissioners stand now.
TR spoke to a number of sources to get their impressions on where they think the Commissioners stand on the property tax increase and how the final vote on the increase will turn out in September.
The consensus is that City Commissioners Richardson and/or Miller hold the deciding votes on how much property taxes will increase. Also, most believe that the grassroots movement is having an impact by providing Commissioners with another source for information about the budget.
Listed below is a synopsis of the Commissioners position based on public statements and opinions from TR sources.
Mayor Andrew Gillum has been a strong supporter of the full 27% increase from the beginning. He argues that the City has structural problem and needs to increase property taxes to ensure stability. He has voiced his confidence in the City Manager and has made an impassioned plea for body cameras for police officers. He voted with Commissioners Richardson and Miller for the tentative 23% increase on July 8th.
Current Assessment: Gillum prefers the 27% increase, but will vote for the next highest increase.
Commissioner Scott Maddox has been against the property tax increase from the beginning. He says he has never voted for property tax increase because the “majority of our land is off the tax rolls and an increase in property tax unfairly places the burden on the backs of small businesses and homeowners.”
His position is that “Property tax increases should be an absolute last resort.” He has offered ideas on possible reductions in spending at public hearings.
Current Assessment: Maddox will not vote for a property tax increase. The unanswered question is will he try and persuade others to do the same.
Commissioner Gill Ziffer voted with Maddox against the tentative 23% increase on July 8th. His alternative was lower, but not zero. Since that time, Ziffer has acknowledged he would support using one time monies, like the $2 million from the BP settlement, to offset one –time expenditures, which are a significant part of the proposed tax increase.
Current Assessment: Sources tell TR that Ziffer’s leadership will be the deciding factor on if the tax increase is completely erased. Some are suspicious of Maddox’s no property tax pledge, but if Ziffer acknowledges enough new revenues and cuts to hold the line on an any increase, other Commissioners and City staff will take note.
Commissioner Nancy Miller has been a supporter of the increase and voted for the 23% increase. She has argued that the increase is not that much and is required to maintain our quality of life.
As of late, she appears open to spending cuts, however, at the most recent City Commission she said “One thing that has been clear to me is that we have just failed to communicate the need to the people. I have asked the City Manager to do that. We need to make our case better.”
But she also asked staff to consider the BP settlement money and come back “with a lower increase or none at all. “
Current Assessment: No one really knows where she will finally come down. One source called Miller “the real wild card.” Miller is obviously feeling the pressure from business supporters, but she has a history of voting in favor of City staff. She has been willing to meet and listen to different positions on the budget, but her latest comments indicate she thinks this is a public relations problem, not a spending problem.
Commissioner Curtis Richardson is new to the process and supported the 23% increase. However, since then, he has been one of the most engaged Commissioners in terms of meeting with those groups and individuals who opposed the increase. At the August 19 Commission meeting he said “I looked at a number of the recommendations by the Budget Hawks and thought they were reasonable and should be considered by this Commission.”
Current Assessment: Commissioner Richardson, while new on the Commission, has significant ties to management staff. Sources believe that the Commissioner will listen to new ideas and understands the significance of the increase, but are not sure where he will come down. Sources note that Richardson is up for election next year and this may play some part in his approach to making a decision.