Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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County Budget Season Officially Underway
Raising Taxes & Fees is The 5's "MO" This Year

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –  Yesterday morning officially marked the kickoff of Columbia County budget season. County Manager Ben Scott's PowerPoint presentation set a record with 177 slides. He got through 120 of them. Because of exhaustion, appointments, and a general mind numbing, after a lunch break and three and a half hours of exploring ways to raise taxes, fees, and anything else they could find, The 5 adjourned the meeting until 3 pm on May 3.

The Fire Department

First on the agenda was a discussion of the fire department.

Fire Chief Jeff Crawford was at the microphone for just about an hour and a half, explaining the need for equipment and vehicle replacement schedules.

In 2006, Columbia County established its fire department. It wasn't clear why any of the County management or any of The 5 hadn't thought of this before, as the only newly elected commissioner is Tim Murphy.

Chief Crawford also explained the reason for the failure of the County FD to keep firefighters with advanced training certificates and medical qualifications: lack of competitive pay.

As the extended FD conversation concluded, Commissioner Nash quipped that the County should look into going back into the ambulance (EMS) business.

Your reporter asked if that was a joke.

Commissioner Nash answered, "Yeah."

It was his business partner, Commissioner Jody DuPree, who led the charge for the County divesture of its County run ambulance service.

Experts and citizens alike believe this may have been one of the most inane decisions ever in the history of the County 5.

Fire rates for a single family dwelling are expected to go up minimally 17.68% and the assessment for between 5 and 160 acres of unimproved land is scheduled to rise 16.52%.

Salaries for the firefighters are not scheduled for an increase and not included in the assessment increases.

Gas Tax

The county is maxed out on all the sources of revenue from gas and fuel tax with one exception.

Leaving no stone unturned, there is still one option left to The 5, the local option gas tax which according to the County is now zero.

The 5 would like to raise this tax to 5 cents a gallon.

Ad Valorem Tax

This is the tax on your house or property. The County 5 can raise this tax just under 20%. They are thinking about it.

County Debt

County Manager Ben Scott

Columbia County is run by one County Manager and two Assistant County Managers. Two have MBAs and one is a high school graduate, who at one time thought he had a degree.

The County's presentation did not include a spreadsheet, pie chart, graph, or anything which put the entire county's debt into a singular recognizable form and never has.

With the present County Management, this appears to be by design. MBAs know how to do this.

One slide claims the total County debt, excluding leases is $11,247,409.

Leased Space: Ongoing Expenses

The County leases numerous buildings.

The County 5 never had enough respect for itself or it citizens to build its own municipal complex in which to hold its meetings and conduct its day-to-day business.

Some of the County leases were arranged with the County's extended family of good ole' boys.

According to the County, it is paying $280,000 in annual lease space payments.

When the cost of money was low, the County could have borrowed almost $6,000,000 to build its own municipal building for what it pays now in yearly lease fees.

In 2003, the old Lake City Medical Center was privately appraised for $2,450,000. The Property Appraiser valued the building at $917,174.

In 2016, the Property Appraiser valued the property at $1,487,715.

 According to County figures, it is now paying $198,490 a year for space in the old Lake City Medical Center plus utilities. The County is not the only tenant.

The Future

Coming up at the continued budget workshop is a discussion of the Sheriff's detention center.

The Sheriff's budget is not on the County's docket for future discussion.

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