Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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County Commission News

County holds final budget hearing
Welcome to Death Valley

A big almost empty room.
At the conclusion of the public comment session of the public hearing, Commissioner Williams asked for public comment from the all but empty room.

This year's Columbia County Commission final budget hearing, which occurred on September 23d, could have been held in Death Valley, with only a very small handful of residents showing up. After three years of planning, Florida's most discourteous and rudest group of public officials, the Columbia County Commission, has succeeded in making sure that County budget hearings don't occur on the night of a County Commission meeting, where at least some members of the public might be in attendance. After the usual presentations by the County Manager your reporter was the only questioner.

This year when your reporter asked the County Manager how much money the County had in the bank, there were not the usual evasions to explain that the money in the bank really was not money in the bank. As the county bookkeeping scandals widen, CM Dale Williams played it straight up this year. At the twelfth hour the county made the figures available.

The cash balance forward for fiscal year (FY) 2010, this year, which is over tomorrow is $33,595,000.

This year's ending cash reserves are estimated to be $23,191,831. Total the two of them and you come up with how much cash money the county has in the bank. This year the figure is $ 56,786,831.

For next year, FY 2011, which begins on Friday, the county is estimating an ending cash balance of $29,710,000.  This represents a decrease of $3,885,000 or a reduction of 11.6%. The information presented at the budget hearing is inadequate to determine the reasons for this reduction.

The County Commission only asked one question.
It was about Lake City.

Commissioner Dewey WeaverNot one of the Commissioners had a single question about this year's $92,795,902 County budget. However, just before the Commission was going to approve the County budget, Commissioner Weaver (photo), in an obviously scripted exchange, thinking that he had hit sniping pay dirt, questioned County Manager Dale Williams about the City budget and how the City got "around" advertising a millage increase.

County Manager Dale WilliamsCounty Manager Williams (photo) was ready with his answer: "If the City in fact raised millage, I know of no reason their notice should not have said, 'The City is proposing a tax increase' and I know of no way that you can avoid that. In fact - they do have a millage increase – their legal notice should have reflected a tax increase statement."

On Friday, the Observer checked with Columbia County Property Appraiser, Doyle Crews' office regarding this. Mr. Crews was out of the office.

Should the City's legal notice have "reflected a tax increase statement?"

This part of Florida law is clear and not complicated. According to TRIM (Truth In Millage), any millage rate in excess of the rolled-back rate is considered to be a tax increase and is to be advertised as such.

The Observer spoke with Lake City, City Manager Wendell Johnson regarding the Weaver-Williams claim that the City erred in its tax advertising.

City Manager Johnson:  "We advertised the maximum we could advertise. We had no intention at the time of enacting that rate, however the law allowed us to advertise a rollback rate of 4.003 and that is what we did."

The Observer: "Last year the city millage rate was 3.7741."

City Manager Johnson: "That's right and if we would have raised the millage over the roll back rate of 4.003, we would have had to advertise a tax increase, but we raised the millage to 3.9816, which while it represents an increase over last year's millage rate, it does not constitute a tax increase and doesn't have to be advertised as such, because the City is not getting any more taxes than it did last year."

The Observer: "Before you go, can you tell me how the millage rates of Lake City compare with cities of comparable size?"

City Manager Johnson:  Our millage rate is well below the average of cities our size.

Sheriff Mark Hunter and His Budget

Depending on whose budget one reads and the time of day, the Sheriff's Office consumes just over, or under, $12,000 000.

The Sheriff develops his own budget, decides his expenditures independent of the County Commission, and although the County has to approve his budget, once the money is appropriated, they cannot tell him how to spend his money.

Sheriff Hunter is Columbia County's top law enforcement official. He is a Constitutional Officer. He will tell you that he is committed to doing a good job. He will tell you that because he is elected by the people he represents all the people.

At the conclusion of the County's final budget hearing the Observer asked Sheriff Hunter why he did not present his budget and answer questions folks might have. He said he didn't know why he should, but offered to answer any questions I had.

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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