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Crystal River's tax rate to stay the same

The council and staffers make cuts to eliminate a $900,000 shortfall in the proposed budget, which will be voted on Monday.

By ELENA LESLEY
Published July 12, 2006


CRYSTAL RIVER - City staffers have patched together a proposed budget that will keep Crystal River's tax rate steady, new City Manager Andrew Houston said during Monday night's City Council meeting.

But city officials shouldn't celebrate too much.

The practice of tapping into reserves to balance the city's budget will have to end, Houston said.

"You clearly want operating revenue to cover operating expense," he said. "That's not happening here."

Officials had made clear that they didn't want to increase the city's tax rate from 5.6 mills. A mill is $1 in tax per every $1,000 in taxable property value. So, for a $100,000 house with a $25,000 homestead exemption, a Crystal River property owner would pay $420.

But with the current tax rate, there would be a nearly $900,000 shortfall in the budget.

Officials faced a daunting task: trying to close the gap while keeping the tax rate level.

They began slashing expenses during a recent budget workshop. The council decided to tap into reserves that had been set aside in case the city resumed responsibility for garbage collection.

That would add about $300,000 to the budget.

Members made other small cuts, and then left staff members to make the last $315,000.

Houston presented the suggested budget Monday. The staff had saved money in the areas of pensions and workers' compensation, which had been previously over-budgeted, and also modified the city's health insurance plan, Houston said.

The fact that council members are allowed to participate in the city's health insurance program continues to irk some residents.

"I am extremely averse to paying health insurance for our part-time elected officials," said resident Dee Atkins.

But Houston said he didn't think it was unusual for the city to provide council members access to the plan. Inverness City Manager Frank DiGiovanni said Inverness council members have access to health benefits, though not all take advantage of them.

In addition to health insurance changes, Houston said staffers made a number of smaller cuts.

"It was nickel-and-diming in things like training and travel," he said. "We scratched up money where we could."

Council members will vote on the proposed budget during a special meeting Monday.

In other council news:

* Council members gave staffers the go-ahead to draft an emergency management ordinance concerning mandatory evacuations of local businesses during emergencies.

Not all business owners heeded evacuation orders during Tropical Storm Alberto. Some continued to use sewer services, thus damaging lift stations.

* Council member John Kostelnick asked staff to research the city's recycling services and bring back information to the next council meeting.

He said he was under the impression that goods citizens left out for recycling were actually being taken to the dump. At the same time, people were still paying more than $2 a month for recycling service.

"If it is a charade, why are we going through the charade?" Kostelnick asked.

Elena Lesley can be reached at 564-3627 or elesley@sptimes.com.