By CATHY PALMER | Contributing Writer
Polk County Commissioners will put their final stamp of approval on the board’s $1.7 billion budget next week, managing to hold down ad valorem taxes to last year’s level but raising the fire rescue and garbage pick-up fees.
The county board has been weighing budget issues for the past several months as the various departments it controls — such as roads, drainage and emergency services — have presented their needs in a series of workshops.
The board held ad valorem taxes at the present level of 7.16 mills, which translates to property owners paying $7.16 per $1,000 value of their property. It would mean that a property owner whose home was appraised at $100,000 would have a tax bill of $358 if the property owner also claimed the $50,000 homestead exemption.
That does not mean that the tax bill of property owners will look the same as last year, though, because the county board decided to raise its Fire Rescue Department fees by $15 per household — up from $191 last year to $206 for fiscal year 2019-2020.
The hike in the fire fees resulted from needs outlined by a consulting firm which investigated a fatal fire last year. The report the firm produced diagnosed training insufficiencies, equipment failures and under-staffing.
The new budget will allow the county to borrow enough money to build four new fire stations and use its other funds to hire 27 additional firefighters, six new EMTs, replace or upgrade outdated fire trucks and upgrade communications equipment.
There also will be an $8 per household increase for garbage pick-up and disposal services. Those additional funds are required to offset increases in the cost of operating the county’s dumps and increases in the cost of pickup, according to Polk County Manager Jim Freeman.
That means that most property owners will pay about $52 a year for the services.
Commissioners also decided at a workshop session last week to take an unexpected $4 million windfall to pay for replacing much of its outdated and outmoded communications gear.
The $4 million was owed the county by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice for overcharges the state made years ago, said County Attorney Michael Craig.
Most of the county’s departments are seeing upticks in their respective budgets, with most of the increase covered by taxes which go into the county’s general fund. The general fund is expected to be about $428 million, to be used to pay for the majority of county services, including the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, which gets the lion’s share at $173 million.
The budget also reflects an eight percent increase in property tax revenues, up $268 million from last year, Freeman told the commission.
Overall, according to Freeman, the county’s proposed balanced budget is about 8.4 percent higher than last year’s $1.6 billion.
The budget includes hiring some 76 additional employees: 35 total for Polk Fire Rescue; 12 in the Building Department; nine in Utilities; four in Code Enforcement; four in Tourism and Sports Marketing; four in Parks and Natural Resources; three in Land Development; two in Fleet Management and one each in Information Technology, Procurement and Veteran Services.
The new budget goes into effect on Oct. 1 if commissioners adopt the millage and fee rates as outlined at next week’s formal board session.