The City of Marco Island is poised to raise taxes, send out more than $2 million total in fire assessment bills and add six new city workers.
“We need to allow ourselves flexibility,” council member Jerry Gibson.
The council unanimously decided this week to approve a tax rate of 1.454 mills or just over $1.45 per $1,000 of taxable property value.
City Manager Steve Thompson is required to report this maximum property tax rate to Collier County officials by Aug. 1.
It is possible that the council will decide later to decrease this tax rate, but it was made clear that even if a lower rate is set, property owners will be paying more than last year’s rate of $1.20 per $1,000 of taxable property.
The only alternative is to cut services, Thompson said.
“I have no interest in growing a staff in these economic times… We’ve always been right on the line of whether we could provide these services,” he added.
Since Marco Island incorporated about 10 years ago, it hasn’t raised the property tax rate. The city has been able to lower the rate and keep up with expenses primarily due to years of property value increases.
“A lot of cities have reduced their tax levy, but not as much as we have,” Thompson said.
“What’s different about Marco Island is that we are the only city with a spending cap” in its charter, city financial director Bill Harrison said.
The spending cap limits the city’s operating expenses by an increase in the cost of living plus 3 percent over the prior year’s spending.
“The spending cap constantly limits growth. It has kept this a lean government. That was the purpose and it’s been successful in doing that,” Thompson said.
This spending cap prohibits the city from setting tax rates that vary greatly from one year to the next, Harrison said.
“In a normal city when things are booming they can raise taxes,” Harrison added.
In addition to an increased tax rate, property owners soon will be receiving a notice in the mail for a new fire assessment.
Council voted 5-2 on Thursday to approve funding the fire assessment at 50 percent of the maximum allowed. This will bring in more than $2 million to be used for the Marco Island Fire Rescue District.
Single-family residences will be receiving a bill for approximately $80 before Aug. 4. Multifamily units, such as condominiums, will receive a bill of about $106 and commercial properties will pay 29 cents per square foot.
Commercial properties such as the Marco Island Marriott will “have a heart attack,” City Council member Frank Recker said.
Council member Chuck Kiester voted against this funding rate, preferring to set the rate so that it would raise up to 100 percent of the fire district’s approximately $4 million budget. Property owners’ bills instead would be double that under the planned rates, he contended.
“The maximum allowed millage rate is 10 ($10 on every $1,000 of property value). We could do that with a unanimous vote,” Recker said.
Recker said he wasn’t recommending that, but to raise the tax rate that high would be similar to allowing for the maximum assessment. It would outrage the public when council truly didn’t plan to raise taxes anywhere nearly that high, he explained.
“Why would you take that heat?” island resident Ken Honecker asked as the council decided whether to set the higher rates Thursday.
“I think we need to keep our options open although we will probably reduce both (the assessment and tax rate),” Kiester said.
Council member Ted Forcht voted against the fire assessment, which is what public speakers on the issue urged the council to do.
“I have trouble with the fire assessment. If the fire chief (Mike Murphy) can sell you on this, I think he should sell it to the insurance companies urging them that all their (property insurance) rates should be the same,” island resident Richard Smith said.
Resident Bill McMullen said he was disappointed City Council never discussed the issue of spending cuts.
“I haven’t heard of cutting any expenses ... It doesn’t matter whether you take this out of my left pocket or my right pocket,” McMullen said.
He added that he didn’t understand how Thompson could propose adding several employees at a time when the City of Naples just announced the layoff of more than 20 employees.
In a memo from Thompson to City Council regarding the upcoming budget hearing, Thompson suggested adding three firefighters, an accountant, a human resources coordinator and an information technology specialist in the utilities department.
Code enforcement and another employee within the police department also were proposed, but not necessarily recommended.
In an interview after the council meeting, Thompson elaborated on the requests.
“If we end up not adding employees we can deal with it,” he said.
He added that although cities have different circumstances, he demonstrated Marco Island’s conservative staffing size in comparison to Naples, Sanibel Island, Venice and Vero Beach.
Marco Island has one city employee for every 80 residents, he contended, saying the ratios for the other cities are Naples 46:1, Sanibel 40:1, Venice 74:1 and Vero Beach 33:1.
Marco Island’s small staff, Thompson explained, doesn’t allow the city to cut employees without taking out a whole department, service or function.
He further explained that he requested department heads inform him of what was not getting done or getting done properly in each department. The recommendations for these staff members were to fill those voids.
Fire service had more than 500 calls which were responded to by off-island departments.
“While the frugal side of me says that’s great, let them pay to provide our service, the other side of me thinks about safety,” Thompson said.
Council requested that Thompson not hire anyone but perhaps the police chief until their next meeting on Aug 4. Thompson is scheduled to interview the five police chief finalists Aug. 1.
Marco City Council will be reviewing the expenditure budget, including the proposal to add more employees, at 8:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 4, in the Community Room next to the police department, 51 Bald Eagle Drive.