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MARCO ISLAND — While many residents expressed discontent with a tax hike others said it could be worse.
Marco Island City Councilmen received at least 1,600 e-mails requesting taxes not be raised, however many taxpayers present at Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting said property taxes were preferable to new fees such as the fire assessment.
City Council seemed to be listening as they deferred a decision on the fire assessment and set the property tax rate at $1.454 per $1,000 of taxable property value, up from $1.2833 last year.
"This council is now responsible for the largest tax increase in the history of Marco Island. I don’t think the one person who said to Council please don’t take this arm, take this one, should trump the 1,600 other people who sent e-mails requesting a lowering of the tax rate," said Marco resident Bill McMullen.
At a prior meeting on the issue, Fay Biles, president of the Marco Island Taxpayers Association, a nonprofit watchdog of city spending, said she would prefer a tax increase over a new fire assessment. Biles said she opposed the fire assessment because it could not be deducted on federal income taxes and she believed the method used to calculate the assessment was inaccurate.
GSG, the consulting firm hired to calculate the fire assessment for Marco Island’s Fire Rescue District reported that 91 percent of the district was used to provide fire service. The other nine percent could not be paid for through an assessment because it was used to provide EMS service, which the state legislature determined cannot be funded by assessments.
Biles said that more than 9 percent of the calls to the fire rescue district were medical calls.
Residents’ arguments appeared to persuade many City Councilors to vote differently than they had in past meetings on the issue. Also, attorney Crystalyn R. Carey of Nabors, Giblin and Nickerson Attorneys at Law, the firm representing GSG, said the fee could be set at any time. If council did not set an assessment at this City Council meeting, the bill could not be put on the property tax bills this fall but could be sent out separately by the city at any time.
"There is a lower collection rate when that happens. No more than 75 percent pay it because there are people who won’t recognize it as a tax bill. It’s just a different method, higher cost with a lower collection rate," Carey said.
With that, Councilman Frank Recker moved to defer a decision on the fire assessment and council agreed 5-2. Councilmen Wayne Waldack and Chuck Kiester voted against deferring the fire assessment.
While the fire assessment caused much debate, little discussion preempted the council’s decision on setting the property tax rate. Council unanimously approved the highest possible rate of 1.454 mils or $1.45 per $1,000 of property value.
The increase allows for an approximate 12 percent increase in this year’s $91 million city budget. City Finance Director Bill Harrison said much of that increase is for capital projects including improvements to several of the island’s smaller, inland bridges.
"I probably stand alone when I ask you to spend a little more money," said resident Steve Stefanides.
Stefanides requested the city continue to fund swimming programs at the YMCA and added "it’s just a few dollars to pick up in a budget as big as ours."
This year city officials decreased funding to community events, such as the YMCA youth swimming lessons, by about $75,000. However the overall budget increased by about $10 million.
Regarding the 1,600 letters to the City Council regarding finding ways to cut the budget, Chairman Bill Trotter said: "We can’t infer that the e-mails from a set of the community is the opinion of all the islanders. We weigh all the input from our constituents."
Waldack said he would like to take another serious look at the language in the city’s charter which limits the city’s general fund spending from one year to the next by 3 percent plus a cost of living adjustment. The cap on spending does not effect capital improvements and construction projects.
"I would have approved a budget cut this year if a cut wouldn’t have an adverse effect on future budgets," Waldack said of the spending cap.