Cut animal adoptions?
Citizens hear of proposal
COLLIER COUNTY — Homeless pets stay sheltered. Collier County workers keep their jobs. Libraries will not close. Economic development leaders will get their share of county money.
After a grueling and emotional Tuesday, county commissioners worked out a number of compromises by knocking down county reserve money and leaning toward a tentative increase in taxes.
County officials headed into budget sessions on Monday morning with a choice of tax rates: keep the current rate of $3.14 per $1,000 worth of property, and chop $30 million from the county’s “must have” list; or, raise taxes to $3.60 per $1,000 worth of property.
The first rate is referred to as millage neutral and would support a general budget of $310.09 million. The second has been termed tax neutral, and would bring in the same amount of money next year that the county has this year, supporting a general budget of $340.97 million
At the end of Tuesday’s debates, commissioners were playing with a tax rate in the vicinity of $3.51 per $1,000 worth of property, which would represent an approximately 11 percent increase in taxes.
The tax rate does not have to be set until the end of July.
One of the commission’s most pressing problems was pretty much resolved Monday, when Sheriff Kevin Rambosk offered the county inmate labor to staff the Domestic Animal Shelter department.
Word got around two weeks ago that if numbers didn’t change, DAS would have to euthanize more animals than it already does. With county leaders calling for preparation for two budgets – one at a 3 percent cut and one at a 15 percent cut – county agency director Amanda Townsend just didn’t think she would have enough workers to continue to care for all the strays.
That news set off a series of protests by animal lovers in Southwest Florida.
Monday, Rambosk noted that with the closing of the Immokalee jail center and reallocation of corrections staff, he could combine contracts for the division of animal services, and county garage cleaning, without having to assess any costs.
He reiterated that plan Tuesday morning, to the joy of commissioners, who did not know how to deal with the room filled with animal lovers.
Tuesday, even commissioners wore the badges that stated “No 15 percent Cut for DAS.”
Observing a room filled with animal lovers and activists, Chairwoman Donna Fiala asked how many folks voted to reduce taxes last year.
Few people raised their hands.
“C’mon. Raise your hands. You know you all did,” said Commissioner Fred Coyle.
The hands remained down.
Then, Fiala asked if residents would mind paying a little bit more money each year to keep existing services in place, and asked them to raise their hands if they would be so willing.
Most of the room did.
Coyle suggested keeping the DAS budget at the tax neutral level, and the rest of the commissioners agreed. Animal lovers cheered, stood up, applauded the commissioners, and hugged each other.
It was one of those days.
Usually, government bodies do not make commitments this early in the budget process. The first two days are for listening to presentations. The next month is for calculations on how to make necessary cuts, or restore services. Then, at the end of July, the commissioners would set a maximum tax rate.
But on Monday and Tuesday, there was too much emotion, too many protests, and too much confusion.
A suggestion made Monday failed to move forward Tuesday. That was an idea to furlough every county employee for one day a month. It would include administrators and commissioners.
But Commissioner Frank Halas didn’t want county employees to suffer the lost wages or county residents to endure fewer services.
“When you furlough people, you are cutting services, and people are not going to be happy,” Halas said.
His greatest concern was that County Manager Jim Mudd’s staff and the commissioners are the first line of defense for those who need county services.
Commissioner Jim Coletta agreed.
“We have to keep our staff intact. We’ve already had cuts of 20 percent,” Coletta said. Further reduction of staff would cause resident issues to fall on commissioners’ shoulders.
Commissioner Fred Coyle disagreed.
He felt that employees could dig down deep and come up with cuts that would save taxpayer money, while preserving staff positions.
Commissioner Tom Henning kept a close watch on the fund transfers and debt service, making sure taxpayers don’t get stuck carrying too heavy a burden.
Mudd tore through the list while commissioners were still debating, and came up with a considerable number of cuts, mostly in county reserves, adds for soon-to-come interest statements, and as transfers from one fund to another.
He has more to do before the commission has its next budget meeting on July 28.