Commissioners are considering budget cuts and a reconstituted fire fee to make up a $3.2 million shortfall resulting from the defeat of a fire assessment after vehement public protest.
The panel directed City Manager David Harden to work toward a 50-50 split of budget cuts and a new flat or two-tiered fire fee to make up the shortfall. The options will be presented at a meeting Feb. 6.
The move toward compromise came at a Jan. 31 commission workshop meeting.
Harden recommended earlier that commissioners reconsider a new fire fee, hold a new public hearing and adopt the fee. Also up for consideration at the meeting were budget alternatives both with and without cuts to police and fire service, as well as the city’s capital projects.
Mayor Woodie McDuffie, who was absent for the vote on the first fire fee, did not want to go back into the budget to rework it. “As far as I’m concerned, we agreed on the budget, the fire tax was in the budget. It’s disingenuous to think we can run the city and eliminate this.
“If we get shied away by 41 people who were upset with us, shame on us,” the mayor said, later adding, “We have to look at what’s the best thing to do for the whole city.”
McDuffie and at least two other commissioners said they were willing to discuss a compromise on the fire fee, but wanted cuts in the budget.
Fire fee opposition
Residents successfully doused the proposed fire assessment fee with their outcry earlier in the month.
“The people have spoken,” Vice Mayor Angeleta Gray said, before the panel voted down the fee Jan. 17. “We need to find other ways to possibly look at making up our shortfall. I would like to go back to the drawing board. Keep in mind, some of our services will be cut, some of our jobs will be lost.”
The proposed assessment to fund the city’s fire-rescue operation set off alarms among residents, who called it an ill-timed tax that neither residents nor businesses could afford.
They crowded into a public hearing and, one by one urged commissioners to reject the fee that was intended to help balance the city’s ever-tightening budget.
The large turnout was no surprise, a Jan. 27 memo from the city manager said, considering how many people were notified of the fee by the city and “the scare tactics used in some neighborhoods regarding the assessment.”
The staff opinion: “Those who spoke at the hearing do not represent the majority view of our community, but rather a minority of our citizens who adamantly oppose the assessment,” the memo said.
Commissioners directed Harden at the Jan. 31 meeting to look at cuts from fire and police that were among the city manager’s budget options — which included freezing five vacant police posts, as well as possible furloughs for city staff and postponement of funded capital projects.
They asked to try to avoid layoffs and said it was important not to close any of the public facilities.
In addition to the police jobs, Harden had earlier presented options including fire station personnel reductions. Combined, those police and fire cuts equaled nearly $1 million.
One scenario included 12 furlough days for employees for a total of $786,272; cuts of 29 staff jobs — including two lifeguards and part-timers at Atlantic Dunes park ($149,826); and cancelled fireworks ($35,000) and city-sponsored events, such as the July Fourth celebration, holiday parade and the First Night New Year’s celebration for a total of $160,373.
The city already is four months into the budget and has spent about $1 million of the shortage already — money that is recommended to be taken from reserves.
The defeated fire assessment fee was expected to raise $3.4 million for the city’s fire-rescue operations, with the assessment to residents raising $2.7 million of it.
Initially discussed as a flat fee, the fire assessment was pitched at a tiered rate at the Jan. 17 public hearing. The annual fee would have been based on the square footage of improved property, with residents with less than 1,200-square-foot homes assessed at $52.
Homeowners with 1,200 to 2,000 square feet would pay $82 and as a group, were expected to make the largest combined contribution. The next highest tiers were $121, $186 and $263 for square footage starting at 2,000, 3,501 and 5,000, respectively.
Residents would have paid $85 a household for a flat tax, according to a study by Burton & Associates.
For non-residential properties, the fee was $31 for less than 500 square feet and it ranged up to $3,552 for more than 50,000 square feet.
Residents at the public hearing said with the financial pinch of joblessness, underemployment, depressed home prices and costs that are rising across the board, the fee was a burden many couldn’t shoulder. They also repeatedly pointed out that it was clearly a tax, even though it was not included in the millage rate.
“A lot of us have lost our homes, our children don’t even have Christmas gifts. What about the homeowners?” said resident Timothy Boykins. “Enough is enough. You all have lost sight of the people.”
Residents are not able to deal with more and more fees and tax, said Victoria Teal. “Every time, we are told it is a small amount. It is an endless number of small amounts that whittles away at small amounts of income.
“We are not your ATMs,” she said, charging commissioners to live within their budget, which requires line-item cuts.
Another concern voiced: The fee would be included on the annual tax bill and if not paid, it could put residents at risk of losing their homes.
Business people objected as well, noting the fee could be the last straw for those struggling to survive. They also argued that the tiered system based on square footage rather than property value was unfair.
Like many, Neil Cohen, owner of the Delray Chevron on West Atlantic Avenue, said he was a big fan of the Fire Department.
“But the way you’re assessing this special assessment is extremely unfair. Taxes have always been assessed on the property value, not the size. Why should you change this now?” he said, noting he’ll pay what amounts to 30 percent more of his current city taxes. “I’m willing to pay more, but you are putting a serious burden on my business.”
Commissioners voted 3-1 against the fee, but pointed out the struggle to balance the budget and keep city services.
“Nobody up here is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. We want to keep dearly the quality city you know,” said Commissioner Jay Alperin, the lone vote for the fee. “I supported the tier because I didn’t want us to lose the quality of life we’ve become accustomed to. If we reduce $4 million, we’re going to see that.”
Alperin placed partial blame on past commissions that didn’t make the hard choices, giving in to union pressure for higher wages for fire and police personnel.
“We have a delicate balance to provide services expected,” said Commissioner Tom Carney. “One doesn’t realize they don’t have the services until they’re gone.”