Emergency medical substation on chopping block in Fort Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale nipped and tucked the budget Thursday night to avoid raising the property tax rate, an acrimonious process that pushed tough decisions off to next year.
At the first of two budget hearings, city commissioners agreed to keep the same property tax rate for the 12th straight year. They also agreed to make good on a campaign promise: Over the next four years, the city will stop siphoning an annual $20 million out of the water-sewer fund to use on other things. For this year, that meant $5.1 million had to be cut from the proposed budget.
That’s relatively small beans in the context of a $363.8 million general fund budget. But it was done laboriously and with plenty of rancor.
“You just keep spending and spending,” Mayor Dean Trantalis complained, capping off a lengthy rant at the city manager for not making the necessary cuts before Thursday’s meeting.
“I don’t keep spending and spending,” City Manager Lee Feldman responded. “... Every service that we provide means something to a neighbor that’s out there.”
Budget hearings are typical fare for local governments. But this was not a typical year. A new slate of people rode into office in the spring, and they vowed to make good on their promise to leave the water-sewer fund alone. As pipes burst around the city, $20 million a year had been removed from the water-sewer fund to prop up the budget.
But Feldman didn’t submit a budget with the $5.1 million in cuts. He recommended the city raise the tax rate instead. His menu of possible budget cuts included installation of new playgrounds, a summer youth employment program, financial support for the Winterfest Boat Parade and money to help address the homeless problem.
He warned there were no easy choices. “Everybody wants to go to heaven,” he said earlier in the week, “but no one wants to die to get there.”
Commissioners largely ignored Feldman’s list of potential reductions and instead pored over a list of capital projects to make these cuts:
■ $500,000 for a crosswalk at Las Olas Boule-
vard and Southeast Fifth Avenue, where people frequently jaywalk.
■ $500,000 for streetlights on East Las Olas Boulevard.
■ $313,000 for remodeling on the seventh floor of City Hall, where the city manager and city attorney offices are.
■ $3 million for an emergency medical substation in southeast Fort Lauderdale. It will be postponed to future years.
■ $264,857 for signs and “wayfinding” information to help people find their way around downtown.
■ $131,360 City Hall security improvements. Feldman said the improvements already are complete.
■ $325,000 in enhanced median maintenance the city planned to do. Some money will be spent on medians. But the city also will start a program asking private landscapers to “adopt a median.”
“I feel like this is a telethon,” Commissioner Steve Glassman said as commissioners tallied up the items they’d cut and announced how much they still needed to slice, over an hour and a half.
Commissioner Robert McKinzie criticized Trantalis and Glassman for “badgering” the city manager. He suggested they agree with his proposed budget and take a year to scrutinize spending and make wise cuts.
“If I was the city manager,” he said, “I’d get up and I’d walk out of here.”
Feldman and City Auditor John Herbst said the cuts commissioners made Thursday night were one-time expenses, ensuring that next year, commissioners will have to go through the same process.
In fact, next year, an additional $5 million must be removed, as the city weans off the water-sewer money.
Activist Mary Fertig lamented that commissioners conducted the last-minute cuts without researching the projects they deleted.
She thanked them for not continuing to remove money from the water-sewer fund, but she said the way they made the cuts would only make it harder next year. She said that’s not what voters were looking for.
“What I saw tonight was not a process. It was a lastminute attempt to cut things, and you don’t even know the impact,” said Fertig, whose photo hangs in the City Commission chambers as citizen of the year. “I saw you cut projects like that EMS station that you just told people two meetings ago that you were going to do.”
Within minutes of the budget cutting exercise, Warren Sturman, a cardiologist, complained about one of the deletions. He said the EMS station is vital and should be restored.
“While it is vital,” the mayor responded, “something had to be cut.”
Shortly after the cutting, Trantalis announced that the county wants $1 million from the city to help address the homeless problem.
The vote on the proposed budget was 4-0.
Commissioner Ben Sorensen was absent. He made an out-of-state commitment before the hearing was scheduled, he said. The city charter does not allow him to vote on the tax rate and budget by phone.
The final votes on tax rate and budget will be at 6 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall, 100 N. Andrews Ave. It can be viewed online at fortlauderdale.gov. The total budget is proposed at $785.3 million.
The budget year starts Oct. 1.
The city property tax rate currently is about $412 for every $100,000 of taxable property value. It will remain at that rate.
Using the same tax rate still results in a tax increase citywide, bringing in $10.4 million more taxes for the city, because property values rose 6.34 percent, not counting new buildings that also will generate more taxes. To view your potential tax bill, look up your property at bcpa.net.
The fire assessment, which appears on property tax bills, is proposed to remain at $256 a year. An increase is planned next year. Utility rates will increase 5 percent. Stormwater rates, used for drainage, will go up $2 a month for single-family homeowners.