Mindful of tax rate and debt burden, city still hopes to hire a dozen full-timers

Holding the line on the property tax rate and decreasing the city’s debt burden remain key points for Port St. Lucie leaders, who unveiled their proposed two-year budget last week.

Even so, City Manager Russ Blackburn is calling for hiring a dozen full-time employees as well as a part-timer this coming budget cycle, and another nearly 18 employees the following year.

If approved as recommended, Port St. Lucie expects to have a $410.7 million budget starting Oct. 1, 2018. Of that, $104.9 million will go to the General Fund, which funds much of the government’s operations.

“We continue on our quest to really be transparent,” Blackburn said, addressing local reporters during his budget briefing. For the first time, staff has pulled together a biennial budget that, according to Blackburn, will help not only city leaders but also citizens see and better understand priorities and long-term projects.

All 518 pages of the two-year budget is available on the city’s website for public review. The City Council is expected to spend two of their three days during the Summer Retreat reviewing the budget and hold public hearings in September before finalizing the property tax.

Blackburn’s team recommends leaving the tax rate the same as it currently is – 6.4000 mills ($6.40 per $1,000 tax assessed value on homes). While the tax rate is expected to remain the same, the city does anticipate collecting more in property tax revenues due to increasing property values. Preliminary figures released by the St. Lucie County Property Appraiser’s Office estimate an increase of 10 percent in values.

“We’re seeing a city that’s very vibrant, an economy on the rise,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn said he hopes to decrease the property tax rate (also known as the ad valorem) for the 2019-20 Fiscal Year if the city is able to offload some of its burdens – such as the Florida Center for Bio-Sciences (formerly VGTI).

He is anticipating the proposed sale of FCB to close after Oct. 1, 2018, but before the end of the year, which would impact the FY 2020 budget. City Center, too, is a possible sale – though city leaders do not appear to have the same level of confidence that a sale could happen soon.

Mayor Gregory Oravec, who attended the budget briefing and sat among the reporters, explained that while there has been talk of a potential sale, no letter of intent has been presented and it is not as far along in the process as the potential sale of VGTI.

Blackburn said the city is not currently a party involved in the sale of the private portion of City Center. Instead, the interested buyer is working with a court-appointed receiver. That receiver represents the U.S. Securities Exchange Council, which technically owns the property.

“I can’t predict the future,” Blackburn said, noting that the budget was mostly prepared this spring, ahead of the proposed purchase of VGTI.

Another factor not accounted for in the budget is the Homestead Exemption question that voters will decide in November.

Blackburn said the city’s team crafted the budget assuming the ballot measure does not pass. However, if it does, it could mean the city could collect an estimated $4 million less in revenue.

For comparison, Blackburn said the 10 percent increase in property values would net an estimated $5 million more in revenue for the city. If Homestead passes, that amount would essentially be wiped out.

For the time being, “we’ve assumed status quo,” he said.

What isn’t affected by the Homestead question is the special funds the city has, namely the Building Fund and the Utility Fund. Both of which are marked for new staff. The Building Department could see five new full-time equivalent employees, including an office assistant, a permit specialist, an inspector, and two plans examiners.

Blackburn said the new hires would help ease the crunch in the very busy department.

The city is on track to see 2,000 single-family dwelling unit permits pulled this year. The Utility Department would get a deputy director, a locator, a supervisory control and data acquisition technician, and a maintenance mechanic.

From the General Fund, Blackburn expects to hire two traffic police officers, one Police Athletic League director, and a part-time crime preventive specialist.

The following year – fiscal year 2019-20 – the police department could see seven more hires, including a crime scene technician, four police officers, and two more traffic police officers.

Under the General Fund, Blackburn also recommends hiring a service desk support technician, two full-time maintenance workers, and a part-time maintenance worker.

The Building and Utility departments, too, could see new faces join their teams, and the Community Redevelopment Agency would also get a new principle planner.

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