The $75 million budget includes more money to maintain streets, continued funding for economic development and the purchase of an armored tactical vehicle for the police department.
The City Commission Monday approved the city’s $75 million budget, which includes the first property tax increase since 1991 and a 7.5% raise for municipal employees.
The most discussed issue among commissioners since budget talks began in July has been property tax. Plant City has maintained a $4.7157 property tax rate since 1991. The new budget increases the tax rate to $5.7157. Revenue from the increase will go into a fund dedicated to repairing and maintaining city roads.
In Plant City, the average home’s assessed value is almost $100,000. With the new property tax rate, the average Plant City homeowner will pay an increase of $4 per month in property tax, after the $50,000 homestead exemption. Commissioners approved the decision unanimously, but said the decision did not come easy.
“This has been a long journey. It’s one that we’ve been struggling with for years,” Mayor Rick Lott said. “In that general fund, we have turned every stone looking for that two-to-four million dollars a year. It’s just not there.”
According to the city’s engineering division, in order to resurface the city’s 160 miles of roads in the ideal 15-to-20 year cycle, road resurfacing would need to be funded at around $4 million per year. The city currently has an agreement with Hillsborough County in which the county will provide $2 million for road resurfacing if the city can provide $2 million of its own. The agreement is in place for the next two budget cycles and there is potential for an extension. The tax increase creates $1.9 million in funds for road projects.
When talks began, Commissioner Nate Kilton was wary of a tax increase, first wanting to rule out other sources of funding. First, he said he asked what level of service citizens wanted, then if it was the local government’s duty followed by whether or not there was an alternative source for the revenue. Despite a culture of being able to “squeeze a nickel into a dime,” he said “this is the only logical step.”
Last year, city employees received a 7.5% raise based on a study that showed city workers were paid 16-17% below the market value of their positions. The new budget includes another 7.5% increase. Additionally, the city will cover the costs of a 20% increase to health insurance premiums for employees.
Police and fire department employees get paid on a “stepped” plan that will increase by 2.5% on the employees anniversary date.
Additionally, the city increased it’s workforce from about 420 employees to 428. The budget also includes $10,000 for a tuition reimbursement program for employees seeking a degree.
According to the city manager’s office, “As the second largest city in Hillsborough County, and the largest city in Hillsborough County along the I-4 corridor, the city’s number one priority is Economic Development.”
The new budget includes $125,000 for the Plant City Economic Development Corporation to fund “creating new jobs, investment of new capital, and expansion of the local tax base in Plant City. During the last year, the EDC has helped bring in C.W. Roberts, a leading asphalt producer, and Mexico-based Peninsula Steel to Plant City. They also facilitated the expansions of Dart Manufacturing, Toufayan Bakery and Patterson Companies, among other expansions and relocations.
Other major areas of economic development funding include $65,000 to the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce, $50,000 to the 1914 Plant City High School building and $50,000 to Plant City Main Street.
Each year, Lott said, the city looks to focus on improving the city as a whole, while addressing specific issues on a year-to-year basis. One of the major areas last year was funding Plant City’s third fire station, which will focus on the developing northeast portion of the city. This year roads were the focus. Commissioners have already begun conversations as to what the next step could be, including beefing up some understaffed agencies like the police department.
“This year, like every year, we have a budget that makes vast improvements to our city,” Lott said. “Now, we to look to other areas we can improve.”
During the mandatory public hearing before budget approval the only item contested was the approval of more than $300,000 for the police department to purchase an armored tactical vehicle. Members of the Restorative Justice Coalition, a Bay Area advocacy group, spoke out against the funding, asking commissioners to channel those funds to the purchase of body cameras and dash cameras for accountability and transparency following the July shooting death of Jesus Cervantes by Plant City police.
“The city doesn’t need a $300,000 tactical vehicle,” Plant City resident Dezerey Lyn said. “It needs humanity.”
In 2014, Plant City applied for an was approved to receive grant money for the purchase of body cameras. The police department, at the time, lobbied the commission to approve the purchase, which it did. However, Police Chief Ed Duncan took over the department shortly after and decided against the purchase.
No changes or comments were made to the budget before its unanimous approval, prompting protest chants from members of the RJC.
Kilton abstained from voting on the approval of EDC funding due to a conflict of interest.