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Lee County forecasting higher revenues and spending

By NATHAN MAYBERG - | Jul 7, 2021

nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com

Rising property values, a boost in tourism and higher sales tax revenues is expected to fill county coffers according to recent county budget talks. How that will affect tax rates is still yet to be seen.

The county’s millage rate is currently $4.0506 per $1,000 of assessed taxable value and the commissioners have not yet set a tax rate change. Those decisions could be based on the level of surplus projections, which are expected to be more than $136 million.

Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Kevin Ruane, District 1, expressed a willingness to use more of the county’s reserves to lower the county’s tax rate. Ruane said he believes the county should lower the amount of reserves it is holding onto.

Commissioners Brian Hamman, District 4, and Cecil Pendergrass, District 2, also indicated support for lowering the use of reserves. Hamman said that even in times of emergency, federal aid has made up for losses.

Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais told county commissioners the tax base has increased by more than 6% to more than $94 billion in property values and sales tax revenue was about $10 million higher than the county expected during recent budget discussions. Desjarlais also recommended that the board give across-the-board raises of 3%. Hamman said he supports a merit-based raise system.

“In this size of an organization it is much more challenging (for merit-based raises),” Ruane said. Pendergrass said he also thought merit-based raises would be difficult.

Desjarlais said for merit-based raises to work, “every supervisor has to do a stellar job of evaluating” performances. “We have so many jobs and classifications,” Desjarlais said. “Not all employees (would be) treated fairly,” he said.

“If ever there was a year when our employees deserved 3%, this would be it,” Desjarlais said.

Lee County Chief Financial Officer and Assistant County Manager Pete Winton said total revenues were up about $5 million to $472.7 million for the current 2020-21 budget year, doubling the county’s surplus to $12 million. Revenues are expected to grow by about $34 million for the upcoming year, with expenses projected to grow by about $44 million.

Winton is expecting revenues to be “much higher” this year due to a busy tourist season and the county is also expecting to use those revenues to make higher debt payments.

Debt payments are set to balloon from $5.8 million for the current year to $14.4 million.

The county’s current budget plans also call for an 8% increase in the Lee County Sheriff’s Office budget (which represents 42% of the country’s general fund budget), which would raise the department’s budget to $211 million. That includes 3% pay raises. Starting pay for deputies would increase from approximately $46,000 to $52,000, Winton said.

Ruane said the raises would make the county competitive with other police agencies. “This is more than overdue,” Ruane said.

Pendergrass said deputies would still not be making as much as Cape Coral police officers.

District 5 Commissioner Frank Mann said he was concerned about a “ripple effect” that would lead to other raises in other departments, including fire departments.

The Public Safety Department budget would increase based on 2.5% pay raises.

Major maintenance on county buildings and infrastructure would go up by about $6.5 million to $21.3 million.