Fire assessment still rankles budget process

Justin Grabelle, the president of the Ocala City Council, right, makes a motion to fire Ocala City Manager Sandra Wilson as he sits with Councilman Brent Malever, left, during the Ocala City Council meeting at Ocala City Hall in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. Shane Alexander, the former Ocala Fire Chief, was fired from his position last week by Ocala City Manager Sandra Wilson. The Ocala City Council voted not to remove Wilson from her position as City Manager for firing Alexander during the meeting. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted September 15, 2021 | By Carlos Medina,

Justin Grabelle, Ocala City Council president is shown in this July meeting. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

The Ocala City Council on Tuesday approved a tentative, nearly $900 million budget, while also keeping millage rates the same and implementing a full year of fire assesment on Ocala property owners.

While discussion of the budget and millage rates went smoothly, the fire assesment wasn’t such an easy pill to swallow.

The council split 3-1 on its tentative approval, with Council President Justin Grabelle voting against implementing the assesment.

An attorney for Carlton Arms Apartments, the largest apartment complex in Ocala with more than 800 units also asked the council to consider capping the maximum assesment on multifamily property. The second-largest apartment complex in Ocala was less than half the size of Carlton Arms.

Robert Kelly, an attorney representing Carlton Arms, said both residential and commercial properties had a maximum assesment amount. He suggested it was only fair that multifamily property also have a cap.

In July, the council approved a plan to raise $9.2 million to help pay for fire services using a tiered assessment charged to property owners, including those of vacant land.

Grabelle also voted against that resolution.

The fire assessment comes after the city’s previous method of collecting fire fees was deemed unconstitutional last year.

The proposed plan means homeowners would pay between $152.47 and $255.48, depending on the square footage of the home.

In January, the city passed a separate onetime assessment that only considered if the property was residential or non-residential. Residential properties were assessed at $190.77 regardless of size or type.

In that assessment, the city did not include vacant property. This time, each vacant parcel will be assessed $28.35.

Also, in contrast to the January assessment, multifamily property owners would have to pay $137.08 for each unit 1,000 square feet or smaller. Units larger than 1,200 square feet would be assessed at $153.37 each.

Non-residential property is broken down into commercial, industrial warehouse and institutional categories. As an example, the lowest assessment for commercial property would be $145 for a property smaller than 2,000 square feet. For properties larger than 300,000 square feet, the assessment tops out at $43,500.

The proposed rates were established after a study conducted by Tindale Oliver. The $9.2 million assessment will help cover Ocala Fire Rescue’s $16.2 million budget.

Tentative budget

The city’s tentative budget is $891,324,121, up from last year’s adopted budget of $817,129,466.

The city council will finalize the budget on Sept. 28. The new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1. The city also tentatively voted to keep the millage rate the same on home

While the rates will stay at 6.6177, the city estimates tax revenue will increase by more than $1.9 million due to increased property values. Expected revenues should top $35.2 million this fiscal year, compared to more than $33.3 million last year.

The ad valorem tax rate remains unchanged since 2016. The owner of a home in the city with a taxable value of $100,000 can expect to pay $662 in city tax.

This year’s budget includes the addition of 13 sworn and non-sworn employees at the Ocala Police Department.

Salaries and benefits come from the general fund portion of the budget, which this year is more than $128 million up from $118.4 million approved last year. The general fund includes revenue from ad valorem taxes, utility service taxes and contributions from the enterprise funds based on charges for services, including electric, fiber optic broadband and sanitation.

This year, the city will fund salaries for the police and fire department at 100%, according to Tammy Haslam, the city’s budget director. Typically, salaries are funded between 95% to 98% percent to account for vacancies.

The move would allow the department to “overhire” for positions, Haslam said.

The budget also includes more than $42.7 in capital improvement projects. The 50 projects include $11.1 million for two phases of the continued southwest to northwest 44th Avenue program. The plan is to connect Maricamp Road to County Road 326 to keep local traffic off of Interstate-75. There is also more than $9.1 million in water treatment projects.

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