Commission majority agrees to a 5 percent increase to return fees to pre-pandemic levels

FORT PIERCE – The majority of the City Commission here voted June 6 to raise its business tax fees the same 5 percent its members had agreed to reduce them two years ago during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in order to encourage new business amid the economic downturn.

Mayor Linda Hudson launched the discussion as she recalled previous workshop debates held on the idea of raising the rates.

“This is something we have discussed at two conference agendas,” she said. “This is what initially we all agreed to in the final analysis, which is kind of rolling it back to pre-pandemic levels.”

Since staff had no new information to offer other than the previous presentations, Mayor Hudson opened the hearing on the proposed ordinance amendment to the public. Fort Marine, LLC Principal Mike Carey was the only person to speak and expressed more concerns about the slow service he’d received rather than the proposed rate increase. Since relocating permanently to Fort Pierce from West Palm Beach a year ago, he purchased a 14-acre marina on the North Hutchison Island Causeway.

“I’ve nothing but good things to say about the employees, but it took me almost three months to get a business license,” he said. “I’ve talked to other people and had some tenants, and they’ve had a similar kind of slow response to get just a business license. So, I don’t know if it’s a change-over in personnel… the procedure or maybe it’s not enough employees, I just wanted to bring it to your attention because I’ve been talking to other new businesses that are coming up. I actually think the fees are more than reasonable – I think they’re low.”

As soon as Mayor Hudson closed the public hearing, Commissioner Arnold Gaines told his fellow commissioners that he’d received a couple of emails about new businesses having problems with getting such business licenses.

“I was going to talk to the city manager,” he said. “I actually got a call today about four when they saw it on the agenda and said, can you see what’s going on? So, there is something out there – I don’t know if it’s a cross-over or just slow – but there is a delay in new businesses trying to get their licenses. If we are actually asking people to come, it’s something we need to look at so we won’t stop the flow.”

As far as the proposed increase to the city’s business tax fees, Commissioner Gaines – who ultimately cast the lone dissenting vote on the increase – reiterated the objections he’d raised during the previous Conference Agenda discussions.

“It’s an increase at a time where everything is up,” he said, referring to the price of gasoline and other commodities. “I understand we haven’t done it in a long time, but people [and] businesses are struggling. I know we’re increasing it to try and make some money. If I remember right, like $13,000, some minute number that we were trying to generate. At a time right now where everybody’s complaining about the high cost of everything, a 5 percent increase to me is still a 5 percent increase, and it’s going to hurt some businesses.”

Mayor Hudson subsequently reminded him that the Board had lowered the fees in the early part of the pandemic prior to his election to the Commission.

“So, we were bringing it back to the pre-pandemic [level] and it is low compared to other cities,” she explained. “It almost isn’t for the money – it’s just so we know what businesses are here.”

Commissioner Gaines emphasized, however, that his beef was not with any city employee.

“I want to be clear for the record that I’m not blaming anyone at the staff at the City of Fort Pierce because I know how much work we have and what we’ve asked them to do,” he explained. “As a Commission, we’re actually out asking people to bring their businesses to Fort Pierce. So if we’re out doing that and hear there’s a problem – the gentleman spoke today, and I know I’ve received emails – I’m just asking that we look into it because you don’t want any business to come and say forget it and leave Fort Pierce.”

Mayor Hudson then asked City Clerk Linda Cox to opine on the matter since she helps oversee the business tax fee program.

“It always bugged me before I was mayor that everybody said they were business-friendly, but when you got right down to it, they weren’t business-friendly,” the former said. “Now, we think we’ve addressed that problem, but we can always do better.”

Commissioner Curtis Johnson Jr. also wanted to hear from the city clerk while emphasizing that he had not personally received any complaints.

“So, it’s more of a unique thing, a one-off perhaps, as opposed to a general criticism because I haven’t had any calls at all about any of the business processes over there,” he said. “I thought we were automating it too, [and] some of this would help us.”

“We are, and that has been part of the challenge,” Ms. Cox replied. “We failed Mr. Carey: I will fully admit that on the record. His application kind of fell in that black hole, and he had representatives that brought that to our attention. We changed it [the process] to be more electronic, and we had a routing problem. We rectified it and have made significant changes to make sure that does not happen again. When we have the new Tyler Munis system, I think that’s going to help tremendously.”

With no other Board member had a comment, Mayor Hudson asked for a motion. Commissioner Jeremiah Johnson then moved for approval, which was seconded by Commissioner Thomas Perona and passed 4-1, with Commissioner Gaines dissenting.

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