City Council unanimously passes a $610.5 million budget funded by a slightly reduced ad valorem rate

PORT ST. LUCIE – The City Council here agreed unanimously Sept. 27 to pass both its tentative $610.5-million budget for the 2021/2022 Fiscal Year and the accompanying 5.60-mil ad valorem millage rate to fund it.

Budget Director Caroline Sturgis provided Council members an overview of both the budget and millage, emphasizing that this was the sixth year in a row that Port St. Lucie has reduced its property tax rate.

“The proposed budget is built around the City Council’s strategic plan and totals $610,594,228,” she said. “This is an increase of $77 million above last year’s adopted budget, which is mostly due to increased investments and capital projects. Those projects include about $50 million for a new Public Works building; two regional parks, one in Torino and one at Tradition; a police training facility; and adaptive signalization of traffic lights.”

The 2021/2022 budget also reflects the salaries and benefits of 51 new employees, bringing the total to 1,238 city workers. The Police Department saw the biggest addition to its workforce with 15 new positions to support the rapid growth of District 5. The other new employees are scattered between the offices of the city attorney, financial management and human resources. A $1.2-million rise in property values enabled staff to further lower the millage rate and still hire the new employees needed to ensure city services are adequately staffed.

“The proposed budget does continue the City Council’s long-term goal of reducing the millage rate,” Ms. Sturgis added. “The millage rate is proposed at 5.60, and this represents a voted debt and operating millage. The proposed millage rate is 0.30, or a 5 percent decline, from the prior year. This reduction equates to $38.27 for an average homeowner with a property assessed value of $243,766. The total reduction since Fiscal Year 2015/2016 is 1 full millage or a 15 percent reduction.”

The budget director also took Council members and the citizens present through an actual residential property bill depicted on the overhead screen to highlight the various components of the Truth in Millage ad valorem tax statement.

“This property owner has about 16 taxing authorities on their bill, which is common, Ms. Sturgis emphasized. “The City of Port St. Lucie controls two of those line items. The first one pays for general government services like Police, Parks & Recreation and Neighborhood Services. The other line item is called the City of PSL Voted Debt for the Crosstown Bridge, [which] was specifically authorized by the voters. Those are the only two of the 16 ad valorem taxes that the City of Port St. Lucie controls. Every other tax rate on this bill is controlled by another taxing authority.”

Although the 5.60 millage rate is a reduction over the 2020/2021 millage rate, it still reflects an increase from the rollback rate of 4.6620 mils. That’s the amount city staff could have opted to recommend to keep the ad valorem property tax rates at the same level as last year due to the rise in property values. Most Florida municipalities – like Port St. Lucie – normally choose to go beyond that figure in order to fund new growth. Indiantown in Martin County was the only Treasure Coast community to go even lower than the rollback rate for the coming year.

“The operating millage to be levied is 4.8807 mils,” Ms. Sturgis clarified. “The voted debt service millage is 0.7193 mils, and the total millage is 5.60.”

Not all of the budget director’s news was necessarily good for Port St. Lucie property owners. The 2021/2022 tentative budget included a $3 monthly increase to water and sewer rates, as well as a $5 annual increase to the Stormwater Utility Fund for homeowners and a $3.75 increase for the owners of undeveloped lots. Landlord Kurt Rohl was the only member of the public to address the Board that evening and focused his comments on the ad valorem increase over the rollback rate rather than the increased cost for services. Mr. Rohl and his wife manage 14 rental properties in Port St. Lucie.

“Our tax bill is insane, and it’s going to be translated into way higher rents for our tenants,” he said. “Some of them are elderly, and I know they’re really stretched as it is. It’s really creating problems. I know there’s 16 items on the tax bill and you guys only have two of them, but you need to figure out a way to not be pushing so much that’s being pushed forward. It’s not going to come out of my pocket: It’s going to come out of the tenants’ pockets.”

Mr. Rohl insisted the reductions over the last several years – which Ms. Sturgis said represented about $150 in savings since 2015 – were insufficient.

“I don’t know what you can do, but please, a $38 reduction,” he lamented. “You went down six years in a row – congratulations – but $38? I can’t even buy breakfast for that. You’re really putting a squeeze on the average people.”

Mr. Rohl would have been further disappointed to understand just how the increases in rates for the city services previously mentioned by Ms. Sturgis could swallow up his breakfast. The $36 in additional annual water and sewer costs coupled with the $5 stormwater fee totals $41, nearly $3 higher than the savings projected from the 2021/2022 reduction in the city’s millage rate. Municipal board members, however, do not ordinarily respond to comments from citizens during public comment, and so the Council did not respond to Mr. Rohl’s comments afterward. As soon as he finished speaking, Councilwoman Jolien Caraballo made a motion to approve the recommended tentative millage rate of 5.60, which was seconded by Councilman David Pickett and passed unanimously. The Board then voted unanimously to approve the recommended budget without further comment.

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