SEBRING - Sebring residents apparently won't get a break on their taxes this coming year, but they won't see an increase either.
The Sebring City Council approved the budget Wednesday night and set the tax rate at 4.990, the same tax rate as this year. Since the tax rate was not increased, the city's property tax revenue will decrease from $2.8 million to $2.6 million because of lower property values overall. The shortfall would be made up with reserve funds, although that depends on the city spending the full amount of the budget.
Council members could still lower the tax rate and some property owners could pay lower taxes because of decreases in their property values.
Councilman Scott Stanley voted for the budget, but cast the lone dissenting vote on the tax rate, saying he believes the city is in a good position to reduce taxes, especially with the sale of property for a new Golden Corral restaurant. He proposed reducing the tax rate.
Stanley said that since the budget includes raises for employees, it should also benefit the taxpayers.
But other council members questioned depending on one-time revenue that may never materialize since Golden Corral has a year to prepare for development without having to fork over money.
Councilman John Griffin said the tax reduction proposed by Stanley would benefit few people because of homestead exemption.
"I'd probably save $30 or something like that," he said.
Large businesses like Wal-Mart would benefit the most, he said.
Griffin said he doesn't believe this coming year is the right time to reduce the tax rate.
"I don't see people out on the street yelling for a reduction in taxes," he said.
And if taxes were lowered, he said, "I don't want to use $340,000 we don't have." He referred to the sale of the property to Golden Corral.
But Stanley said he believes a reduction of taxes can stand on its own regardless of the sale of the property.
Although Councilman John Clark said he would like to see a lower tax rate, "I don't think this is the year to do it."
Councilman Andrew Fells voiced concerns that if the city lowers the tax rate too much, it could end up being faced with either making major cuts to basic services or raising taxes, the situation faced by Highlands County.
"In my view we're in much better shape than the county and I'd like to see it stay that way," he said.
Griffin agreed, saying, "When days were good the county was spending money like crazy and we weren't doing that. We were putting money away."
The budget includes enough money to provide a 2.3 percent pay raise for all employees, although the council has voiced a preference for merit increases. Some departments sought increases.
The Police Department budget includes money replacing a downstairs door to the police station and doing some painting for about $7,500. The largest request was for $84,108 to buy three new vehicles.
The Fire Department budget includes $25,000 for some equipment for a new fire engine being purchased.