By Rebecca Sherry
It’s budget time in Okaloosa County, and politicians again are playing Santa Claus with our tax dollars. The 2015 proposed budget increases 10 percent, from $280 million to $308 million. A significant portion of the increase is dedicated to financing for new county buildings. Here are some opportunities for savings.
Health insurance: Does your employer pay for 100 percent of your monthly health insurance premium? Okaloosa County taxpayers provide county employee health insurance for zero monthly premiums this year, and the same generous coverage is budgeted for 2015. For 2014, this benefit cost taxpayers $725 per month per employee. For 2014, county-funded employee health care premiums cost nearly one of every seven dollars paid in annual ad valorem taxes.
If Okaloosa County instead chose a plan similar to the private sector, combining a monthly employee premium with a bronze, silver or gold level plan, taxpayers could save up to $6 million per year.
Employee raises: Did you receive a raise this year? For 2014, Okaloosa County employees received 3 percent raises. On July 17, the Northwest Florida Daily News reported the 2015 Okaloosa County budget includes a $500 raise for all employees at a cost of $880,000.
Across-the-board raises reward longevity instead of performance. They hurt job performance by rewarding slackers and demoralizing the productive. If supervisors can’t decide who earned a raise, they shouldn’t be supervisors.
The budget also includes 33 new hires.
Higher ad valorem taxes in unincorporated areas: Last year this County Commission revised the parks ordinance to also fund stormwater projects. This means if you own property in an unincorporated area (outside the city limits of Baker, Cinco Bayou, Crestview, Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Mary Esther, Niceville, Shalimar and Valparaiso), the Parks MSTU portion of your property tax bill will show a 66 percent rate increase.
Why should certain county property owners pay stormwater taxes while most pay none?
This tax shift has nearly doubled in one year, from “up to $400,000” upon revised ordinance passage on Aug. 20, 2013, to as much as $781,207 as reported July 30, 2014. A Parks MSTU that generated $1.1 million in 2013 will generate $2 million in 2015.
Ironically, the tax shift onto unincorporated area citizens nearly matches county employee raises.
Destin windfall: Destin taxpayers voted down a Destin Fire Department tax increase
— twice. Their fire department chose to cut EMS services to meet budget. Then our County Commission approved a new county taxpayer-funded ambulance to be staffed and stationed next year inside Destin’s city limits.
Other fire districts are paid for by nearby property owners. The Okaloosa Island Fire Department millage rate is 3.5 times that of the Destin Fire Department, with no Okaloosa County subsidy.
It’s time for the County Commission to stop playing favorites. The new county ambulance, if needed, should serve all Okaloosa County equally. The 2015 budget also includes 19 new EMT positions.
Lifeguards: This commonsense opportunity for savings is with us for another year. Despite a new post-Bellinger Tourist Development Council, Okaloosa County continues to fund dual lifeguard hierarchies. County lifeguards patrol Okaloosa Island’s predominantly public beaches, and the city of Destin patrols Destin’s private beaches, East Pass and Norriego Point. Both entities should be given the opportunity to present their case, and the best service chosen. Okaloosa County spends about $1 million annually on lifeguards.
Chambers of commerce: The Okaloosa County TDC perennially funds two private organizations, the Destin Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. Diversion of public funds toward operation of private organizations remains troubling and controversial. These organizations serve their members, not the general public. The chambers sometimes enter controversial political fights, a conflict for both the chambers and for the politicians who give them the public’s money. Both chambers are given $20,000 of county funding annually which should be used for other purposes.
Budget figures mentioned here are proposed. The final budget hearings are 6 p.m. Sept. 4 in Crestview and 6 p.m. Sept. 15 in Fort Walton Beach. By then, the budget is nearly set in stone. Voice your opinion early, and cast an educated vote Aug. 26.
Rebecca Sherry, a chemical engineer and MBA, is president of the Condo Alliance of Okaloosa Island. Contact her at email@example.com or call (850) 244-2744.