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Citizens Group Pushes Slimmed-Down City Budget

Tom Flanigan

The first of two public hearings on the City of Tallahassee’s proposed budget takes place at City Hall this evening.  But on the eve of that hearing, a group of business-minded citizens presented an alternative spending plan that would require no property tax increase.

The group calls itself “Citizens for Responsible Spending.”  On Tuesday, some three dozen members of the group showed up for a news conference at the Florida Press Center.  Group member Barney Bishop said the problem was that the only budget city commissioners had to consider was the one given them by city staff that included a 23 percent property tax hike.

“Despite city commissioners calling for various budget cut options, a zero-percent cut budget has not been presented to them,” he told the media.

It’s not that the group, or even the citizens of Tallahassee are knee-jerk opponents of any and all tax hikes, said another group member, Florida Taxwatch Chief Domenic Calabro.

“This community just rallied behind an $800 million, 20-year extension of the penny sales tax.  That doesn’t sound like an anti-tax group!”

Although the Citizens for Responsible Spending group is opposing any hike in the city’s property tax rate.  That’s an important distinction, Calabro said, because just keeping the rate where it is today would still mean more city tax revenue because property values are going up.

“That’s going to allow the City of Tallahassee property taxes – without changing the rate – to grow by 3.6 percent.  You know, that’s pretty good for most businesses to grow by 3.6 percent,” Calabro said.

Group members insisted they have no problem with spending more for law enforcement, which was the original rationale the city gave for upping the tax rate.  Although former State Representative Al Lawson believed other approaches are needed as well.

“I know we have a problem with crime in this area,” he admitted.  “But I don’t know whether just going out and hiring – actually more than hiring – 20 more police officers is going to solve the problem.  A lot of these problems have to be solved within the community, particularly the African-American community.”

The Citizens group was proposing a number of line item budget reductions that Taxwatch’s Calabro said would allow more law enforcement spending without upping the tax rate.

“First thing the city has to do is vote to keep the millage the same.  Second then is to identify recurring savings, some here and some presented by the news organizations, that could easily find $7 to $9 million that would offset on a recurring basis the short term.”

Starting next year, the group would like the city to revisit its entire budget creation and review process and Bishop said the group is offering its members’ expertise if needed.

“And if we can do it as outside citizens trying to understand and comprehend the intricacies of the budget, the city commissioners can and the staff can and if the city commissioners tell the staff what they want done, they can make this happen,” Bishop said as the conference drew to a close.

After the Press Center media event, the group walked copies of its recommendations for about $9.5 million dollars of budget cuts to City Hall.  Members also promise to be in attendance at this evening’s first public hearing on the budget, also at City Hall, that begins at 6 p.m.