City works out budget: $7,585,893

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee City Council had its first of two planned budget workshops for 2019-20 on Aug. 6. The city looks to be on the verge of the second year in a row of operating in the black, but decisions made by council members ahead of the final vote may see the city dip into its fund balance to cover costs.

Under the proposed budget, estimated revenue in 2019-20 would be $7,585,893 while the total general operating expenditures $7,585,893.

Close to 75 percent of the 2019-20 city budget goes to public safety, including law enforcement and fire rescue. That would include $22,000 to install Opticom equipment on city fire trucks. With the new equipment, red lights in the city will be able to recognize when fire trucks approach with their emergency lights on and automatically turn green to allow the truck to pass safely, which would improve response times.
New school resource officer costs caused an increase to the law enforcement budget in the last year after holding steady in 2016 and 2017.

The budget for general services for the city jumped up this year from $370,350 to $505,912 thanks in part to an increase in building permits. Permits were significantly higher this year compared to last year. These permits cover things like new houses and new businesses such as Wawa, which is currently building a new facility across from Flagler Park in downtown Okeechobee.

The city continues to recover financially from the real estate crash in 2008. Taxable values have increased to levels they were at around a decade ago in Okeechobee. Still, that level is nowhere close to the 2007-08 years when they were at an all time high.

The proposed 2019-20 budget calls for an ad valorem tax of 7.75, an increase from last year’s 7.60. Council member Bob Jarriel mentioned he preferred to keep it the same as the previous year if the city could afford it. Council members Wes Abney, Monica Clark and Bobby Keefe all expressed support of that goal. Mayor Dowling Watford was the only council member against the idea. Mayor Watford relayed that he has been through many budget workshops in his years on the council and has seen what can happen when the city tries to maintain services while going with a lower ad valorem rate. Mayor Watford said he was pleased with the staff’s recommendation of 7.75.

Council member Clark also said the building department needs another full-time worker to help with the increased number of permits and moving a part-timer in the city clerk’s office to full time. These costs along with rolling back the ad valorem rate to last year’s would cause the city to have to dip into its reserves to cover costs.

The city council discussed cuts they could make to the budget to avoid dipping into reserves. Council member Clark brought up cutting a fire assessment study that was planned in 2020 as well as an annexation study.

Finance Director India Riedel estimated that even with those cuts the city would still need to take $50,000 out of its reserves to fund the proposals mentioned by council members under the desired ad valorem rate.

Mrs. Riedel was given instructions to bring two budgets to the next workshop, one with the current ad valorem rate and another with the rolled-back rate so city council members could choose between the two.

The city is scheduled to hold its second budget workshop on Aug. 20 at 5 p.m. after the regular meeting.

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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