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Reserves tapped again in Lee County budget

Body OKs spending $30 million in rainy-day fund as part of $597.5 million package.

Sep. 19, 2012


Four commissioners Wednesday agreed to spend more money than the county will take in over the upcoming fiscal year.

The $597.5 million operating budget in fiscal year 2012-13 calls for the county to spend another $30 million from its reserves.

Commissioner Frank Mann said it’s the first time in five years he’s approved a budget.

“I’m still very disappointed that staff has been unable to present us with a budget that projects us to a point where there is no longer a reliance on the reserves,” Mann said.

“I think this is perhaps the best document we can get,” he said.

Spending will decrease by less than 1 percent from the $601.8 million that was approved for this year.

Commissioner Brian Bigelow provided the only opposition to the budget’s passage.

In the run-up to his dissenting vote, Bigelow called Public Safety Director John Wilson to the podium and took aim at the county’s Medstar program.

The medical flight program was suspended in August for six to nine months and county officials will now consider privatizing it.

But the program will continue to receive its normal funding of more than $3 million — a price tag that includes salaries for three pilots and a program director who were terminated last month.

“Why do you need to fund something, the fate or future of which we have not determined?” Bigelow asked. “You’re saying to ghost fund a ghost program.”

Wilson said he didn’t “understand” in response to Bigelow’s question about when he first knew about funding and billing problems in the program.

The failure of county officials to meet federal safety regulations prohibited them from billing for $3.5 million in flights.

Commission Chairman John Manning stopped Bigelow, calling him “out of order.” None of the commissioners supported Bigelow’s effort to overturn that ruling.

Assistant County Manager Pete Winton said any unused Medstar money would go back into the general fund.

While the commission will continue to put out more money than the county collects, property tax rates will stay at 4.1506 mills in the upcoming year.

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Commissioner Tammy Hall opposed that, advocating for a tax rate increase that would compensate for the revenues that were lost when property values dropped by 0.2 percent. Hall added that in addition to raising the tax rate, she thinks the county can better spend the money it receives.

“I don’t believe we’re ever going to zero this budget,” Hall said. “In my opinion, I do believe we’re underbudgeted.”

County management is counting on property value increases of 2 percent a year for four consecutive years to equal out the budget before the reserves run out. Officials also need to cut the budget by about $1 million a year over the same period for spending and revenues to reach an equilibrium in fiscal year 2017-18.

Winton has said the county also needs to examine raising taxes on cable television, rental cars and other services.

The budget provided $1.5 million for design improvements along Homestead Road in downtown Lehigh Acres.

It also avoided cuts to the partnering for results program, which funds local community outreach organizations. County officials feared Medicaid mandates from the state would have forced them to slash funding to the program.

Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott had his budget cut by $1.5 million because of his plan to spend about that much money on employee bonuses.

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