Walton Commissioners set the 2023-2024 millage rate and budget
Walton County, Sept. 26, 2023 - It is often said that if you want to continue to enjoy sausage, it is never a good idea to watch it being made. That probably holds true for crafting governmental budgets, too. At Monday night’s final Budget Hearing, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) took several hours to craft the sausage.
This was the second of two Public Hearings for the Fiscal Year 2023-2024 budget, which is governed by section 200.065 of the Florida Statutes. The purpose of the meeting was to set the final millage rate and final budget.
The millage rates tentatively approved by the Board at the first public hearing on September 11, 2023, are as follows: 3.6 mills for the County-wide millage, applied to the General Fund. This is a decrease from the Fiscal Year 2023 rate of 3.6363 mills.
The commissioners also set 0.441 mills for the North Walton Mosquito Control District, which is a decrease from the Fiscal Year 2023 rate of 0.4912 mills.
In aggregate, this is a 14.02% increase over the Rolled Back Rate. The Rolled Back Rate represents the computed millage rate that would essentially generate the same ad valorem tax dollars as the prior fiscal year.
The BCC approved the final adoption of a Walton County Budget for the fiscal year 2023-2024 in the amount of $318,071,593 for county government, of which $1,470,168 is for the North Walton Mosquito Control District.
Citizens requested a greater time allotment for comments, which the board voted to allow. Citizens then spent time asking questions about the process, explaining their thoughts and drawing comparisons between Walton County and other counties around the state.
Commission Chairman Danny Glidewell explained that the county commission’s portion of the tax bill is based on property values, which is wholly set by the Walton County Property Appraiser’s Office. The only factor governed by the BCC is the millage rate, which was recently reduced for the first time in 10 years from 3.6363 down to 3.6.
Commission Glidewell went on to explain that multiple entities in Walton County set their own budgets and millage rates, including the local school board, mosquito control, fire districts and others, which add to the total tax bill that the public receives.
Several citizens pointed out that among other counties, Walton County has the highest per capita total property tax levies. Walton County’s rate is at an average of approximately $4,000 per capita, while the state average is around $2,000. In the Panhandle, the average in Bay County is approximately $1,500 and Okaloosa County is around $1,471.
The annual budget per resident figures were also discussed. In Okaloosa, the amount was $469 per resident; in Bay County, 765; Miami-Dade $1,009, while in Walton County, the figure is $1,549.
However, Commissioner Glidewell explained that vast differences exist between Walton and other counties, especially in the Panhandle. Monroe County, which occupies the second highest per capita tax levies, is demographically very similar to Walton County.
Like Monroe, Walton County has a relatively small population. There are only three municipalities in Walton County and of those, only one, DeFuniak Springs, provides its own law enforcement. The densest population is in South Walton, which has no incorporated municipalities, thus Walton County provides for great majority of all roads, bridges, parks, infrastructure projects and recreational amenities. The Walton County Sheriff’s Office, which also accounts for a significant portion of the budget, provides all law enforcement for the county, except in DeFuniak Springs.
In other words, because of the differences in population, the tax bill is divided among fewer people; also, the small number of municipalities and the smaller number of services they provide cannot compare to the tremendous number of services the county must provide. Thus, true comparisons are more akin to apples and oranges than apples to apples.
Commissioner Glidewell and the other commissioners agreed that they need to do a better job of explaining the budget process and the factors that cause Walton County to be so very different than most other counties.
There was also some confusion regarding the wording of earlier motions about closing public comment versus closing the hearings. Ultimately, after several breaks, the Public Hearing was re-opened and some additional comments were made.
Finally, when it came time to officially set the millage rate and budget, Commissioner Brad Drake likened the budget to ‘deficit spending’, because the commissioners had voted to use unencumbered funds in the reserves to make up for the revenue difference caused by voluntarily reducing the millage rate.
After several consultations with County Finance Officer Melissa Thomason and Deputy County Attorney Matt Richardson, the final motion by Commissioner “Boots” McCormick and seconded by Commissioner Tony Anderson was to pass the budget was approved contingent upon County Administrator Quinn Robertson bringing back a resolution to amend the budget by $2 million, thus eliminating the use of reserve funds. The motion passed unanimously.
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