Leadership Matters in Gardens Tax Rate Reduction

Last evening in a surprise move, the City Council voted 4-1 to reduce the planned tax rate slightly, from 5.74 to 5.67 mils, cutting the tax increase from just over $3M to about $2.5M.

September 18, 2014

This result was produced through the leadership of Mayor Bert Premuroso, who floated the initially unpopular proposal, made a reasoned and empassioned case for it, and put a stake in the ground over his opposition to the budget as written. At once reasonable, empathetic to counter-arguments, yet steadfast in his position, he convinced three of the four other members to follow his lead.

Public input during and since the September 3 meeting had been asking for a reduction, to share some of the property valuation windfall with the taxpayer. This specific reduction of about $500K was proposed by the Mayor at that meeting, but was met with skepticism and definitely not embraced by his four colleagues on the dais. Citing the “5 year plan” for flat millage, the endorsement by the volunteer Budget Oversight Committee, and the need for more money for capital projects, giving money back to the taxpayer was the last thing on their mind. City Manager Ron Ferris was also advising against it.

Last evening’s budget discussion started with Mr. Ferris listing a number of additional projects that could be done by using some reserves. Park usability in wet weather could be improved by a drainage field project proposed by David Levy. Additional ball fields could be created with a proposal by Marcie Tinsley. His report also cast cold water on any plan to reduce the millage, forecasting dire consequences if the stabilization fund were to be depleted, maybe forcing a tax rate increase in future years.

After comments from the public were heard (most asking for a millage cut), the normal order of council discussion was flipped and Mayor Premuroso went first. In a prepared speech, which he said he had been working on since the last meeting, the Mayor repeated his desire to reduce the millage by about $500K, to give a little something back to the residents who stuck with the city through the downturn. Laying out a well researched case involving economic conditions and projections, trends in the reserves, and a discussion of the conservative nature of the city’s planning, his arguments were compelling. With all due respect to staff and colleagues, he said he would not support the budget without a millage decrease.

In the ensuing discussion, Joe Russo first panned the idea, wandered around some other issues, then came back to the possibility of accepting it. David Levy said he could understand the argument, but would prefer to wait until next year to entertain any reductions. Eric Jablin was 100% against giving any money to the taxpayers. Marcie Tinsley, after considering the proposal in the period between the meetings had already convinced herself that it was the right thing to do.

The turning point was when the Mayor restated his intention to vote against the budget as written. On a board that values consensus and usually is unanimous in its decisions, that rattled Joe Russo. Trying to force the issue, Eric Jablin moved that the budget be approved, but it failed 3-2, with Russo joining the Mayor and Tinsley. That was enough for David Levy, who wasn’t as strong in his position as Jablin, and he made the motion to adopt the Mayor’s proposed millage of 5.67 and it passed 4-1, with Jablin remaining opposed and stating that it was the first time he had ever voted against a budget.

The decision process, at times heated, but always cordial, is a credit to this Council, and particularly to the Mayor’s leadership. Decision making by public officials at all levels is sometimes painful to observe, given the partisan and ideological divides and the undue influence of special interests. There was none of that in evidence last evening.

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