Rift evident between Villages and Fruitland Park as crowd questions city’s tax rate

Fruitland Park commissioners voted to reduce the city’s millage rate for the coming fiscal year after hearing from a crowd of Villagers who came to a specially called Friday night meeting armed with questions.

A crowd of more than 150 people – most of them Villagers – attended the special Fruitland Park budget meeting Friday night.

The commission also heard the first reading of a $10.9 million budget, approved a new fire assessment fee schedule and agreed to take a hard look at the costs of the new library that’s being built next to city hall.

Friday’s meeting was held at the Community Methodist Church, a couple of blocks away from City Hall, and by the time it got under way, the majority of pews in the sanctuary were full of Villagers who came armed with everything from charts to budget documents to tax bills.

The special meeting was necessary because the commission chamber at city hall couldn’t hold all the Villagers who showed up last Thursday to ask questions and express their thoughts on the millage rate and the budget.

On Friday, commissioners heard from many residents who said they simply couldn’t understand why the millage rate wasn’t being drastically reduced. Gary Drake, Village of Pine Hills, showed the audience a chart showing marked increases in ad valorem tax revenue in the city from 2015-19.

“What kind of a justification with these high increases, year over year, do you have for not reducing the millage rate even more?” he asked.

Vice Mayor John Gunter said the city’s police force has doubled in size since The Villages became a part of the community in 2015 and operating it continues to cost the city a great deal of money. Commissioner Rick Ranize pointed out that the city pays $240,000 annually to send sewage to Lady Lake because the city’s sewer treatment plant doesn’t work properly. And he said things like Hurricane Irma can come along and cost the city money it isn’t counting on paying out.

Gunter said residents also don’t realize that the city has to pay things like an electric bill for the street lights and other expenses that quickly add up.

“Year after year, something comes up,” he said.

Members of the Fruitland Park Commission prepare to hold a special budget meeting Friday night.

Gunter also suggested that residents need to attend city commission meetings on a regular basis and start asking questions about the proposed budget and millage rate in August when workshops and meetings are held for that kind of thing.

“You all ought to come up here and sit where I’m sitting,” a somewhat exasperated Gunter said. “We have eight to 10 people at a commission meeting and four of them are staff. You’re only interested when it’s coming out of your pocket, but yet you’re not at the commission meetings to see what happens,” he added as groans filled the audience.

Longtime Fruitland Park resident Rita Ranize addresses the crowd.

A couple of times during the meeting, the tone turned to an “us versus them mentality.” Ranize’s wife, Rita, said that the city has changed dramatically since The Villages became a part of it.

“We welcomed you with open arms,” she said. “But tonight I’ve heard the separation of The Villages from Fruitland Park. I’m Fruitland Park.

“We’ve invited you here and I hope you’re happy here. I was. But when my husband’s done being a commissioner, I’m moving.”

Villagers Gary Drake, Mary Ann Mobilian, District 2 candidate John Mobilian and Patty Drake.

Eva Peterson, who moved to The Villages from California, said she didn’t know anything about Florida when she moved to the Village of Pine Ridge. She said she’s originally from Chicago and was surprised to see her Zip Code listed as Fruitland Park. And she also offered her thoughts on Rita Ranize’s statements.

“Thank you for your invitation but I never asked for it,” she said.

That struck a nerve with William Edgar Bare, a third-generation Floridian who lives on Dixie Avenue.

“Nobody was invited here,” he said. “Everybody’s welcome everywhere you go.”

Fruitland Park resident William Edgar Bare shares his thoughts on the millage rate.

Bare added that he doesn’t think Villages residents should be questioning the millage rate.

“It’s ridiculous to be complaining about the little bit of money you guys are paying to live here,” he said. “Quit complaining and be thankful for what you’ve got. These people here are doing all they can to help us out, each and every one of them. And they all pay the same money that you do.”

Mary Ann Mobilian, whose husband, John, is running for the District 2 seat on the commission, said Villagers are concerned about the millage rate and budget for a variety of reasons, but they’re pleased to be a part of Fruitland Park.

“I feel like we’ve gotten some lectures here tonight that were undeserved,” she said. “I also feel like we’re coming here so that we can talk to you as the representatives of Fruitland Park. We have been civil and I think our concerns are valid. I hope you take us seriously because we’re taking all of this very seriously.”

Commissioner Rick Ranize answers a question from the audience.

After everyone had spoken, Commissioner Ranize said he would support setting the millage at the rollback rate of 3.9134 per $1,000 assessed valuation, instead of the current 3.9863 rate. Cheshire agree and it passed 4-0 (Commissioner Ray Lewis was traveling and didn’t attend the meeting).

Commissioners also heard the first reading of an adjusted budget that takes into account the lower millage rate. They’ll meet at the church again next Thursday so there’s plenty of room for those who want to attend and offer their thoughts on the new budget that will take effect Oct. 1.

Friday’s meeting also saw the commission approve fire assessment fees of $256 per household in the older portion of Fruitland Park and $194 per house for those in The Villages part of the city. And after receiving a myriad of questions about the cost of the new library, Cheshire instructed City Manager Gary Lavenia and Treasurer Jeannine Racine to look at figures and information provided by Villager Patty Drake that suggested the building was about $1 million over budget. He asked them to come back to the commission with a breakdown of the actual costs for both the structure and the furnishings that will go inside the facility.

And commissioners split 2-2 on a vote for a $45,000 transfer from the capital improvement fund to the general fund for a deposit on the new furniture, meaning the request from Library Director Jo-Ann Glendinning was denied.

Interim Police Chief Erik Luce speaks about police protection in the city.

After the meeting, both Mary Ann and John Mobilian said they were happy with the outcome.

“I felt like the commissioners did an excellent job listening,” said Mary Ann, who is serving as her husband’s campaign manager in his race against fellow Villager Fred Collins for the District 2 seat. “They were responsive and they chose to amend the millage rate and roll it back to 3.91. I think that was a huge relief to a lot of people.”

Mary Ann also offered praise for all the Villagers who attended the meeting.

“The residents of Pine Hills and Pine Ridge are very active,” she said. “They’re very involved and they’re the reason we’re here.”

John agreed.

“They had some really pointed questions to ask and I think the commissioners did a pretty good job of trying to answer some of the questions,” he said. “They came to us in our campaign and asked us to help them organize and get the word out so people could make it to the budget hearing. I think it was pretty successful.”

Mayor Chris Cheshire talks about the millage rate and the budget at Friday night’s commission meeting.

Cheshire, a longtime advocate of transparency in government, said he was thrilled to see so many Villagers and others from the city attend the special meeting.

“It was fantastic to see that kind of participation,” he said. “We appreciate their concerns and we’re going to make sure that every one of their questions gets answered. That’s extremely important to me.”