Fruitland Park commissioners reduced the city’s millage rate and approved a $10.9 million budget Thursday night, but not before fireworks erupted over the city’s new library and a man was escorted out of the meeting by a police officer.
But first, commissioners offered words of encouragement and prayers for one of their own after it was announced that Commissioner Ray Lewis had suffered a heart attack earlier in the day and was recovering at a hospital. Updates on his condition weren’t available Thursday night.
As for the business at hand, for the second week in a row the commission met at the Community Methodist Church – about a block from city hall – to accommodate the large crowd of vocal Villagers who attended. They came from the Villages of Pine Ridge and Pine Hills armed with questions about everything from how much they pay in taxes to health insurance costs for city employees to how many police officers are on patrol to plans for future growth. But by far the hottest topic of the night was the costs associated with the new library, which was estimated to be about 85 percent completed and is scheduled to open sometime after Thanksgiving.
At the beginning of the meeting, Mayor Chris Cheshire made a presentation about the budget, taxes and the library, among other things, in an effort to answer questions raised last week. He also asked members of the audience to be civil and limit their comments to three minutes per topic when addressing the commission.
One of the topics Cheshire highlighted was the library. He showed a slide that put the total cost of the building at $2.87 million, which City Treasurer Jeannine Racine said is only $19,250 over budget – an amount that will be paid through capital money generated by sales tax.
But Villager Patty Drake disputed those numbers and raised questions about how grant money was being used. And she then took aim at the overall cost of the building.
“The spending on the library is definitely out of control,” she said, adding that she believes the true costs are in the $3 million range.
Drake’s comments eventually surpassed three minutes, so Cheshire stopped her. The audience erupted in a round of boos and at one point a man in the audience yelled “Hitler” at Cheshire, who is Jewish.
After City Attorney Anita Geraci-Carver explained how Fruitland Park is in compliance with the rules governing grants and how the architect is intimately involved in the entire building process, Drake interrupted her to claim the architect had been fired – something she said she had been told the week before.
“Nobody said the architect had been fired,” Cheshire said.
City Manager Gary La Venia took it one step further by saying the architect attends every meeting concerning the progress of the library and is overseeing all facets of the building’s construction.
But Drake insisted she had been told the architect had been terminated.
“It was said at the last meeting,” she said. “Otherwise, why would I think that?”
Cheshire suggest that Drake sit down with La Venia, Racine and Geraci-Carver to go over the library project for clarification.
“It always seems like when you’re talking about compliance and use of funds, you always avoid the question,” she continued. “There’s always an excuse and when you’re in charge of a large amount of money, there should be accountability.”
La Venia offered to meet with Drake and go over the project but she interrupted him to question the city’s transparency on the building.
“He’s offering to go over the numbers with you so you get full transparency and you’re still arguing,” Cheshire said. “He will go over the numbers with you. They will open the books.”
After Drake finally agreed to meet with La Venia, Cheshire addressed the earlier outburst.
“I don’t mind if you boo me, but if one more person calls me Hitler, I will have you removed,” Cheshire said. “I asked for decorum. That is horrible, absolutely horrible, and I will not stand for that.”
With that, a man in the back of the audience started loudly questioning why Drake wasn’t allowed to continue speaking. Cheshire asked police officers to escort the man from the meeting and he continued addressing the mayor.
“You don’t have to remove me,” he said while walking to the door with an officer behind him. “I can get out of this hole myself.”
After hearing from several other speakers on a variety of topics, the commission voted 4-0 to set the millage at the rollback rate of 3.9134 per $1,000 assessed valuation. The rollback rate is the amount needed to collect the same ad valorem tax revenue as the prior year.
The commission also voted 3-1 to approve the $10.9 million budget for fiscal year 2018-19, with Commissioner Rick Ranize casting the only “no” vote. That budget contains a general fund of $7.8 million that will be used to operate the city. And it also includes a 3 percent cost of living raise for employees and monies for additional police officers, equipment, flex firefighters, a library assistant, road paving and new library books, to name a few items.
At the end of the three-hour meeting, despite the earlier heated exchange, each commissioner took time to thank the Villagers and others for attending the meeting.
“You’ve got valid questions,” said Ranize, who will be replaced by Villager Patrick DeGrave in November. “So thank you for all of your input,” he added to a round of applause.
Vice Mayor John Gunter and Commissioner Chris Bell agreed and encouraged Villagers to attend city functions and volunteer their time in some capacity. And Cheshire, who owns a medical practice in The Villages, said he has been excited about having Villagers as a part of the city since the day the commission first learned of the planned construction in the Villages of Fruitland Park.
“I said, ‘You can’t ask for better neighbors,” said Cheshire, a longtime vocal advocate of transparency in government. “You can’t ask for better people to come here. You guys have great ideas and there is a lot of experience out there that could be very useful.”