A tumultuous couple of months for Sumter County commissioners came to an end Tuesday night when they gave final approval to a $386.8-million budget for 2023-24.
The budget process was the toughest since 2019, when a 25 percent property tax rate increase generated so much public outrage that it led to the ouster of three commissioners in the next year’s election.
Again this year, commissioners stirred public outrage with proposed substantial fire assessment increases based on square footage for non-residential property that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars for some businesses.
This time, however, commissioners voted 3-2 last month to reject the proposed fire assessment hikes and instead take a severe financial hit for both county fire departments.
Through creative budgeting and cooperation from the firefighters’ union, Sumter County was able to avoid firefighter layoffs, although new jobs in the proposed budgets were lost.
The Villages Public Safety Department (VPSD) provides fire, emergency medical services and ambulance transport in The Villages while Sumter County Fire and Rescue provides those services in the rest of the county.
To help make up the loss of revenue, both departments now are allowed to charge for annual business fire inspections and hazardous materials incident responses. The VPSD may use revenue for operations that previously was restricted to capital expenses. Last week, commissioners increased the annual fire assessment fee by $1 per parcel to $125, the maximum permitted under a current cap.
The firefighters’ union agreed to forego an 8.7 percent cost-of-living increase for county employees as well as some stipends and training reimbursements to help avoid layoffs.
Commissioners set the property tax rate at $5.19 per $1,000 assessed valuation, down from $5.59 last year. It is slightly less than the rolled-back rate, the amount needed to collect the same revenue as the prior year excluding new construction.
Sumter County is expected to collect $101.3 million in total property tax revenue in 2023-24, up from $95 million last year.
The $386.8-million budget is up $73.8 million from last year, a 23.6 percent increase. It is lower than a July expenditure estimate of $441 million, which included the higher fire assessment fees.
About $15 million is allocated for road, bridge and sidewalk projects while $11.5 million is earmarked for sewer and water projects.
Other capital expenditures include a service center and fire training facility expected to cost about $38 million, a $4-million supervisor of elections warehouse and a $3-million sheriff’s tactical range.
The budget adds 22 new positions to the Sheriff’s Office for a total of 404 employees.