Board faces budget challenges

Published 12:10 pm Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Charlotte County Board of Supervisors (BOS), despite the consistent effort it has made working with County Administrator Daniel Witt to discover an alternative path, assumed responsibility for the full charge of their duly elected duties and announced the reality of a significant raise to the real estate tax rate during the April 10 regular session. Several members of the Board expressed their reluctance to implement a tax increase, especially while the County’s economy is so strained.

The April session was well attended. The gallery filled to regular seating capacity.

The intended purpose of the tax increase was to offset a budget deficit that the County will carry into the 2019-2020 fiscal year and beyond due to the nature of its origin. The vast majority of the deficit is debt service on loans to finance improvement projects in the County.

In the simplest terms, Charlotte County is paying out more money as interest on loans than it is bringing in as revenue to the County coffers. Another alarming fact is that there are needs in the county that have been passed over or extended for any number of reasons which are going to have to be examined and ruled on.

The following items are listed as Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) on the most recent draft budget, which reflects adjustments made on or before April 10. The Capital Improvement Projects, the estimated total cost of each and the amount of service or interest required to maintain each have been listed in an effort to provide an abbreviated view of just the largest or costliest liabilities that the BOS, Administrator and staff have been working to adjust to a more favorable bottom line. The problem is that the total is simply too high when Phase II funding is inserted into the equation without countering it in some significant manner — such as a tax increase.

The list below begins with the Court House project and goes forward to the currently delayed Phase II funding for the Bacon/ Phenix school project. The total amounts listed below are rounded up or down to the nearest dollar from the totals listed on the most recent draft budget. These amounts are total amounts that can be financed over 10, 20 or even 30 years. The interest and eventual principal paid, along with any associated insurance fees to satisfy the loan is known as debt service.

Court House project – $8,659, 964

Eureka School — new HVAC/Electrical – $2,938,218

School Buses /Additional Renovation – $2,153,211

Phase I PPEA and operations – $6,100,000

Phase II PPEA (delayed) – $7,300,000

For an even greater sense of perspective, the debt service, or interest paid on $6.1 million for a 20, 25, or 30-year loan is the same for each term, according to the draft budget dated April, 10; $652,613. The interest paid on $7.3 million for the same year terms, however, is $586,000, $518,000 and $475,000 respectively.

The Board’s reaction to the School Board’s request for $7.3 million in funding to achieve project completion on behalf of Jamerson-Lewis at the March 13 BOS meeting reflected a-build-up of frustrations that bordered anger over the vague nature of the proposal along with a general lack of documentation or specification in a contract proposal asking for so much money.

An audio recording of the meeting minutes reveal Wylliesburg/Red Oak Supervisor Kay Pierantoni addressing Phillip Jamerson, telling him that, “… I refuse to agree to this proposal,” Adding a couple of minutes later, “I just think it would be so irresponsible of me.”

Donna Fore, Supervisor for Aspen/Phenix, voiced her discontent for the PPEA process altogether. “I feel like I have a gun to my head,” she said, “I don’t like feeling like that.

According to the minutes, a motion was made and seconded to delay Phase II funding for 30 days, during which time the BOS would seek advice from legal counsel as to the options left to them.

The PPEA matter was addressed again during the April 10 BOS meeting.

After considering the advice of counsel, a Resolution was adopted to adhere to the PPEA process in order to move forward with the intention of completing the project currently underway at Bacon and Phenix schools.

The Resolution met resistance from Kay Pierantoni and Donna Fore. Pierantoni challenged the language of the Resolution with Administrator Witt, ultimately revealing that the challenge was borne more from a serious concern that the language of the document might obligate the BOS to the extent it was during the prior agreement with the School Board.

Fore, by contrast, directly accused Witt of saying two different things while explaining the resolution at different times. Her contention was that as a result, Witt introduced a degree of ambiguity to the Resolution that effectively negated its power to delineate the parameters of obligation.

More than once, Fore is heard on audio asking Witt to “… consider rescinding his previous comment.” Each time Witt is heard responding simply, “I agree with the language of the Resolution as it is written.”

Ultimately, the resolution was adopted with Pierantoni and Fore voting against it.

Pierantoni explained that she changed her vote to no because Witt’s comments had clouded the meaning of the Resolution.

An ad hoc committee was created to better facilitate the actions of both the BOS and the School Board. The committee is comprised of Administrator Witt, Dr. Leonard, an independent consultant yet to be determined, the building and facilities manager of Charlotte County Public Schools and one County resident.

Further action, with regard to the tax increase, amounted the decision to place an advertisement, not a legal notice, in the local papers. Witt instructed members that they should advertise the highest intended number of increase — 13 cents rather than a lower number due to a law making it illegal to advertise a price and then raise it.

We were able speak with Administrator Witt by telephone the morning after the meeting. Witt maintained that each of the members of the BOS has been charged with a difficult task. He also pointed out that each member represents a portion of the community and he felt like they took their jobs seriously.