Homestead City Council held its final budget hearing Wednesday September 23.

Mayor Steve Losner began with the presumptive tax figures after the first September budget hearing – a 6.9810 millage rate, an increase of 1.0595 mills or 25% more than the rollback rate. Homestead’s rollback rate is 5.9215, the operating millage rate used without an increase for many years.

Figures are complicated by the addition of 0.2840 mills for the County library tax Homestead now collects. This old tax had been paid directly to the County. Its addition artificially inflates Homestead’s millage rate by an increase of about 4.7%.

Homestead’s budget is more difficult because of revenue shortfall and increased costs during the COVID pandemic. Staff estimated a budget gap of at least $1.1 million for 2021 before severe cost-cutting efforts.

Council discussion indicated majority support for a budget including some combination of police body cameras costing $777,799 the first year (or + .2641 mills) and hiring ten additional police officers at a cost of $1.5 million (or + .5114 mills). Those figures, the library tax, and the current rollback rate equal the proposed 6.9810 millage.

Vice Mayor Patricia Fairclough-Staggers opened the discussion on multiple meetings with staff for further cuts and for funding increases.

“The manager shared some potential funding for Council to consider,” she said. “These are Homestead-Miami Speedway contingency funds and forfeiture funds.”

City Manager Cate McCaffrey said, “There are $189,000 in federal forfeiture funds and $150,000 in state forfeiture funds with less structured usage. This equals $339,000 while the first year camera costs are $310,000. This is not recurring revenue.”

“For the Speedway, there is recurring revenue of approximately $400,000,” said the Manager. “The (annual) cost of staffing for cameras is $417,000.

We could move a staff position to the police department for the (required) civilian staff and that would reduce the cost to $324,000.” The body camera program requires two sworn police officers and a civilian employee to administer.

Councilmember Fairclough-Staggers looked at cuts to Council travel and training of $39,000 for savings and offered to forego her paid Council health insurance. “Florida City is moving forward (with body cameras),” she said.

“They have a three year contract, why must we have five years?”

Staff explained amortization of cameras was cheaper over five years so a three year contract potentially costs more. The City Finance Director later added that forfeiture funds could not be used for salaries.

“I campaigned against more taxes,” said Councilmember Fairclough-Staggers. “But the environment has shifted. We have to move with the times. I’m willing to compromise. What are we willing to do?”

Councilmember Erica Avila said, “I don’t think we have enough information to make a final decision. Although I support both cameras and more officers, maybe that’s not something our taxpayers are in agreement with. We’re lacking input from the community. I’m in favor of what my constituents are in favor of.” She supported a voter referendum on any tax increase.

Discussion on body cameras included pursuing grants for payment with the conclusion that some federal money might be available later next year. Mayor Losner said budgeting for cameras now precludes qualifying for later grant payments.

“The forfeiture money being thrown around was the accumulation of prior years and raiding the Speedway budget for body cameras could incur thousands in attorney fees,” said Mayor Losner. “We have an engaged populace based on all the emails and phone calls. In these uncertain times, increasing the tax rate is a big deal.”

“No one has indicated the police are at a breaking point,” he added. “The number of police calls has trended downward dramatically as have arrests. The analysis shouldn’t rely solely on the metric of population increase. This is a special year; it’s not fair to assess an increase in the tax rate this budget year.”

After eighteen public comments, Councilmembers Jenifer Bailey and Sean Fletcher favored meeting next week to talk about reconfiguring costs under the budget.

Finance Director Carolos Perez said, “Council has to adopt the budget tonight.”

Mayor Losner asked if Council could meet to reallocate or agree to not fully spend budgeted items provided revenue millage was not changed. Perez said that was correct.

Councilmember Avila made the motion set the millage rate where it was originally. Including the library tax, that figure would be 6.2055 mills.

Councilmembers Roth, Shelley, Avila and Losner voted yes while Bailey, Fletcher and Fairclough-Staggers voted no, so the motion passed.

Continuing discussion on 2021 budget allocations, Councilmember Fairclough-Staggers made the motion to negotiate a contract for body cameras using forfeiture money for first year costs and moving a civilian staffer to police administration.

Although this motion initially passed five to two (Roth and Losner voting no), it was reconsidered on a vote of five to two (Bailey and Fairclough-Staggers voting no).

Since City revenue sources had been set, Councilmember Steve Shelley said, “I’m uncomfortable with this pot of money out there as a general issue. It has to be expressed what it’s for and that’s council’s decision as I don’t want it allocated for unexpected things. It should be earmarked, either for officers or for body cameras.”

Mayor Losner said, “I’m a little exasperated because we’ve had so much talk, to have this conversation tonight. It’s one we should have had in the past and with staff prior to tonight. It would be reckless to cobble together a budget without having the numbers before us.”

Councilmember Avila moved to adopt the budget with additional monies for “public safety”. Councilmember Fairclough-Staggers moved to amend the motion to specify money for body cameras. That proposed amendment failed two to five (Bailey and Fairclough-Staggers voting yes).

“Here’s where we’re at,” said Mayor Losner. “Without raising taxes, the majority of Council wants both body cameras and additional police officers but we don’t know how many officers or how many cameras. I’m not going to be reckless, forced to make those decisions tonight in this financial climate and commit nonrecurring funds for recurring expenses and I’m not making the decision after four hours tonight on some on-the-fly budget reallocation. Really, this unties all the methodical conversations we’ve had in the past.”

Council reverted to Councilmember Avila’s original motion to allocate any additional monies for public safety. The motion passed with Avila, Roth, Shelley, and Losner voting yes and Fletcher, Bailey, and Fairclough-Staggers voting no.

The last agenda item was adoption of the fiscal 2021 budget. As staff recomputed budget figures, Council talked about meeting next week to, as the Mayor termed it, “laser sculpture the budget”.

The new general fund budget was set at $52,226,103, giving the C.R.A. a budget of $4,633,756 under the reduced millage, for a City budget total of $193,198,509 including all enterprise and debt service funding.

The vote on this required final budget ordinance was six to one with Fairclough-Staggers voting no.

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