Despite the pandemic, a rise in Alachua County unemployment and a slow year for the local tourism industry, the Alachua County Manager’s proposed budget for the 2022 fiscal year showed an increase in revenue and spending.
The budget proposal comes at a time where many are worried local economies are suffering from the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Alachua County has managed to make up for some of its pandemic-related losses. Required by law to present a balanced budget, County Manager Michelle Lieberman’s budget proposal shows a budget increase of nearly $78 million for the 2022 fiscal year, including a $25 million increase in the general fund.
The county has been able to increase its budget largely due to the quickly increasing property values in the area, said Mark Sexton, Alachua County communications and legislative affairs director. The county’s property appraiser is estimating a 6% increase in property values this year, Sexton said. An increase in property values means an increase in property taxes, which are the main revenue source for the county, contributing about $130 million to the $564 million budget. The increased construction in the area has also allowed the county to generate more revenue via property taxes, Sexton said.
Lieberman also proposed lowering the property tax millage rate, the county’s largest revenue source, from 7.8935 to 7.8662. This would mark the fifth consecutive year the county has reduced the millage rate.
“Thanks to our prudent and responsible financial planning over many years,” Lieberman said, “we can implement this decision while continuing to provide the same level of excellent programs and services.”
Florida has seen similar budget increases this year. The state passed a $101.5 billion state budget in April, a nearly $10 billion increase in spending from the last fiscal year.
“It’s been interesting because early on when we started projecting what the effect of a global pandemic was going to be, there was a great deal of doom and gloom,” Sexton said, “But the state’s budget this year was actually the largest budget they’ve ever passed.”
Should the proposal be adopted, funds will go toward projects such as developing a new administration building, providing affordable housing and land conservation.
Lieberman also proposes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for county employees.
The budget will be the subject of deliberation by county commissioners with two final hearings in September. The 2022 fiscal year runs from Oct. 1, 2021, to Sep. 30, 2022.
“It is clear to me that building and nurturing strong partnerships within our community is a commission priority,” Lieberman said. “And that priority is reflected in this budget.”
Even though the county has been able to increase its budget, it has incurred losses in some areas.
The county’s revenue from both gas sales and the bed tax, a tax hotels and temporary lodgings charge travelers, was significantly reduced at the end of the 2020 fiscal year and beginning of the 2021 fiscal year, said Tommy Crosby, Assistant County Manager. However, the taxes are recovering and are expected to continue recovery into the 2022 fiscal year.
During the pandemic, Alachua County has also been the recipient of federal aid money. In July 2020 the county received $46 million from the CARES Act. Nearly $21 million was given directly to citizens who had COVID-19-specific impacts, Sexton said. About $2.7 million went to small businesses, $6.3 million went to government agencies, about $2.7 million went to nonprofit organizations conducting COVID-19 aid and about $11 million went to the county’s COVID-19 relief efforts. Sexton said all of the CARES Act money was allocated and spent by December 2020.
The county also received $17 million from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Sexton said. This money helps support county residents struggling to pay rent as a result of the pandemic.
The next phase of COVID-19 financial assistance comes through the American Rescue Plan. The county will receive $52 million in aid, and is in the process of planning how it will be spent. Commissioners have discussed putting money toward public health measures and infrastructure, among other things, Sexton said.
Last year Alachua County managed to complete various community projects amid the pandemic including the Alachua County Agriculture & Equestrian Center in Newberry, the UF/IFAS Extension building and Cuscowilla Nature Park and Retreat. The county is also working on the Alachua County Regional Sports Complex, a project Lieberman said will generate over 1,000 jobs, $77 million in economic activity and over $12 million in tax revenues, annually.
“We are hopeful that we have seen the worst of the pandemic,” Lieberman said. “And we are looking forward to tackling the challenges of the next year as we continue to build and strengthen partnerships — because we are better together.”