Power and Police Priorities

Winter Park’s electric utility and law enforcement emerged as partial winners in Winter Park’s budget debates. The city’s tax rate for 2018 will stay the same.

In the wake of Hurricane Irma and complaints about outages, city commissioners figured out ways to make more money available to the electric utility fund. The biggest chunk — $1 million – will be transferred to the utility this budget year from the city’s water reserves. Another $425,000 would be freed up in the utility’s 2018 contingency funding by moving street-lighting from the utility to the general fund, where it had been in the past.

Not yet known is whether that the additional $1.425 million will speed up the city’s underground wiring or how much work could be accomplished. Although several commissioners said the money was intended to move forward with undergrounding, Mayor Steve Leary said some of the $1 million could go toward other improvements necessitated by the hurricane. City Manager Randy Knight estimated the city’s total storm-related costs at $5.5 million with much of that ultimately covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

“The City has undergrounded just over six miles with the $3.5 million provided for the FY17 fiscal year,” said Clarissa Howard, the city’s communications director Tuesday. “It is extremely difficult to determine how much could be done with additional funds as each project is different and complexity can affect the cost.”

Commissioner Carolyn Cooper voted against the $1 million transfer, saying she preferred such fund-to-fund shifts be done as loans that are paid back. Both Mayor Leary and Commissioner Pete Weldon voted against putting street lighting back in the general fund.

NO BODY CAMERAS FOR POLICE

Police Chief Michael Deal was successful in winning an $862,000 increase in his department’s budget. In earlier budget talks, Mayor Leary had asked the department to cut its request by $200,000, but on Monday commissioners decided to approve the full request. They said they wanted the department to be competitive with other Central Florida departments in hiring new officers.

Commissioners, however, declined to budget the $120,000 Deal had sought for police body cameras. In earlier budget talks, only Mayor Leary had supported that request. Commissioner Weldon didn’t want the cameras to be used to make public safety a “political football,” and Chief Deal said he had seen no complaints of excessive force or racial profiling in the year he has been chief.

On Monday, Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel noted the police department’s healthy budget and said the chief could use the money for body cameras if he saw them as a priority. If the chief “can figure out a way to do it, fine,” she said.

NO TAX RATE INCREASE

Commissioner Weldon was unsuccessful in seeking a cut in the property tax rate to 3.9942 mills. That would have removed a half million dollars from the general fund. One mill equals $1 of tax for every $1,000 in assessed property value.

Weldon argued that the city’s coffers are healthy enough to sustain a lower rate. In addition, he said, the same millage will bring in more revenue because the city’s assessed property values have increased. Commissioners voted 4-1 to keep the rate at 4.0923 mills.

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    By: Geri Throne – Guest Columnist

    Author / Journalist
    Geri Throne moved to Winter Park with her husband and two young children over 40 years ago, after learning about the city as a reporter for the now-defunct Winter Park Sun Herald. She wrote extensively for that weekly about city issues and local politics in the 1970s.She later joined the staff of the Orlando Sentinel where she specialized in local government issues and in the 1980s served as Winter Park bureau chief. She worked at the newspaper’s Orlando office as an assistant city editor, deputy business editor and member of the Editorial Board before her retirement in 2003. A series of her editorials won a national award for educational reporting from the Education Writers Association in 2003. Geri has published several essays and short stories. She continues to pursue her interest in fiction writing with local authors and is working on a novel set in World War II.

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