You’ll (Probably) Pay More Taxes If You Vote For This Idea In November

In Brief:

  • Niceville city leaders urged residents to vote against a property tax exemption amendment, citing potential future budget challenges and tax hikes due to reduced tax revenue.
  • The City Manager and Mayor discussed current budget difficulties and highlighted upcoming capital projects, including reclaimed water piping, a special needs park overhaul, and a new sports complex.
  • Concerns were raised about the need for hurricane-resistant facilities to house first responders, with plans for a new city hall complex in the early design and engineering stages.

Niceville’s City Manager and Mayor exhorted a tiny group to vote against a property tax exemption, explained why they believed the City would have another ‘ugly’ budget year, and updated residents on the search for a new top cop at the latest installment of Coffee and Conversations with the City Manager and Mayor Monday Night.

Despite outcry about holding the meetings during working hours by keyboard warriors on social media, a total of four residents, one reporter and one member of the planning and zoning board came to the meeting. Typically there are about 10 people at a ‘conversations’ session.

Property Tax Exemptions

Proposed state amendment five on this year’s general election ballot drew the most ire from city leadership.

If it gains 60% of the vote, the amendment would adjust the homestead exemption on property tax annually based on inflation.

That would mean less tax revenue at the current tax rate for the City.

While it might mean a temporary reprieve from taxes, the legislature uses homestead exemptions like a shell game that ends up making them look great, and local governments look like the bad guys when they have to raise their tax rates to make ends meet. The exemptions hit harder in a place with a heavy military community like Niceville – which already has many residents from its military community who receive a partial or total exemption from property tax. Deitch, a 100% disabled veteran, noted that he and people like him do not have to pay property tax – so a smaller pool of people than a city with fewer retired and separated veterans will make up the difference in the needs of the community by paying extra – especially as more and more exemptions mount on top of one another. “The point is, all of that stuff accumulates,” Deitch said, “It builds like a snowball. It negatively impacts the City’s ability to do stuff.”

Both the manager and the mayor believe the amendment will pass despite what Mayor Henkel called the “unintended consequences” of the ballot measure.

Both of Niceville’s representatives in Tallahassee, State Representative Patt Maney (R | Shalimar) and State Senator Jay Trumbull (R | Panama City) voted to add the measure to the ballot.

Long story short, they say a vote for the property tax homestead exemption increase in November is a vote for a property tax rate increase or cuts of some services in the future.

Budgets and Hurricane-Resistant Buildings

Mayor Henkel and City Manager Deitch noted that once again, the budgeting process for the City would be “ugly” for fiscal year 2025 due to the expectation that amendment 5 will pass, needs for pay raises at the City to retain talent, attract new workers, and work toward paying a wage that allows at more of the City’s employees to live in the City. “Personnel is always the biggest cost in any organization,” Deitch told the small group, “I’m trying to get my teammates up to a livable salary while we’re not breaking and crushing the citizens simultaneously.”

He also noted that for years, the City has pulled from cash reserves and fee-based funds like the water and sewer department to make ends meet. He called that model unsustainable and told the audience he wanted to wean the City off those funding sources within the next half-decade.

Immediate capital projects for the Fiscal Year 25 include:

  • Reclaimed water piping to the eastern portion of Niceville—This grant-funded expansion of reclaimed water availability will result in less aquifer water use (the state has cracked down on its use among cities in our area) and lower water costs for residents.
  • Meigs Park Special Needs Overhaul – Earlier this year, Okaloosa County Commissioner Mel Ponder pitched an idea for a field of dreams park tailored for kids with special needs at Meigs Park due to its central location in the county. The City agreed that a joint partnership would begin the rehab process in fiscal year 2025.
  • Turning the Mullet Festival Twin Oaks Site into a Sports Complex—Dietch told the group that he plans to use artificial turf on 20 acres of land with lines for football, soccer, and lacrosse. “That’s enough [fields] for Niceville forever,” Deitch said.

Manager Deitch noted that his office was not considering another property tax rate hike like the one that passed the council last year.

Future Planning

Part of the need, Deitch says, is a place to put his first responders in an emergency. He hopes to start the multi-year process of knocking down the old city hall complex and building a condensed two-story, hurricane-resistant facility in Fiscal Year 2025 “I don’t have anywhere to house my first responders and my public works safely,” Deitch said in the context of hurricane response, “None of my buildings are rated for hurricanes. So, during a hurricane, where do I put them?” He said that he needs a place to put the team or an operations center to manage them after a storm – as he believes most or all of his buildings would not be operational after a hurricane hit.

Currently, the plan is to house first responders in local schools, which are, in most cases, older than the City of Niceville’s municipal buildings. “I don’t think any of the schools are cat[egory hurricane] four, cat[egory five] rated. I don’t know if they are even category three, but that’s our only option.”

Deitch believes that the City will pay for the design and engineering of a new city hall complex in fiscal year 25 but will not move forward with the cost-heavy construction portion of the upgrade until after that fiscal year has ended.

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