Members of the East County Water Control District (ECWCD) will vote Aug. 19 at a regular meeting to set their budget which could result in a small assessment fee hike or no tax hike at all.
The board meet at its headquarters board room on East County Lane last week for a second budget workshop. All five members of the board were there - Chairman David Deetscreek, Ken Thompson, Mike Bonacolta, Mike Welch, and Nate Stout.
Second the first budget workshop two weeks earlier, the staff at the ECWCD has "refined" the three scenarios prepared for the commissioners to study to make a final decision. That decision could mean upping assessment fees three percent or leaving them as they already are.
Five people, who said they lived in Lehigh, staged a protest in the parking lot of the ECWCD before the 6:30 p.m. meeting. They carried homemade signs urging commissioners to vote no to any type of tax hike.
Residents of Lehigh Acres pay an assessment fee to the water control district which maintains miles and miles of canals, culverts and bridges. The ECWCD has 30 employees and they have not had a pay raise for the last few years. In July of 2009, they had to relinquish part of their COLA increase and pay for their own insurance which the state required.
An average assessment fee established by the ECWCDF is $105.15 for an acre of land. That tax hike came in 2010, according to records at the ECWCD.
One of three sceneries seeks a 3 percent hike in the assessment fee, which would amount to an increase of $15.35 an acre. For someone living on a half-acre, the fee would be half that much and on a quarter acre, the average lot size in Lehigh, would be an assessment fee of a 79- cent tax hike for a year.
Commission members haggled back and forth over the tax hike albeit it a small amount. Some said a small hike was less than what it cost in gasoline to attend the meeting for the commissioners while others said just a slight increase is more than what people in Lehigh can stand, when added to other taxes they must pay.
A dozen people attended the hearing and four people spoke during the public's part of the meeting. The people who had been carrying signs outside, left early on during the meeting.
Before commissioners began their discussion, Mohammad Yasin, a well-known community activist and former teacher, and a member of the Lehigh Acres Community Planning Commission (LACPP), was straight forward with his comments.
"This is not the time to even think about any type of tax assessment increase for the people of Lehigh," he said.
As far as realtors saying home prices are going up, I don't see many homes being moved into and since 2009 there have been a lot of layoffs in Lehigh and it is not getting any better. I am just telling you that not many in Lehigh are doing well. Maybe in five years of so if we become a city, we can a look at how we are financing both the water control district and the fire district," Yasin said.
Steve Conti, a retired realtor and mortgage lender, told the board that he has heard from people all over Lehigh and they have told him, he says, they cannot afford a tax increase.
"Hundreds of families in Lehigh don't want new taxes to pay," he said.
Bill Buhlar spoke before the board and said he lived north of SR 80 and since 1997 "has paid the board $150,000 in taxes" and has received no services.
And finally Frank McIntosh said he has been in Lehigh for 18 years and like people in Lehigh there have been no pay raises for the people here.
"If you raise our taxes, we won't forget it," he said.
As the budget hearing began, Commission Chairman Dave Deetscreek said he wanted to on record.
"I am opposed to any type of tax increase, even the smallest amount. It's still difficult to understand the complexities of the budget process. I am just not convinced to entertain the idea to raise the fees.," he said
He suggested that a budget committee be formed in he future that would work with the board year-round.
"Maybe 10 or 11 people in Lehigh could participate and take the politics out of the decision making," he said.
Mike Welch said he had made a campaign commitment that he would not and will not raise taxes, even a couple of cents on the taxpayers of the district until he felt Lehigh was well on the road to recovery.
"We're not there yet. Residents have had to live within their means with reduced income and unemployment. Lehigh was the hardest hit. May mind is made up and I will stick to my promise."
Later, Welch said after the meeting that during the past "several and brutal" years, the ECWCD was one of the few government entities that was able to hold the assessment rate and keep its employees on the payroll with good pay and benefits while thousands lost their jobs.
"We watched as so many in state and local governments as well as in the private sector lost their jobs, and we were stable. I am trying, along with a majority of the board of commissioners to continue to create a culture of thriftness and conservative spending out of respect for the very people who pay the bills - the taxpayers." He said last Monday's board meeting indicates that there is a majority that will vote for a budget scenario that does not raising taxes on the people of the district and Lehigh. He said he thinks the residents continue send a resounding message "to us and other levels of government to live within our means. Period."
Then Mike Bonacolata, who is usually not as vocal as the others on the board, spoke up and said he believed Scenario B is what he will go with. It has no assessment rate increase.
"I just wanted to say that for the record," he said.
But Commissioner Nate Stout spoke up and said he knows that things are better in Lehigh. He noted that over the last 12-month period, the selling price of a home has risen 26 percent.
"If a home was worth $100,000 a year ago, it is now worth $126,000 and if it was worth $50,000 it is now worth $63,000 and that is from the county's Board of Realtors.
"People in Lehigh are working. The housing permits are going up in Lehigh.
"I have voted to lower taxes over the years. Florida now has raised its minimum wage almost 7.5 percent. People in Lehigh are much better off. Look at our sheriff, he is asking for a 3 percent raise for his employees and the Property Appraiser is asking for a 3 percent raise for their employees. It's not as bad as some people in Lehigh think," he maintained.
Mike Welch jumped in and said his house went down in value and has not risen.
Stout came back and said, "we should consider raising the salaries of our employees like others are doing. Chairman Deetscreek responded that he took exception that "we're not taking care of our employees," an inference he understood from Stout.
Mike Welch joined in and said he would not change his mind - "We can be here until midnight. I won't vote to raise taxes on Aug. 19."
Meanwhile during the meeting Commissioner Kenneth Thompson said he thought the board was spending too much for legal representation and wanted to discuss it at the next meeting.
Thompson is himself an attorney and said he believes there should be caps of legal costs.
While the meeting was civil and calm, at the end the seven people left were allowed to speak before the board again. No vote could be taken at this budget workshop.
Looking at Commissioner Stout, Mohammad Yasin said "those numbers are not right, referring the Stout's quotes he said came from the county board of realtors about the increased values of homes in Lehigh.
The surprise came at the end of the meeting, too, when Bill Buhler came back to the podium to speak after learning that the increased assessment fees amount from less than a dollar increase a year on most people to a few bucks on others.
"Most of you gentlemen spent more than that to get here tonight. If the people can't afford those small amounts of an increase, I am surprised."