CRESTVIEW — Financial pressure from the state forced the Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners to raise ad valorem taxes, Commissioner Wayne Harris says.
The 17 cents per $1,000 increase helps address $38.5 million in unfunded mandates that the state has imposed on the county for the past three years, Harris said on Thursday.
"We cut as much as we possibly could," he said. "If we didn't have to spend the $38.5 million, we'd probably lower the taxes. Raising taxes wouldn't even have been under consideration."
County chief financial officer Gary Stanford cited the following state unfunded mandates as being particularly burdensome to Okaloosa County:
•Retirement contributions for county employees, which the Florida Legislature periodically changes
•Detention services for the Department of Juvenile Justice: "The cost of the operating and support services for those services is 'shared,' as they say, with counties," Stanford said. "We pay millions of dollars for those detention services."
•Federally mandated state Medicaid contributions, the cost of which Florida passes directly to counties
•The state-implemented Healthcare Responsibility Act: "It basically requires local governments to pay for indigent healthcare cost for county residents, regardless of where the service is provided in the state," Stanford said.
The state has a process for balancing its own budget, Harris said.
"This is the process," he said, making a sweeping motion across the table with his hands. "They sweep it from Tallahassee to local government and let us take the heat."
While counties are forced to make unpopular cuts in services or unwanted tax increases to finance these and other state mandates, the state appears to have balanced its budget, Harris said.
"What we do is cut 134 staff positions, cut purchases, we cut down spending," Harris said. "When they (the state) cut, they just dump it on the counties. It looks great for them."