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Orlando City Council approves tentative budget that maintains last year’s increased tax rate 

Undeterred by last year's criticisms for raising the property tax rate by 17.7 percent, Orlando's City Council stuck with the status quo and gave preliminary approval on Sept. 9 to the city's proposed $1.1 billion budget.

With few peeps from residents, commissioners quickly approved last year's property tax rate of $6.65 per $1,000 of taxable value. Last year the $1 tax rate hike helped close a shortfall in the budget, and this time around, it has given the city a nice little funding cushion. Orlando expects to collect $146 million in property taxes this year – that's almost $18 million more than last fiscal year, and tax revenue actually surpasses the $137 million that Orlando was collecting in its prime before the recession.

"The real-estate market is on the rebound," said Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh in a presentation to commissioners, pointing out that the city's taxable base rose by 14 percent. "We're seeing a tremendous amount of growth."

Seeing as we're not in the red now, some people may ask, why keep the higher tax rate? Mayor Buddy Dyer's spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser says in an email that the rate was increased last year, "to continue to provide the high level of services that Orlando residents expect." If the tax rate were lowered to the previous rate it was before the hike ($5.65 per $1,000 of taxable value), the estimated revenue would drop to $124 million. Lafser adds that the city is saving residents $33 a year per household by foregoing automatic increases to waste fees and has scaled back the size of the budget by $379 million since 2002.

No surprise, the police department and fire department take a large chunk (57 percent) out of the general fund, which is budgeted at $401 million. Orlando Police Department's budget is the biggest at $131 million, and the capital improvement projects include $1 million to each department for equipment replacement and the added purchase of body cameras for police officers. Dyer has also said the city is investing $50 million into the city's infrastructure for resurfacing roadways and improving drainage, and $4 million for homeless initiatives.

Commissioners also got a raise in their individual budgets, from $95,000 to $125,000 each, which would bring them back to the same amount they had in fiscal year 2008-2009. The council had a small kerfuffle at its meeting in August when Commissioner Jim Gray said his fellow elected officials, "have not adopted a very good culture of spending and have continued to exceed their operating budget."

Commissioners Sam Ings and Regina Hill spent $120,000 and $90,000 respectively last fiscal year, and together beat out the four other commissioners on spending. In addition to their operating budgets, commissioners also get a $54,461 annual salary.

These decisions are not final until they go before the council for a second time on Sept. 21 at 5:01 p.m. This meeting is the last hearing before the city adopts the final budget on Oct. 1.

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