By Dan Harkins
DELTONA - Jennifer Houdeshell was at the City Commission meeting last week with the signatures of 500 residents who she says are tired of seeing their utility bills continue to skyrocket.
City leaders got an angry earful from Ms. Houdeshell and others at the meeting, during which they approved the coming fiscal year's $125.5 million budget and the 7.99 mill roll back property tax rate to help generate it. The $7.99 per $1,000 of assessed property value is less than this year's 8.3591 mills.
It was the 17.25 percent increase in residents' water and sewer bills - the fifth straight year of increases - that had them seeing red. Ms. Houdeshell said the increases have amounted to an 86.25 percent increase to her water and sewer bill in those five years. She said commissioners could have decided to lower those rates while passing the budget.
"This is a very critical, fragile time financially in the lives of our people," she said. "We don't want to be known as rate payers. ... We're flesh and blood people."
Angelina Vega, an elderly resident of Saxon Woods whose husband is deceased, simply read off her monthly utilities bills to make her point.
"I live by myself," she said. "How is this that I have all these bills? ... And now they plan to raise them again. Our community is losing (households) because people cannot afford the expensive water bills."
Commissioner Zenaida Denizac said her own water and sewer bill had risen about 400 percent over the past decade.
"It keeps adding up," she said. "We've living through the worst economic times since the Great Depression, and we have a moral obligation to address this."
Apparently the commissioners heard the complaints, voting 6-1 Monday to suspend the fifth year of a 17.25 percent water and sewer rate increase. City leaders said construction of a new treatment plant would have to wait.
On the millage rate, Commissioner Herb Zischkau was the lone dissenting vote, saying it could have been set at 6 mills, just above the county's rate of 5.8.
"Each of us as commissioners, whether we ran as conservative tax cutters or not, have to be sensitive to the fact that this tax burden discourages new investment in Deltona," he said.
Though opponents argued a 6-mill rate would have cut into reserves about $3 million, Commissioner Zischkau said the city's general and utilities enterprise funds both have $14 million surpluses.
"We've already overtaxed people for years to get $14 million in general funds (surplus)," he said, "and now's the time for us to use $3 million to get this off people's backs."
The new millage, the county's highest, is expected to raise $46.5 million for the general fund, with $27 million in special revenue funds, $46.3 million in the utilities enterprise fund and $5.8 million in the capital projects fund.
Commissioners Zischkau and Denizac voted against the new budget, too. Ms. Denizac said she is against paying City Attorney Becky Vose's firm $360,000 for the coming year.
"With $360,000," she said, "we can hire two in-house attorneys."