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Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018
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Things are calmer now in Madeira Beach, and it’s showing as the city plans its budget

MADEIRA BEACH — Jonathan Evans has made substantial changes since he took over as city manager in February, and his proposed $9.6 million operating budget for 2018-19 promises to deliver more of the same.

Amid political turmoil, Evans began his new job by issuing an "open letter" to the community, pledging improved communication with his commission, better fiscal management, strong teamwork among city employees, accountability, broad community engagement and "smart growth".

His respectful, gentle and persuasive demeanor easily convinces a split commission to take action on his proposals.

After six months on the job, he says he is "still encouraged and optimistic" about Madeira Beach and how it has received him.

"The city seems to have calmed down and now we are focusing on the city’s business. We have a good team and I am looking forward to what we are putting in place," Evans says.

So far, he has conducted a 12-hour "visioning retreat" for the City Commission that created a mission statement and determined the city’s core values, hired a new public relations officer, and received commission approval for a substantial hike in parking fees that is expected to generate over $400,000 in new revenue.

Many of these changes are explained in Evans’ monthly "report" at the top of the city’s website, which is now undergoing an overhaul in his effort to "rebrand" the city. The site will allow residents to view virtually all the documents, proposals and development projects under consideration by the city.

"This administration is focused on exceptional governance and civic engagement," Evans said in his first report issued in April, adding he hoped the updates would help the city "grow as a community".

The reports announce city policy changes, upcoming meetings and community events, city projects and progress on more than 100 development projects, large and small. They even include "fishing reports" advising residents that casting "under the moonlight can produce excellent results".

A spring survey of "community values" generated nearly 600 responses and "community listening tour" discussions that ranged from parking and infrastructure to development and the city budget.

A large majority of the survey respondents have lived in the city year-round for more than 10 years. Ninety-five percent are over age 36, and 40 percent earn more than $150,000 annually.

Also, a large majority responded that they found the city "affordable" and "safe" and say they are "proud" to live there. Nearly 70 percent said the city is "attractive" or "somewhat attractive".

Less than a quarter, however, believe the city’s government is "transparent" or communicating and engaged well with the public.

For the past month, that government has been reviewing a rough draft of next year’s budget. A citizen’s committee is doing the same. By the end of July a firm spending plan must be completed and a proposed property tax rate reported to county officials.

The commission will vote on the final budget and property tax rate in September, just before the beginning of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

So far, it appears the property tax rate of $2.20 for every $1,000 of assessed taxable value will remain unchanged. However, many property owners can expect their tax bills to be nearly 8 percent higher, thanks to increases in property values.

Both Evans and Finance Director Walter Pierce warned against cutting the property tax rate because of an anticipated downturn in the economy and a statewide referendum in November that could increase the homestead exemption by another $25,000.

"Based on major market indicators, we anticipate there will be some hiccups in the economy," Evans told the commission last month. "We have to be cautious. Flat is the new up."

Evans’ proposed operating budget shows a $361,000 drop in spending, mostly reflecting a difference in grants and awards. Actual departmental spending will rise about $500,000.

Among his proposals are a salary survey aimed at boosting pay for sanitation and other low-paid city workers, improving the city’s financial reporting to earn a better rating with lenders, seeking alternative sources of revenue, and purchasing an emergency generator to keep City Hall operating during and after storms.

Major decisions still to be determined include salary levels for employees, whether or not employees should contribute to their insurance benefits, how capital spending should be prioritized, and exact budgets for individual departments.

A tentative $3.2 million capital budget includes money for burying utilities along Gulf Boulevard, improvements to the City Hall complex, transient docks in Johns Pass Village, and improvements to the stormwater system totaling nearly $2 million.

The commission is next scheduled to discuss the proposed budget on Tuesday.

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