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City, ACLU members issue proclamation on secular government

Kissimmee city officials and representatives from civil liberty groups issued a proclamation about the separation of church and state during Tuesday night’s commission meeting.

“The city of Kissimmee honors the First Amendment and its importance when welcoming visitors and representing a diverse community to ensure that all who desire to move here for the betterment of the lives of their families may do so feeling welcome and accepted, regardless of their religion,” the proclamation stated.

The move comes a month after a third-party group presented a 40 days of prayer proclamation at City Hall Aug. 7.

City officials soon received backlash over the 40 days of prayer gesture, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Freedom From Religion Foundation writing letters in protest.

The city quickly backtracked, claiming that the third-party event was not endorsed or sponsored by Kissimmee in any way. Officials had also claimed the proclamation was non-denominational, despite guest speakers specifically mentioning religious phrases like God Almighty, Jesus Christ and referring to Kissimmee as “a holy city” during group prayers and songs at the Aug. 7 meeting.

On Tuesday night, David Williamson from the Central Florida Free Thought Community spoke to the commission about the importance of keeping public and private lives separate in government.

 “In your personal capacities, you can freely exercise your religion in any way you see fit,” he said. “In your official capacities, as an officer of the government, you are bound by the Constitution to not abuse that position to promote personal religious choices, or even those organizations that ask you to do so on their behalf.”

Jason Meisel said that as an Osceola County resident, he wanted to hear public officials talk about government, not fasting and praying.

The final presentation speaker was Jackie Azis, an attorney from the ACLU of Florida. She explained the legal precedent surrounding the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, and subsequent court cases that have more clearly defined the meaning of separation of church and state.

She cited numerous cases, including a 2018 case settled in June called Rojas v. City of Ocala, where U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan ruled that the city and its police chief violated the Establishment Clause by organizing, promoting and holding a prayer vigil.

At the end of the presentation, Azis asked if the board had any questions.

No one did.

City approves tentative budget for upcoming year

City officials unanimously approved Kissimmee’s $187.4 million tentative budget for the 2018-19 year, which begins Oct. 1. The budget includes salary and benefits for 755 full-time and part-time employees.

The millage rate, an equation used to calculate property tax value, remained the same for the 10th year in a row, at 4.6253.

City Manager Mike Steigerwald said it was difficult to balance this year’s budget, due in part to a largely unfunded state mandate that requires a school resource officer be placed in every Florida public school, with two in every high school. The new law forced the Kissimmee Police Department to hire nine new SROs and a sergeant to oversee them – a major unexpected expense to the city, Steigerwald said.

Here are some initial highlights from the tentative budget, and check out our more in-depth coverage in the weeks ahead.

  • Kissimmee plans to hire 18 new police officers over the next five years.
  • They also expect to hire 20 new fire personnel to get a fifth engine company in operation in the next five years.
  • The School Crossing Guard Fund was cut $12,950 from last year. The fund is now the lowest it’s been in four years.
  • The city increased its building fund by more than $1 million, from $5.77 million last year to $6.8 million this year.
  • The city is projected to generate $95.55 million in revenue through taxes, fees, licenses and other sources.
  • There was a quarter-million dollar drop in the amount of revenue generated by Recreational Impact Fees, money collected from developers to pay for and maintain neighborhood parks or recreation areas. There was also a significant cut to capital outlay – the money used from the fund to pay for parks – from $866,041 last year to $470,000 this year.