Members of the Wellington Village Council approved an $8.1 million contract with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday, a 7.34 percent increase that will net the village three more dedicated law enforcement employees.
Council members, concerned with the perception of a crime problem in Wellington, approved the contract unanimously.
“Even if our community is considered low crime, the victims are still affected.” Councilman Matt Willhite said.
The law enforcement services budget is up 2 percent — or about $151,579 — from last year. The three additional employees added a cost of $404,785, which covers an additional detective sergeant, detective and deputy sheriff.
“That would increase our levels of service above what we currently have,” Deputy Village Manager John Bonde told council members.
Wellington approved its most recent contract with the PBSO in 2011 with an option for five one-year renewals that allow for addendums to the contract to reflect changes. This is the first increase in two years, Bonde said.
Vice Mayor Howard Coates pointed out that Wellington’s budget remains one of the lowest in the county for law enforcement.
“Although I believe the PBSO has done a fantastic job out here,” he said, “I still think we have a perception problem. I don’t know if it’s because we get immediate press whenever something happens, but I think there is a perception in this community that it’s becoming more unsafe to live in Wellington.”
Coates said that the crime statistics show that Wellington is one of the safest communities in the county, but that the village still must deal with the perceptions.
“Recognizing that this is the perception, whether it’s the reality or not, it’s a perception we have to deal with,” he said. “I think the additions to the budget, and the increase in manpower it brings with it, will help address some of the issues.”
Willhite said Wellington should partner with the PBSO to launch public awareness campaigns on how to combat crime.
“We could go back to doing some other campaigns about locking your cars, locking your doors and leaving lights on,” he said. “Residents say they feel pretty safe overall, but if you’re the victim of a crime, you don’t feel that way.”
But Councilwoman Anne Gerwig said public campaigns, which could include putting out large signs that flash warnings to lock your doors, make residents feel less safe.
“When they see them, they think they live in a high crime area, and we’re telling them to watch out,” she said.
Further, Gerwig said she didn’t believe the perception of increased crime was without merit.
“We’ve had some issues recently,” she said. “It’s a little more than a perception issue. The sheriff’s office is dealing with it, but if we don’t come up with good ideas to fix it, [the crime rate] is going to go up.”
She said the public campaigns should not be aimed at potential victims, reminding them to lock their doors, but rather at empowering every resident to speak up. Gerwig noted that several criminals were stopped recently when a neighbor noticed them going door to door and reported it.
“If people see something that doesn’t look right, they should call and get someone out there,” she said. “The best thing we can do for our deputies is to be their eyes and ears. People don’t want to do that. They don’t want to interfere. If they call to report something, they’re helping, not hurting.”
Councilman John Greene suggested Wellington work with its code enforcement officers and Safe Neighborhoods program to target certain areas.
“If we want to crack down on some of these transitional neighborhoods… let’s make sure we’re doing a good job of enforcing codes and making sure the people in those neighborhoods feel safe,” he said. “We’re never going to have zero crime, and anyone who has been a victim is going to think we’re not doing enough. We can’t have deputies on every street corner, but I think there needs to be some accountability on the part of the village as well.”
Mayor Bob Margolis said that for crime victims, the perception is their reality. “You can show them statistics about our community compared to others, but if they are a victim, it’s affected them,” he said.
He pointed out that the majority of vehicle break-ins are on vehicles that have been left unlocked. But Gerwig said leaving the vehicle unlocked isn’t the problem.
“It’s because the bad person opened the door,” she said. “If I don’t lock my door, I don’t think I should necessarily be considered the problem.”
Margolis recalled that for many years, he did not lock his doors. “That’s why I moved to Wellington,” he said. “No one locked their doors. It was a small community. But we’re not that small community anymore.”
He said he was pleased to see more residents showing up at neighborhood watch meetings. “I think more and more people are getting involved,” Margolis said.
Willhite asked if Wellington employees are trained to recognize signs of crime, and Bonde said that they are.
“When they are out working, if they see something, they are told not to get involved, but to call and report it,” Bonde said.
Bonde noted that the contract amendments before the council are meant to help with some of the crime perceptions. He noted that the rate of solved crimes is expected to rise with extra detectives working on cases.
“We’re also installing other security features like cameras,” he said. “I don’t think we brag about that stuff enough, but we’re doing it.”
Coates made a motion to approve the contract, which carried unanimously.
In other business, the council gave final approval to the budget of the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
The budget includes a tax rate of 2.47 mills. At 2.47 mills, the tax rate is unchanged from last year. However, due to increasing property values, some residents will see a slightly higher tax bill.
A rate of 2.47 mills means a property tax of $2.47 for every $1,000 of taxable value. At that rate, the owner of a home assessed at $150,000 after all exemptions would pay $370.50 in village property taxes next year.
Wellington will take in about $13.5 million in property taxes, an increase of about $770,000 from last year. The budget is maintained the same as last year at $74.46 million.