The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council wrangled to reach a final tax rate of 2.15 mills on Tuesday, below the staff recommendation of 2.6 mills in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2017-18, which begins Oct. 1.
The tax rate is up significantly from the current year, largely to pay for higher contract costs with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Approving a 2.6 millage rate required a unanimous 5-0 vote, and Councilman Dave DeMarois held out at first for the current tax rate of 1.47 mills before finally consenting to 2.15 mills.
The council then set upon where to make cuts to balance the budget, which is required under state law, starting by cutting code enforcement in half, then making cuts to other departments.
Town Manager Bill Underwood said the 2.6 millage rate adopted by the council at the preliminary reading was the staff recommendation in order to avoid depleting reserves and cover the PBSO’s recently approved 10-year contract.
“It’s necessary primarily because of the increased cost for the sheriff, and the use of one-time funds is not fiduciarily responsible,” Underwood said. “As a result, we recommend 2.6. If it’s not 2.6, then what number would the council like? We will try to work around that in that fashion.”
Town Attorney Michael Cirullo explained that there are various threshold requirements for adoption of a millage rate above the rollback rate under state law, and the adoption of 2.6 mills would require unanimous approval.
Connie Bell, a Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District supervisor and a member of the town’s Finance Advisory and Audit Committee (FAAC), said that panel had not met as scheduled due to Hurricane Irma, but said she personally favored the rate of 2.6 mills.
“I don’t feel that we should put ourselves into a situation where we may have to go into the reserves because, to me, that’s not any way to run a government,” she said. “Any time you have to go into the reserves, that’s just putting a Band-Aid on it. You’re going to get into a problem in the future.”
Former Councilman Jim Rockett, also an FAAC member, did not favor a millage rate of 2.6. He suggested financing the PBSO increase from the general fund, and over the next few months have the FAAC work on some proposals.
“We haven’t had the opportunity to do the work that we should have been doing… for spending reductions,” Rockett said. “We have an opportunity for additional revenue, and we need to look at that hard and fast. I think the finance committee can do that, and we can bring back whatever recommendation we can come up with over the next couple of months.”
Councilman Todd McLendon said that if any member of the council wanted to go with anything below the 2.6 rate, that member needed to go through the budget and recommend what to cut.
“I don’t want to just pass a number and then say, ‘How are we going to get there?’” McLendon said. “Let’s go through the budget line by line and see where were going to cut. Are we going to cut out code enforcement? Are we going to cut out planning and zoning? Are we going to cut legal in half? Are we just going to say take it from reserves and keep spending like we’ve been spending? That’s not good at all. If anybody wants less than 2.6, I want you to tell me where you’re going to cut.”
McLendon pointed out that the council has already approved the expanded PBSO budget, which is expected to improve public safety in the town.
“I said then, ‘We’re going to have to double our millage rate,’” he said. “We all voted for it. What did you think was going to happen when we got to this point?”
Vice Mayor Ron Jarriel said a budget cut is not necessary because they can go into the reserves and cut the budget next year, adding that he would support the 2.6 rate if the motion was for that.
“I know, for a fact, that we can make it through this year without 2.6, even though I’m going to support it,” Jarriel said.
Mayor Dave Browning said he supported the 2.6 millage rate.
“That covers the cost of the sheriff’s contract,” Browning said. “We had a reason to do it. They upped it; we tried to negotiate. I talked hard, I got mad, I did everything I could. Their deal was, either $600,000 or set up your own department.”
Browning added that another cost that has not been determined is storm cleanup.
“FEMA reimburses a little over 80 percent after all is paid, so all of this stuff has to be paid first,” he said. “We’ve got additional costs to maintain roads and culverts, because I understand the LGWCD board is not going to do culverts. We’re going to have extra maintenance by taking on the extra roads.”
He added that the 2.6 millage rate would gain $60,000 from commercial uses.
“It goes from $30,000 to $90,000,” Browning said. “It scares me to use reserves. Maybe that’s because I’m retired now. That savings account can only be spent once.”
He pointed out that when he and other council members were on the LGWCD board, they put off raising assessments until they were forced to make a 50 percent increase. In addition, he noted that the town would still have among the lowest tax rates in the county.
Browning added that people want more services, and that the tax increase would be mitigated by the council’s partial underwriting of residential garbage assessments.
“If we want to come down, I would hate to come all the way down to 2, because that’s just barely more than what we’ve got now,” he said. “We have to come up with a budget number tonight… Something will have to go, because I don’t want to see us cut into that reserve too much.”
DeMarois was the sole holdout, saying that he wanted to remain at the current tax rate of 1.47 mills.
McLendon noted that the council could approve 1.5128 mills with four votes.
“My question to Mr. DeMarois is, where do you plan on cutting services?” he asked. “What do you plan on cutting out of the budget?”
“Just like Mr. Jarriel said, take it out of the reserves and look at next year,” DeMarois said.
Jarriel made a motion to adopt a 2.0 millage rate, which would be 49.9 percent above the rollback rate of 1.3338 mills. McLendon said he would vote for the motion if it included removing council salaries. Jarriel did not accept that condition, and the motion failed 4-1 with McLendon dissenting.
After several more failed motions for rates of 1.99, 2.2 and 2.1 mills, the council approved a motion by McLendon of 2.15 mills, which carried 5-0.
The council then approved a balanced budget 4-1 on a motion by Councilman Ryan Liang with McLendon dissenting. It cut several items, including removing $55,340 from code enforcement for a 50 percent cut, removing $5,200 for special events, removing $20,000 for comp plan preparation, cutting $5,000 from public works, cutting $20,000 from repair and maintenance, and cutting $11,329 from the contingency fund.