The Wellington Village Council on Tuesday set its preliminary tax rate for fiscal year 2018-19 slightly higher that the current year.
The council voted 3-1 to set the TRIM (truth in millage) rate at 2.55 mills, up from 2.43 mills. The TRIM rate must be sent this month to the Palm Beach County Tax Collector’s Office. Once set, the rate can be lowered at future budget hearings, but cannot be raised.
As a larger conversation on Wellington’s budget is still to occur throughout the next two months, Village Manager Paul Schofield stressed that the TRIM rate established Tuesday does not reflect the village’s actual tax rate for the next year, but merely the maximum amount that it could possibly be.
“There is no budget being adopted and no capital programs are being adopted,” Schofield said. “With the adoption of a TRIM rate, the maximum rate that we can do is set. We cannot go above that rate, but we can go below it.”
Schofield continued that it has been Wellington’s custom to set a TRIM rate that depicts the absolute highest rate that residents can expect, although the actual established tax rate often ends up being lower.
“I typically recommend that we set it slightly higher than what I believe you are ultimately going to adopt,” Schofield said.
The preliminary budget for the upcoming fiscal year was proposed at $97.3 million, which is down from the $110.4 million budget approved for fiscal year 2017-18. “This $13 million decrease is primarily due to reduced utility capital projects and the early payoff of debt,” Director of Administrative & Financial Services Tanya Quickel said.
Though a portion of the budget is being reduced as an outcome of finished capital projects — over $10 million to be exact — the remaining $3 million is a result of a reduction of Wellington’s operating costs, which includes eliminating seven full-time employment positions.
“That is a natural reduction,” Vice Mayor Michael Drahos clarified. “We’re not going to be firing anybody. We’re anticipating that people are going to be transitioning out, and we’re not going to be replacing them.”
At the TRIM rate of 2.55 mills, the village would take in $20.2 million from ad valorem tax revenue.
The impact on residents from the change in the TRIM rate was exemplified by the village staff as a $37 increase in the taxes on a home valued at $307,000 — the village’s average home price — and as a $2.18 increase in monthly utility bills across the village.
“This is a living and breathing process, and it will change to some extent, but I believe some decisions are clear,” Quickel said. “These are very difficult decisions, and we are aware of the responsibility regarding that. [However,] we believe in not kicking the can down the road.”
Mayor Anne Gerwig took issue with the proposed TRIM rate, particularly when comparing Wellington’s millage rate to surrounding cities. “It would be significantly higher than Jupiter’s,” she noted.
Gerwig explained that she would feel more comfortable with the increased tax rate if she felt that it reflected and addressed the needs of the people of the community. However, included in the budget are projects that she feels are not necessary for next year, such as a new project on Lake Wellington.
“I’m seriously opposed to Lake Wellington’s one-time project fee in this year’s budget because we have not done much other than just our visioning,” she said. “I would like to see that go before the public so that we can get input before we spend a million dollars on a design. I want to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of the community in a more transparent way.”
Gerwig said that she would prefer to carve several things out of the budget in order to get the tax rate down.
Other council members felt that as the maximum possible rate, 2.55 mills is fair and would avoid problems for the village in the future.
“We can kick the can down the road, as [Quickel] stated, or we can make a slight increase now that we can sustain for many years,” Drahos said. “In other words, we can increase rates of a $300,000 house by $37 for a year to maintain the lifestyle that everyone in this community is used to, or we can delay that and be faced with the prospect of having to make a much sharper increase at some later time.”
The council approved the proposed TRIM rate 3-1 with Gerwig dissenting and Councilman Michael Napoleone absent.
Village officials will continue working on the new budget throughout July and August, with the formal budget hearings set for September.
Residents are invited to give their input through the Wellington Budget Challenge. Learn more at www.wellingtonfl.gov/budget.