The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council gave final approval Tuesday to a significant tax rate increase for the upcoming fiscal year — additional revenue designated to replenish the town’s depleted reserves and help improve deteriorated roads.
The approved budget of $13.39 million includes a tax rate of 3.0 mills, 49.74 percent higher than the rollback rate of 2.0035 mills, and up from the current year’s tax rate of 2.15 mills.
The hike comes after a year of the town scrimping and depleting all reserves after the council failed to approve a recommended tax hike last year.
The millage rate and budget were approved after debate on whether to postpone the meeting, since it was scheduled for the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur that evening.
Ultimately, after a failed 3-2 motion to postpone the meeting, the council decided to go ahead due to the importance of approving the tax rate and budget, and that the town had already paid to advertise the meeting for that evening.
Councilman Todd McLendon pointed out that two people had brought up the issue of Yom Kippur, and that they could have had the opportunity to speak about the budget twice at previous meetings.
Mayor Dave Browning pointed out that Yom Kippur is not a federal holiday, and Town Attorney Michael Cirullo said that although Yom Kippur is one of the Jewish High Holidays, the meeting’s subject matter does not interfere with anyone’s ability to practice their religion.
When discussion returned to the budget, Councilwoman Joyce Batcheler said that she had taken the budget to an accountant for review.
“I understand that some of you out there have accounting skills,” she said. “I don’t possess these skills.”
After reviewing it herself, Batcheler took a copy of the budget to an expert who has worked with Arthur Andersen and Ernst & Young, two of the top-recognized accounting firms in the world, to see if there was anything improper, incorrect or hidden.
“The gentleman I sought advice from reviewed everything,” she said. “He thought everything looked fine. His first response to me, though, was frightening. The reason was, he said, ‘You have no money. You have no means to generate money.’”
He noted that the town is one catastrophe away from not being able to meet its budgetary requirements, she said. Batcheler added that she is concerned about the town having enough money to move forward.
“I’m sitting up here as a taxpayer, just like anybody else,” she said. “I’m retired. I’m on a pension. I do some part-time work, but nevertheless, I pay the same taxes everybody else does… If we want to keep our town a town, then we have to look at what it takes to get us by. I don’t think anybody out there, whether you’re watching online or here, wants to continue seeing what we went through this last year with our roads.”
Batcheler said that she felt the council and its management firm did a great job of holding the town together despite spending down most of the reserves.
“We took care of the worst of the emergencies,” she said. “We’re not out of the hurricane season yet. One heavy rain could put us right back to a terrible situation. We have no money left.”
She pointed out that Councilman Dave DeMarois took a lot of grief over the past year for casting the single vote that excluded getting the suggested tax rate increase last year, but now he was making the motion to approve the 3.0 mills.
DeMarois said people are now going to expect the council and the town to come through with improved services.
“If we don’t, then they will know who to blame, and that’s us,” DeMarois said.
Vice Mayor Todd McLendon said the challenge is that there are so few people in Loxahatchee Groves to carry the burden of a tax increase.
“Everything we do here costs the same amount of money for us that it does for a town with a population of a million,” McLendon said. “Everything that we do here costs the same amount, no matter what town or municipality you go to. The problem is we’re drawing from a lot fewer people and a lot fewer acres than other municipalities, but it costs the same amount to run a government, because we have laws that we must follow.”
Mayor Dave Browning said he would have favored a slightly lower tax rate increase but looked at the county-approved rate of 4.7815 mills.
“The 3.0 mills allow us to recoup money from the businesses that are out there, and for those of us who aren’t following the issue with the [Palm Beach County] League of Cities, in November, there’s Amendment 1 that’s going to hit the fan. I know a lot of people are going to vote for it. It’s going to increase the homestead exemption… With that, I think the 3.0 is where we need to go.”
During public comment, former Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Supervisor Connie Bell, who sits on the town’s Finance Advisory & Audit Committee, said she also took a copy of the budget to an accountant for review, who had the same reaction as Batcheler’s accountant.
“If you have an emergency, we still are not going to have enough money, so I don’t care who’s managing our town, it’s going to take us years to put reserves back,” Bell said, adding that August’s failed referendum to allow residents to share the cost of improving their roads will put the entire burden on the town.
“We now are going to have to maintain them all until we figure out where we’re going to go next,” Bell said. “I would have proposed a higher millage rate, because we don’t know if we will ever get our FEMA money back. It’s going to take a while to put the reserves where it really should be to run this town.”
DeMarois’ motion for the 3.0 millage rate carried unanimously, 5-0, which was required by state law to approve a tax rate hike that far above the current rate of 2.15 mills.
The preliminary vote on the measure at the previous meeting was 3-2 with Browning and McLendon dissenting.
Once the vote was taken, a number of people weary of deteriorated roads cheered and clapped.