The Wellington Village Council finalized its tax rate and budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year on Tuesday, Sept. 25 after another round of trimming designed to further reduce a proposed tax rate increase.
Earlier this month, the council outlined a plan to lower the proposed tax rate from 2.55 to 2.50 mills, still slightly higher than the current year’s 2.43 mills.
At this week’s meeting, Councilman John McGovern sought clarification from Director of Administrative & Financial Services Tanya Quickel regarding plans to trim raises for village employees.
Quickel previously stated that the reductions would include reducing the consumer price index (CPI) wage increase to all village employees from the proposed 3 percent to 2 percent. This reduction was at odds with what McGovern had originally intended, which was to exclude village employees making more than $75,000 a year from a separate 1 percent merit increase.
According to Quickel, the proposed $96.8 million budget — which is down $13.6 million from the current year — focuses on the three most relevant needs of village residents. These are law enforcement, neighborhood safety and flood control/drainage.
After discussion between staff and the council, the tax rate was again reduced — this time to 2.48 mills.
The additional cuts will come from external services, which Village Manager Paul Schofield said would be performed by in-house staff.
Schofield further added that the rate of 2.48 mills is lower than the village’s 10-year average of 2.51 mills.
When questioned by Vice Mayor Michael Drahos about sustainability, Quickel responded that she believed the 2.48 rate was sustainable for several years, and Schofield responded that the sustainability under current reserves would last until 2031.
The final tax rate of 2.48 mills passed the council 4-1, with Mayor Anne Gerwig being the lone dissenter. Gerwig said she opposed raising taxes on residents for budget expenditures she did not feel they wanted or needed. When questioned as to what these items were, she noted the redevelopment of Lake Wellington and signage improvements, which she also previously noted.
The question of approval of the $96.8 million village budget focused on the $1.2 million budgeted for the waterfront activation at Lake Wellington. Although no money would actually be spent as a result of the budget vote, since each item over $25,000 must come before the council for approval, it would make the funds available if the council felt it had community support for the project going forward.
Drahos wants to bring a town center concept to the 22-acre parcel owned by the village. He believes in emphasizing the central Forest Hill Blvd. area and added that the development of the amphitheater, municipal complex and community center should next logically be followed up by development of the lakefront area in question.
“This sets a roadmap for the future of the village,” McGovern agreed.
One group that clearly did not support the project were tenants of the Lake Wellington Professional Centre, which would be demolished if the lakefront project were to go forward. For the fourth council meeting in a row, some occupants took to the microphone during public comment to condemn the proposal.
“The building was purchased with the intention of tearing it down,” Councilman Michael Napoleone said. “It was bought for the dirt underneath. This has been going on for a long time. We didn’t think this up.”
Napoleone was not a member of the council in 2013 when Wellington bought the property. In previous council meetings, he has said that he would have voted against the decision.
“You shouldn’t settle for a 35-year-old building,” Drahos told the facility’s supporters.
Both Drahos and Napoleone have been having separate meetings with private investors to bring similar office space to the village.
The proposal of a new site was unsatisfactory to the tenants of the Lake Wellington Professional Centre who were in attendance. One tenant expressed concern that it might not be a “lateral move” as there would be no guarantee that all of the tenants would be able to find a new home.
However, despite claims by tenants that the proposed concept of the waterfront activation was the issue, the question of rent became a matter of discussion by both the public speakers and the council.
The council authorized the purchase of the property in 2013 for $5 million. However, a donation lowered the village’s cost to $4 million. After the purchase, village staff became responsible for operating the Lake Wellington Professional Centre, with many tenants’ rent remaining grandfathered in from when it was owned by Ken Adams.
Since the village began collecting rent, a profit of just north of $800,000 has been accumulated by the village, which is kept in a separate fund. After five years of ownership, the village is still operating the Lake Wellington Professional Centre at a $3.2 million loss, when factoring in the purchase price.
The 35-year-old structure has numerous problems, and the current design could not be constructed under the current building code. Neither the doors nor windows are hurricane proof, and the roof needs replacement. Most seriously, it is a wood-framed building without a modern fire protection system. The cost of these replacements and enhancements to bring the building up to code and within the quality standards the village wishes to maintain total some $1.8 million. This would erase the $800,000-plus in revenues that the village has seen and add an additional $1 million in debt.
In other business, Drahos used his time to speak to address developments occurring at Polo West. Village Attorney Laurie Cohen informed the council that at the special magistrate hearing on Sept. 20, the property was found to be in violation of two codes. The property owner is required to cut the grass by the next magistrate hearing on Oct. 18. If not rectified, a fine of $250 per day, per violation will be implemented. Planning, Zoning & Building Director Bob Basehart told the council that it was the highest fine possible. Cohen added that Polo North is up for a similar code evaluation at the Oct. 18 magistrate session.
Drahos also commented on a proposal to redevelop Polo West into a “target golf” course. Limited information was available on what that meant, but Cohen said it was a real sport and would fit under the village’s zoning for the property. Cohen and Basehart had both been briefed on the sport and believed it involved the use of a larger ball on a rougher fairway — thus lowering groundskeeping costs for the owner. Drahos called the proposal “absolutely ridiculous” and said that the properties should be maintained as they were.