The Wellington Village Council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 11 was devoted in large part to the adoption of the budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year. The meeting was at times contentious, with sharp disagreements between Mayor Anne Gerwig and the other members of the council.
The council voted in favor of passing the $97 million budget 4-1, with Gerwig the lone dissenting vote. Her opposition was based on a desire not to raise taxes on village residents, particularly when there were items in the budget she strongly opposed. Among these were funds to move forward with the redevelopment of the Lake Wellington area and money to redesign signage throughout the village.
The tax rate was raised from last year’s 2.43 mills to 2.50 mills, but still short of the 2.55 mills proposed by village staff.
Several cuts to the proposed budget were designed to keep the tax rate down. The village will eliminate three additional full-time positions. This brings the staff reduction down 10 full-time positions, two supplemental positions and 2,413 part-time hours. No village employees will be terminated or laid off, but rather these are positions that will be eliminated through attrition and will not be filled. The budget calls for 303 full-time village employees in the new fiscal year.
The legal department will have $50,000 cut from its outside services budget. Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said that she did not expect the cut to negatively impact her department. An additional $50,000 will be cut from the strategic planning outside services budget.
The proposed consumer price index (CPI) wage increase for full-time village employees will be set at 2 percent rather than the originally proposed 3 percent.
The tax rate increase will result in a small property tax increase for homeowners within Wellington based on their property values. Councilman John McGovern said that most residents would only be paying a few dollars more per month, and the benefits received from the new village projects and programs were worthwhile.
McGovern also revealed how the members of the council would be personally affected by the rate increase. His family would pay approximately $8 more per month in taxes over the course of the year.
The key budget topic of the night was the inclusion of $1.2 million toward the activation of the Lake Wellington waterfront. While no money will be spent as a result of the budget vote, the money will be set aside for preliminary designs of the Lake Wellington waterfront, permitting and the possible demolition of the Lake Wellington Professional Centre.
Discussion of the Lake Wellington waterfront dominated a sometimes-intense debate between Gerwig — who is staunchly opposed to the project — and Vice Mayor Michael Drahos and McGovern — who are in favor of proceeding with gathering public opinion and commissioning new designs.
The project — which has not yet been approved and does not have a final design — could be a 10-year, $25 million project that would dramatically transform the village-owned Lake Wellington waterfront property. If the project is approved, $8 million would be spent during phase one of construction.
Standing in the way of that approval is Gerwig, who repeatedly clashed with Drahos and McGovern over plans to tear down the Lake Wellington Professional Centre and replace it with what she described as a kayak rental and a parking lot. The latter comment resulted in applause from residents who were in attendance largely to condemn the proposal.
Gerwig went on to criticize the current plans that have been submitted for the lakefront development and characterized the $22,000 spent on them as “lost money.”
Drahos countered that keeping the nearly 30-year-old Lake Wellington Professional Centre would require more than $1.8 million in renovations. Costly items would include $400,000 in storm window replacement, $220,000 in roof replacement, $400,000 in interior refresh and a $250,000 fire sprinkler system.
Drahos and Councilman Michael Napoleone have been engaging in negotiations with developers with the hope of bringing a new, privately owned executive suite development to Wellington to accommodate the potentially displaced businesses with the same level of service at the same price point.
It was repeatedly pointed out that the council was not comfortable serving as a commercial landlord. Only Gerwig is still serving from the time the council voted to purchase the property, and she voted against the purchase. Napoleone said that if he had been serving at the time, he would have voted against it.
McGovern took opposition with the number of businesses that would be affected by the demolition of the facility. The number 170 is often used by the Wellington Chamber of Commerce, but the list of actual full-time, physical tenants is only 74. Also, 60 businesses are virtual offices that have three-month contracts. These services include a mailbox, use of a conference room at an hourly rate, copy services and the option of having a receptionist.
McGovern proposed that in the short term, those virtual businesses could be housed within the Wellington Municipal Complex, but met with resistance from Gerwig, who cited the lack of conference space and copying services.
Drahos questioned Gerwig as to her five-year plan for the waterfront and whether it involves spending the $1.8 million in renovations for the professional center or tearing it down and building a new one, as was done with the Wellington Community Center.
Gerwig also faced criticism from Drahos and McGovern over her suggestion that a banquet center be constructed on the land. Gerwig claimed that the banquet facility would be a draw for businesses, but the councilmen claimed it was a way of introducing an arts center that would lead to costly programming.
Gerwig has long championed the creation of an arts center in Wellington.
Attorney and Wellington Chamber of Commerce Board Member Dermot Mac Mahon claimed that the kayak rentals were underutilized during the three summer months it was in place. Drahos used his time to disagree with that statement, claiming that he had been told there was a waiting list to rent a kayak and that it had been proven very popular.
The next step in the process will be holding public forums where the council and village staff will hear feedback from residents about ideas for the Lake Wellington redevelopment.