The Westlake City Council gave preliminary approval to a budget and tax rate of 5.125 mills for the upcoming fiscal year on Monday, Sept. 9, but several residents among the approximately 50 attending complained that the included community development district fee was not anticipated when they purchased homes there.
The council set a town hall meeting for Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 6 p.m. to listen to residents’ concerns before adopting the final budget and tax rate on Monday, Sept. 23.
City Manager Ken Cassel explained that the 4,000 acres of the City of Westlake, which incorporated in 2016, match up with the Seminole Improvement District, which was created in 1970.
“Seminole Improvement, under statutory powers, can do most things like parks, stormwater, roads, wastewater, irrigation — most anything a city can do with the exception of planning and zoning, building, permitting and police,” Cassel said. “If someone has a water control plan that is approved and sent to the state under its master plan for the total buildout of the 4,000 acres… the cost of the infrastructure is estimated at $450 million for water, roads, sewage, etc.”
He said that Westlake does not currently have any debt services associated with the infrastructure.
“All the infrastructure is constructed by the major landowner [Minto] as part of the development process,” Cassel said. “Back in 2015-16, the then-residents of the Seminole Improvement District initiated an incorporation plan to form the City of Westlake. The vision was to utilize the Seminole Improvement District’s powers and its limited powers of the city to be ‘government light.’ That means minimizing the red tape, expediting development processes and allowing the market to control the growth of the city.”
Part of the incorporation plan, he said, was a commitment by Minto to fund any shortfalls for five years in order to get enough runway for the tax base to cover the budget.
“As of this morning, I received notification from the major landowner, which is Minto, they have committed to extend the shortfall funding for an additional two years,” Cassel said. “One of the things we need to look at is for tax purposes that the valuation is certified on Jan. 1 of each year, so the value on the property on Jan. 1, 2019 will be the taxable value that your property was valued at. If it was a vacant property, and the house was not finished, it will be valued at the land value only. It would not show up until the following year as the full value of the improvement.”
He said the tax rate of 5.125 mills was initially established as part of the incorporation plan.
“I know some of you looked at your tax bill, and it went from one thing, and now it’s up considerably higher,” Cassel said, explaining that the proposed property tax bill includes other taxing bodies, including the county and the school board. “Currently, based upon the valuation, we will generate about $535,000 in taxes to run the city. The balance of it will come either from permits and/or contributions from major landowners.”
He said the budget rose from $3.1 million in 2019 to $4.1 million in 2020. The projected home valuation is $109 million on an expected 350 homes by the end of the year. Last year, about 8 percent of revenue was generated from taxes. This year, taxes will generate about 13 percent. Developer contributions will be 47 percent, with the remaining revenue from licenses, permits, fees and other sources.
The developer’s contribution is down from 53 percent last year.
“In our five-year plan, you can see that the developer’s contributions are decreasing,” Cassel said. “The ad valorem taxes will continue to increase as the [property] values increase.”
He said that as Westlake continues to grow, the expenses will remain about the same proportionally, with administration about 30 percent, legislative 6 percent, legal 10 percent, public safety 16 percent and engineering 29 percent.
“The plan incorporates not only single-family homes, but commercial,” Cassel said. “Commercial has not hit yet. The only commercial that we have so far is the hospital, and we just approved a 7-Eleven. The faster our commercial goes in, the faster our value goes up.”
During public comment, one resident said she felt that most of the residents were not concerned so much about the ad valorem tax as the total amount being paid, which includes the Seminole Improvement District and a community development district fee, which one resident said is over $1,000 annually.
“As far as the Seminole Improvement District, [it] is responsible for all of the roads, all of the drainage, all of the water, all the sewer, all of the infrastructure,” he said. “Currently, that [assessment] is about $360 per year.”
Cassel said a community development district is different from the Seminole Improvement District in that they exist under different state statutes.
“Community development districts are formed under Chapter 190,” he said. “An improvement district is formed under Chapter 298. Most CDDs are a funding mechanism for the infrastructure. What occurs with a lot of developments is they form a CDD, and the CDD bonds the infrastructure, and you pay for the development of the infrastructure for the next 30 years as a bond. This is different. The developer has fronted all the money for the infrastructure. It’s part of the price of your house, so you’re paying for it in one shot versus an additional debt service for the next 30 years.”
One resident, who left New York because of high taxes, was concerned that runaway taxes would become an issue in Westlake.
Vice Mayor Katrina Long-Robinson said she was listening to residents’ concerns.
“We work for you. If you don’t tell us, we don’t know what we have to do to work with you,” Long-Robinson said, explaining that she had set Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 6 p.m. to host a town hall meeting to listen to residents’ concerns.
“I’ll try to get as many people here to answer questions,” she said. “We try to be very transparent. That’s why I’m always on social media trying to be engaged. In regard to some things that you feel as though you have been duped about, we apologize. However, we will try to get as many questions answered for you as possible.”
Long-Robinson made a motion to table the budget and tax rate until the next meeting on Sept. 23, but City Attorney Pam Booker said she was concerned that postponing the date would conflict with other taxing body dates. Long-Robinson amended her motion to approve the budget and tax rate, with the understanding that the council can always reduce the rates at the final hearing. Separate motions to grant preliminary approval of the budget and the tax rate carried 5-0.