Westlake Staff Plans To Keep Tax Rate Same, But Mayor Seeks Cut

A rendering of the James Business Park planned on Persimmon Blvd.

Westlake City Council members are being asked by staff to keep Westlake’s ad valorem tax rate at 5.125 mills for one more year, but Mayor JohnPaul O’Connor wants to see a decrease, even if only a small one.

“It might be 5.124, but we are not going to keep the millage the same,” O’Connor said during the Tuesday, July 5 council meeting. “The number will not be 5.125. It’s going to be lower.”

Since the city’s inception in 2016, Westlake has had the same 5.125-mill tax rate, which allowed the community to grow with a large financial assist — often in the millions — from developer Minto Communities USA. Minto, which owns most of the land in the 6.5 square miles of Westlake, agreed to help support the city until 2021. That agreement was extended to the 2023 budget year, but City Manager Kenneth Cassel said he and Minto are hoping Westlake can soon stand on its own.

Cassel said the city must retain the rate of 5.125 mills to cover items and expenses “that are perceived to be necessary for next year without coming up short.” Later, he said that by doing so, “we should be able to break even. We’re really close.”

Minto is prepared to kick in up to $535,000 to the 2023 budget, if necessary, said Cassel, but if the council lowers the tax rate, the developer may see that as a self-imposed shortage. “That could create an issue,” he explained.

Cassel said that developments coming online over the next year will make future budgets easier.

“I recommend holding it at 5.125 because the commercial [property taxes] haven’t hit for this upcoming budget year,” he told the council, referring to several large commercial developments underway or near commencement along Seminole Pratt Whitney Road. “Next year, we’ll pick up Publix. We’ll pick up the storage units and some other commercial. This will give us more flexibility to lower taxes.”

If the millage rate remains at 5.125, the average Westlake homeowner with an assessed value of $350,000 and a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay approximately $1,537 in city taxes. That does not include taxes levied by other Palm Beach County taxing authorities. The 5.125-mill tax rate is near the middle of the pack among the county’s 39 municipalities.

The council will hold a budget workshop on July 26, and the first of two public hearings on the budget will be held Sept. 9.

“I’m going to challenge the staff. Between now and the workshop, and when we actually have to adopt the budget, we have to trim some fat and get that number down,” O’Connor said. “How much down? I don’t know. We’ll work on that together.”

Cassel said later that this is all part of the process and that he looks forward to working with council members on the budget.

“This is the magic line we all have to tap dance through to be good stewards of what we have, and to be able to provide what the community is looking for,” he said.

In other business:

• The council heard a series of positive reports regarding FourthFest, the first major event hosted by the City of Westlake. An estimated 5,000 people attended the July 4 party and fireworks show with parking for 3,000 cars and 1,000 golf carts. “Every food truck sold out,” O’Connor said.

No injuries or serious incidents were reported by Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue or the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

Council members and Cassel thanked staff and volunteers for making it happen.

“Overall, it went off very well,” Cassel said. “It was a great event, and I’m thrilled and happy with everyone who worked on it.”

“For our first event, we knocked it out of the park,” said O’Connor, who championed the celebration and helped raise some $75,000 in sponsorships. “We didn’t start small. We went huge.”

However, it was too big and too noisy for nearby Loxahatchee resident Connie Gray. Gray, a bird breeder, has lived on 62nd Road North since 2009.

“My windows shook for over 20 minutes,” she said. “I’m pretty upset about this. It impacted not only my home, but my business.”

Gray said that two of her birds died as a result of the event.

“I just can’t have this. This is my livelihood,” she said. “I hope you can do something about it in the future.”

• The council approved the site plan and signage for the James Business Park on Persimmon Blvd. behind the incoming Publix shopping center parcel on Seminole Pratt Whitney Road.

The initial build on the 9.2-acre site will be a 145,643-square-foot multiuse building with numerous loading bays in the rear. An e-commerce company that ships outdoor home and garden products and pool supplies now located in West Palm Beach is expected to occupy much of the building, which is zoned for light industrial use.

A second phase could add a 10,103-square-foot building to the south of the first. The council also approved 14,564 square feet of outdoor storage at the facility.

• The council approved the final reading of an ordinance establishing provisions for special events, including definitions, requirements, signage, the sale or service of alcoholic beverages, providing for batch applications and regulating garage sales. For the most part, only four special events per year will be permitted for any business or group. However, those wishing to host more events can apply to the council for a waiver.

• The council approved the final reading of an ordinance requiring city-issued golf cart registration stickers be located on the left side of the windshield or the left front quarter panel.

• The council approved installation of a four-way stop sign at the corner of Persimmon Blvd. and Ilex Way, which has been the site of two recent accidents. The signs will take about four to six weeks to install, Cassel said, adding that as the area grows, the intersection is likely to have stoplights.

• Finally, the council approved the annual special assessment for residential solid waste services. The fee for fiscal year 2022-23 will be $280.60, Cassel said, noting that the fee is increasing by a few cents. The contract with Advanced Disposal Services/Solid Waste Southeast Inc. runs out in the end of the 2024 fiscal year, and by then, Westlake should be large enough that a better deal can be sought, he said.