The reduction in the City of Westlake’s residential property taxes from 5.125 mills to 5.1 mills is mostly symbolic, agreed Mayor JohnPaul O’Connor, but it delivers an important message.
“It sends a signal that not only is Westlake holding strong on taxes, we’re going the other way,” he said after the Westlake City Council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 6.
The city’s annual budget was given tentative approval at the meeting. A second public hearing and final vote on the budget is set for Monday, Sept. 19.
In the budget proposal that City Manager Kenneth Cassel presented to the council, it was recommended that the rate remain at 5.125, where it has been since the city’s inception in 2016.
Over the past six years, the city’s budget has been underpinned by large but decreasing cash subsidies from Minto, the area’s major developer and landowner. In the 2022 budget, Minto put in $930,000, accounting for 25 percent of the budget. For 2023, Minto is projected to put in $762,000, representing 11 percent of the budget.
Earlier, Cassel expressed concern that Minto could see a tax reduction as a “self-imposed shortfall” and refuse to cover any gap created by it.
“We need to be more about not ruffling the feathers of homeowners, than fluffing the feathers of developers,” O’Connor said.
In the end, Minto representative Tara Duhy told the council that the company would cover any shortfall created by the reduction.
“I wasn’t surprised, because Minto and the city have an excellent working relationship,” Cassel said. “They don’t mind stepping up to the plate when needed.”
The council approved the budget with the lower rate 5-0.
The reduction “shows we’re watching the money,” Vice Mayor Greg Langowski said. “That we’re there, watching out for the families living in Westlake.”
If the millage rate remained at 5.125, the average Westlake homeowner with an assessed value of $450,000 and a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay approximately $2,050 in city taxes. At 5.1 mills, the same homeowner will pay approximately $2,040, for a savings of $10. That does not include taxes levied by other Palm Beach County taxing authorities. Westlake’s 5.1-mill tax rate is near the middle of the pack among the county’s 39 municipalities.
Though the actual savings per household is minimal, Cassel called it “an important statement to make.”
Fueled by Westlake’s hot real estate market, property tax revenues are up 69 percent ($1,371,928) over the previous budget year. Westlake’s overall budget for 2023 is slated to be $7,899,000, a 23.3 percent increase over the 2022 budget of $6,405,600.
The largest increases in expenditures for 2023 are in Community Services, up 68.7 percent ($1,037,300 to $1,749,700) and the City Council, up 41 percent ($227,400 to $320,600). Including in the Community Services category are such items as the building department, law enforcement and street lighting. Included in the City Council category is $193,000 for community events, the $1,000 a month stipend for each council member ($60,000 total), plus travel and other expenses related to council duties.
On the other hand, there was at least one area of major savings — city attorney fees, which were budgeted for $275,000 in 2022 but are $85,000 in the 2023 budget. That’s a decrease of $189,000 (68.9 percent).
Minto’s contribution to the budget is scheduled to end after the 2023 fiscal year, but O’Connor said he’s not concerned.
“With home sales continuing to go the way they are out here, and more commercial real estate coming online next year, we’re well on track to be able to stand on our own two feet,” he said, adding that in future budgets, “I’m committed to getting the [millage] rate down under five.”
In other business:
• The council voted 5-0 to switch land use designations for the Seminole Pratt Whitney Road property on which Christ Fellowship church is being built, currently mixed use, and the vacant 9.137-acre site at the southwest corner of Persimmon Blvd. and Ilex Way, currently civic use. The switch makes the Ilex Way property taxable for future commercial uses, while the church’s property remains tax free.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” O’Connor said.
“Christ Fellowship is looking to be fully integrated into the community, helping with civic events and so forth,” Cassel said. “It’s going to be a very nice facility.”
• O’Connor described plans for a food truck event scheduled for Oct. 7 along Kingfisher Blvd. He said there are plans for some 60 food trucks and a DJ, thus the possible name of the event: “Beats & Eats.” Food truck permit fees should cover any of the city’s costs for the event, he said.
• Councilman Julian Martinez explained that a 5K run planned for Thanksgiving will be postponed to a later date due to difficulty in finding a company to handle the logistics during the busy holiday season.
• The council approved the annual $280 per household fee for Advanced Disposal Services for the collection of solid waste and recyclable materials in the city.
• The council approved an increase of 15 homes for a total of 164 in the Woodlands of Westlake development off Town Center Parkway in the northeast corner of the city.