No longer in its infancy, the seven-year-old City of Westlake must now stand on its own fiscally, with no more handholding from the municipality’s largest developer, Minto Communities USA.
Since 2016, when Westlake incorporated, Minto has supplied millions of dollars to prop up city government services, including a $776,000 “lifeline” in the 2023 budget. For 2024, there is no lifeline to underpin Westlake’s $9,030,000 budget, with the developer’s long-term agreement with the city running out.
“The last few years, we’ve been trying to make sure that when we reached this budget… that we’d be non-dependent [on Minto],” City Manager Kenneth Cassel said during the Westlake City Council’s Tuesday, Aug. 1 budget workshop. “So that’s where we’ve been very cautious and very careful.”
In fact, that caution, along with the city’s rapid growth in residential property tax revenues, made it unnecessary for Cassel to draw from the 2023 Minto “lifeline.”
“Which I think is pretty impressive,” Mayor JohnPaul O’Connor said.
To maintain that fiscal discipline, Cassel proposed that Westlake continue its tax rate at 5.1 mills.
Westlake’s tax rate was 5.125 mills from 2016 through 2022. Last year, O’Connor pushed for a reduction to 5.1 mills. That means that the average Westlake property owner, with an assessed home value of $450,000 and a $50,000 homestead exemption, would pay approximately $2,040 in city taxes. That does not include taxes levied by other Palm Beach County taxing authorities.
O’Connor wants another cut, even if only a symbolic one, he told Cassel.
“I’d love to shave something off that, even if it’s just to say we lowered taxes two years in a row,” he said. “It sends a message to residents that we’re fighting for them.”
“We’re running a very lean operation in all areas already,” Cassel replied.
The city’s proposed $9,030,000 budget represents a $1,131,000 or 14.3 percent increase over the 2023 budget funded by a 53.3 percent or $1,782,737 increase in property tax revenues — for a total of $5,128,300 — as Westlake continues to be one of Florida’s fastest-growing municipalities.
Among the largest areas of proposed budget increases are:
- $80,800 for the council, bringing the total for that line item to $401,400, representing a 25.2 percent increase to cover legislative initiatives and travel by council members and their $1,000-a-month stipend, which has not increased. It also includes $253,000 to pay for four annual seasonal events to which the council has tacitly committed. The largest of the events is FourthFest, Westlake’s annual Independence Day celebration and fireworks display. This year, the July Fourth event cost more than $200,000, exceeding the $193,000 set aside for it in the 2023 budget.
- Community services, which is slated to get a 25.2 percent increase ($454,800) up to $2,204,500. This item includes solid waste disposal, law enforcement services provided the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, street lighting and infrastructure repairs provided through the Seminole Improvement District.
- $16,000 for City Attorney Donald Doody, bringing the fees for Goren, Cherof, Doody & Ezrol P.A. to $101,400 — an 18.7 percent increase.
Councilwoman Charlotte Leonard questioned whether the city should be spending a quarter of a million dollars on a community party. Cassel agreed that was one of the few areas that could be trimmed without affecting city services.
O’Connor, who has championed the event since its inception, pushed back.
“Aside from July 4, the city has been unbelievably fiscally responsible,” he said, adding that a lot of sponsorship dollars that could have eased the cost of FourthFest 2023 were “left on the table.” He suggested it would be good to engage an events coordinator who also could seek sponsorship dollars.
Cassel said there are advantages to having such a person on the Westlake team, and that he is looking at whether it would be better to contract with someone or create a staff position.
O’Connor said that he believes the city has made a commitment to its citizens regarding the annual party. Later, he said he hopes that the 2024 event can be held in the 50-acre park being developed along Seminole Pratt Whitney Road south of Seminole Ridge High School as a joint project with the Seminole Improvement District.
Some $700,000 that Westlake has received through the federal American Rescue Plan will be used to jumpstart infrastructure work — ground leveling, stormwater drainage and more — for the project, O’Connor said. That work should be completed within 12 months, he said, calling that a “conservative estimate.”
The park will need to be done in phases, and O’Connor hopes that sports fields, food truck hookups, parking and a multi-modal trail can soon follow.
Looking ahead, O’Connor said he is committed to cutting residential property taxes significantly once more commercial property comes onto the tax rolls, even though 5.1 mills is in the middle of the pack among the county’s 39 municipalities.
“We don’t want to be an average city. We’re an above-average city… a low taxes, high services city,” O’Connor said. “We believe in government lite. We have the rare opportunity to do things right the first time.”
Following the workshop, the council held its regular monthly meeting, taking up several action items:
- The council approved 5-0 the replat of the 23-acre Terraces townhouse complex Phase 1, east of Christ Fellowship Church. Phase 1 is composed of 109 single-family units.
“We’re ready to break ground and get rolling,” said John Carter, senior vice president of Minto Communities USA. “This is going to be an excellent addition of product to the city.”
He said this will be a different product, containing smaller townhomes. Carter expects homes to go on sale in early 2024.
When Phase II of the project comes online, the Terraces will include 250 townhomes.
The Terraces is located in the southern portion of Westlake, south of Waters Edge Drive and east of Ilex Way. Behind the Terraces on the east side will be a lake and a multi-modal path.
- The council also unanimously approved the Pines of Westlake Phase II, which will encompass 55 acres broken into 232 single-family lots.
The Pines Phase II is located in the northeast portion of Westlake, east of both East Town Center Parkway and the Woodlands of Westlake. It will be surrounded on three sides by long, linear lakes.
“The lakes won’t be hidden [behind homes],” Carter said. “They’ll be there for people to enjoy.”
The area also will feature a long, multi-modal path that will give broad community access to Golden Grove Elementary School and Western Pines Middle School to the east. Exactly how that access will be accomplished is still being worked out, Carter said.
- O’Connor noted that ground was officially broken Tuesday, Aug. 1 for the 145,000-square-foot James Business Park, located at the corner of Town Center Parkway and Persimmon Blvd. The facility is expected to be completed next spring.
- The council heard during the monthly report from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office that an expected additional deputy started work in Westlake on Tuesday, Aug. 1. That brings to seven the number of deputies assigned to the community.