The Town of Loxahatchee Groves will need to pass a budget for the upcoming fiscal year next month, but what exactly it will contain is still up for consideration.
After a number of budget workshops over the past month, with the most recent held Wednesday, Aug. 23, Loxahatchee Groves Town Council members have attempted to hammer out a consensus.
The revenue end is expected to pretty much follow the truth-in-millage (TRIM) rates passed by the council in June. That set the ad valorem property tax rate at 3.0 mills, while the assessment rate for drainage and roads will be $200 per unit, and the assessment rate for solid waste collection was set at $400 per unit. Those numbers are unchanged from the current year, although rising property values means that some residents will pay more.
The rate for solid waste collection is largely determined by the town’s contract with its trash collection vendor, but the council has a history of using other revenue to reduce the cost to residents. Last year, it was lowered from $450 to $400. While Vice Mayor Robert Shorr made a pitch at the two-hour Aug. 23 workshop to further lower that to $350 this year, the rest of the council did not seem inclined to do so.
“In a year where we had a windfall, we should be giving something back to the residents, even if it is just $50 per can,” Shorr said. “I think we should bring that down to $350.”
Town Manager Francine Ramaglia said that it will cost approximately $78,000 to do that and would likely come out of the franchise fee paid by the solid waste vendor, which would otherwise be earmarked for road work.
“I love the idea of giving something back to the residents,” Mayor Laura Danowski said, but she did not think it would be financially prudent.
Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia agreed. “We have to get our town fixed first,” she said.
Next year’s budget is projected to spend approximately $4.2 million in the general fund, with approximately $2.2 million to be spent on capital projects. That’s down from last year, which was bolstered by more federal money coming in from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
Approximately five miles of road paving will take up a large chunk of the money in the capital projects budget, but exactly which roads will be included has not yet been finalized.
At the Aug. 23 workshop, the council looked at three possible lists of road options prepared by Ramaglia. The third option garnered a great deal of interest, since it provides for more roads to get done, but classifies some as “neighborhood roads” with a lower level of service, thinner at 15 feet, without striping.
“I think that gives us a bigger bang for our buck,” Shorr said. “It saves us money.”
But Councilwoman Marianne Miles was concerned about the thinner roads. “When you move over, the road is going to break, just as when we had the OGEM,” she said, suggesting gathering input from the residents on those roads.
However, other council members said that would just slow the process down.
“I think we are doing a little too much micro-managing,” Maniglia said. “We should just have staff come to us with an option and vote. We are spending a lot of time on this instead of moving on.”
Danowski said that she was looking for as many “low-hanging fruits,” to do as many easy roads as possible to make the most impact.
“It is very hard to look at lists of roads and choose between option 1 and option 2,” she added.
Shorr agreed. “Every conversion of dirt to asphalt gets us closer and closer to not having that upkeep cost,” he said.
Ramaglia said that she will take all the input into consideration and put forward a final road list for approval.
Also at the workshop, the council heard an update from Anita Kane, chair of the town’s Finance Advisory and Audit Committee, which discussed the budget at a meeting held Wednesday, Aug. 16. She noted that town’s reserves are where they need to be at 25 percent.
Kane suggested a 5 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for staff. The COLA was 8 percent last year, and the 5 percent, while generous by historical standards, is lower than the county’s average inflation rate over the past year.
The FAAC did not support lowering the tax rate or any of the assessments. In fact, Kane said, the town may need to look at raising its drainage assessment in the 2025 budget due to rising costs. She noted that both Wellington and the Indian Trail Improvement District raised their drainage assessments this year.
Ramaglia noted that funding capital projects will get more challenging in years to come. “We have tremendous backlog in our capital projects,” she said.
The town has taken in millions of dollars a year in recent years due to windfalls of money from ARPA and the countywide sales surtax. Both of those funding sources are slated to end.
Ramaglia noted that the state rural designation that she is working on with the town’s lobbyists is very important, since it will help with cash flow, open up new potential sources of state revenue and also eliminate the need for matching funds in many cases.
The town’s two required official budget hearings are set for Tuesday, Sept. 5 and Tuesday, Sept. 19.