The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council approved a spending plan for the next fiscal year on Tuesday, Sept. 19, leaving the tax rate unchanged at 3.0 mills, although some last-minute changes were necessary to get the unanimous vote needed.
Finance Director Chris Wallace of Munilytics noted the changes made based on the council’s discussion at its Sept. 5 meeting. These included $100,000 for legal expenses for the council, paid for by cuts from other areas; eliminating the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for staff member wages and salaries; removing money for a generator for Loxahatchee Groves Town Hall; and clarifying that money in the budget is for the rental of a roller as needed, not the purchase of a roller.
Savings went into the general fund, as well as the roads and drainage fund.
“Those were the major changes to the budget at the first reading,” Wallace said. “We heard back that the $100,000 for legal was not what was intended. Rather than adjust that before the meeting, we decided to wait for the final decision of the council for that.”
Vice Mayor Robert Shorr put forward a list of items he would like cut from the budget. Among them were the costs of road rock.
“To have $140,000 in the budget is way over budget. Looking at $50,000 a mile, $100,000 should be enough to do the entire two miles,” he said.
The council went over that and other items that Shorr wanted removed.
“The reason I did this is because I get the phone calls about why we are raising taxes,” he said. “We do not need to spend every dime that we’ve got, and we should give some back to the residents.”
He made a pitch to cut enough out of the budget to lower the tax rate to 2.5 mills.
Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia said that the town should not be lowering the tax rate when Loxahatchee Groves still needs all the money it can get to do years’ worth of incomplete projects.
“We have people throughout the town waiting for their paved roads,” she said.
Councilwoman Marge Herzog noted that the town’s Finance Advisory & Audit Committee recommended strongly toward keeping the current tax rate.
“We pick these representatives, and we need to take their advice,” she said. “I would like to make a motion to keep the millage at 3.0, just like they recommended.”
Ramaglia noted that the idea that taxes are going up dramatically is misleading, because increases to all homesteaded properties are capped at three percent. Increases are further mitigated by the large number of agricultural exemptions in the town, she said, and non-homesteaded property is capped at 10 percent.
The 18 percent increase in the required state notice is mainly for people who buy and develop property in the community, which then sets the taxable value higher.
“For most people, it really will not be that much,” Wallace agreed.
Ramaglia also dispelled the notion that the town has a higher staff base today than years ago. She noted that at the time of the merger between the town and the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District in 2018, there were 20 employees between the two entities, and there are 18 today.
Other money coming in, such as the county sales surtax money, may be going away. The only other way the town has been getting money for capital projects is through savings.
“If we drop back from our 3.0 mills we have today, we will be limited in how we grow back up,” Ramaglia said, explaining that Florida law allows the millage rate to grow by only 10 percent a year.
Instead of dropping the rate, she suggested cutting whatever they want out of the budget and putting the money in a separate savings account.
Shorr said that it can be raised quicker with a supermajority vote. “This is a small consolation to the taxpayers,” he said. “That is who I represent.”
An initial vote to keep the millage rate at 3.0 was 4-1 with Shorr dissenting. However, due to the increase in property values, and the fact that the budget is 18 percent above the rollback rate, a unanimous supermajority is required.
A motion by Shorr to lower the rate to 2.5 mills failed for the lack of a second. That led the council into a negotiating session on what changes could be made to the budget to get the necessary approval. Wallace noted that a 4-1 vote would work for a rate of 2.8687 mills.
Through discussion, Shorr agreed to support the 3.0 mills if money was found elsewhere in the budget to fund a much-needed canal bank restoration project. In total, $320,000, including the $100,000 from the council legal fund, was moved into that project from other parts of the budget to make it happen.
Once that was done, the tax rate of 3.0 mills passed unanimously, as did the overall budget with the changes made, as well as the update to the capital improvement plan.