By Jane Smith
The Delray Beach City Commission narrowly approved a $166.6 million budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, a nearly 9% increase over the previous $153.3 million general fund budget.
Commissioners at the final public hearing on the budget Sept. 19 also unanimously passed a tax rate of $6.51 per $1,000 of taxable property value, a slight decrease from the previous year’s $6.66 per $1,000 rate.
Commissioner Ryan Boylston, who was on the losing side of the 3-2 budget vote, had wanted the federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars in it to be used for affordable housing. “It’s a real issue,” he said. “The $3.4 million should be used for affordable housing.”
Boylston had proposed tapping the city’s reserves of nearly $45 million to balance the budget. That figure equals 27% of the city’s general fund budget, which is more than $3 million higher than the 25% figure that commissioners said they were comfortable keeping in the reserves for emergencies such as hurricanes.
Also voting no on the budget was Commissioner Shirley Johnson, who was generally displeased with the allocation of tax dollars. “We need more money for sustainability,” she said.
Two significant budget expenses are yet to be decided: the city’s Freebee free ride service and a salary review of department directors.
At a November workshop, staff will bring ridership numbers to help commissioners decide if they want to expand Freebee, which uses open-air electric vehicles to transport residents and visitors. The city is taking over the cost from the Community Redevelopment Agency, which can’t spend its tax dollars on services outside of the CRA’s borders.
Vice Mayor Adam Frankel said he did not think it was fair to make property owners west of Interstate 95 pay for the free rides, which are currently limited to Atlantic Avenue between I-95 and State Road A1A, including three blocks north and south of Atlantic. He wanted to cap the cost at $508,205 and keep the CRA footprint.
Boylston wanted to expand the service to include the Tri-Rail station on Congress Avenue west of I-95 to pick up students, downtown workers and city employees. That would bring Freebee’s estimated cost to $841,040. Frankel said that expansion still wouldn’t be serving the city’s west side.
Also in November, the commission will review salaries for department directors again. Deputy Vice Mayor Juli Casale said at the first budget hearing on Sept. 6 that a majority of the directors were not making as much as police captains whose salaries were raised in a spring collective bargaining session.
But Frankel disagreed with the comparison, saying department directors “are not wearing a gun, putting on a bulletproof vest. … No one is risking their lives.”
The cost of balancing the pay scales citywide would be nearly $181,000. But it is not just a one-time cost, Mayor Shelly Petrolia said. The increase would raise the cost of the directors’ pensions and future salaries.
Most of the budget increases come from higher health insurance costs, fuel price increases, hiring more staff, a return to in-person training now that the pandemic has subsided, merit pay increases and the city election in March, said Finance Director Hugh Dunkley.
In other action, the City Commission at a special meeting Sept. 23 gave the Downtown Development Authority unanimous approval to lead a group to make the Old School Square campus active again. A tri-party agreement among the DDA, the city and its Community Redevelopment Agency will be needed, as well as money to host the events.