The Coastal Star

Gulf Stream: Lawsuits and lamplights put stress on budget

By Tim O’Meilia

If Gulf Stream residents want new street lights and street signs, they’ll pay for them with a 24 percent increase in town property tax that will stretch over the next two years.
    That tax hike was also slated to pay for the town to defend 21 lawsuits filed by resident Martin O’Boyle, who sued over the denial of his home renovation, public records requests and the town’s sign code. But O’Boyle and the town settled their dispute July 26.
    Town commissioners set a preliminary tax rate of $3.70 for each $1,000 of taxable property value for the budget year beginning Oct. 1, up from this year’s $3.10 rate. But they plan to “chip away,” as Commissioner Bob Ganger said, to reduce the rate before final budget hearings in September.
    The owner of $1 million in taxable property value this year would pay $600 more next year, if his property value remained the same. But values in Gulf Stream increased an average of 5.4 percent so the added tax would be more.
    “I know the headline will be that taxes are going up 24 percent,” Ganger said. “But we need the subhead and the story to say it’s costs that hadn’t been anticipated and the town needs to be gussied up.”
    The town’s civic association has said it supports increasing the tax rate to install 88 new street lights, estimated to cost $380,000. The town would repay a low-interest loan over 18 months, including $280,000 in the new budget.
Town Manager William Thrasher said the legal budget would be reworked since the expenses for the O’Boyle suits would no longer be necessary. Some of the additional $120,000 in legal and professional fees will be shifted to other projects as the commission determines. But the overall budget is likely to stay the same, he said.
    The $3.4 million budget proposed by Thrasher — about $400,000 more than the current year — would repay the town’s reserve fund about $6,700, based on a $3.49 tax rate. The commission took about $50,000 from reserves this year to balance the budget.
    But Ganger and Commissioner Garrett Dering wanted to return more to the reserves. “We had $1.5 million in (reserves) and now we’re down to $981,000,” Dering said. “We can’t keep doing that. Let’s go to $3.70.”
    Ganger agreed: “If we should put more into our budget, now’s the time to do it.”
    The budget includes a 2.5 percent salary increase for all town employees.  Fire service from Delray Beach will increase 5 percent.
    Commissioners set public hearings on the budget for 5:01 p.m. Sept. 13 and Sept. 24. They expect to discuss the budget further at the Aug. 9 meeting.

    In other business, commissioners:
    • Learned Thrasher had canceled this year’s software purchases, a Town Hall expansion design, a barrier island fire district study and Town Hall painting because of increased O’Boyle lawsuit costs and police payroll.
    • Agreed unanimously to ask the advisory Architectural Review and Planning Board to consider changes to roof styles and roof and building colors. “It’s time Gulf Stream needs to be a little more open-minded,” said Mayor Joan Orthwein, who proposed the examination. Residents have complained about a too-restrictive town code on design and color. “Twenty years ago there was a fear of McMansionization. Now there’s so many young families and so much new construction. We have a lot of cookie-cutter houses. We need some diversification,” Orthwein said.

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