By Rich Pollack
Faced with a probable 8.6 percent increase in fees for fire service provided by a neighboring community, Highland Beach commissioners set a tentative maximum operating tax rate of $3.12 per $1,000 of assessed value, slightly higher than the current tax rate of $3.07.
Still, commissioners are optimistic they can hold the tax rate steady, using additional cuts to the $12.18 million operating budget and taking money from reserves.
“The budget was put together with very conservative numbers,” said Commissioner Elyse Riesa. “As we go into budget workshop meetings, we will be studying it on a line-by-line basis and making necessary changes to make sure we get back to the current rate.”
Commissioners are hoping to find some savings in what they pay Delray Beach Fire Rescue to staff their fire station and provide fire and emergency medical services.
Delray Beach recently sent Highland Beach information that the estimated cost for next year’s service would be about $4.2 million, up from $3.9 million.
Other factors affecting the tax rate include plans to hire a full-time environmental consultant for an estimated $100,000, adding a part-time accounting clerk, and reclassifying a part-time maintenance worker to full time.
Should the commission choose to keep the tax rate the same as this fiscal year, it would mark the first time in four years the operating tax rate has not dropped.
Helping to offset additional costs is a 3.63 percent increase in the town’s total taxable value, bringing it to near $2.49 billion. That translates into about a $664,000 increase in revenue if the tax rate remained the same.
In addition to the increase in the fire service fee, Highland Beach will be paying Delray Beach close to $70,000 to provide police dispatch service, putting both police and fire first responders on the same frequency. Previously, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office provided dispatch service for Highland Beach.
The estimated increase in fire service fees from Delray Beach came as a shock to some Highland Beach commissioners — even though they were initially mistakenly told the increase would be almost double that amount — and has led the town to take a look into starting its own fire department.
“We can’t go on like this every year,” Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker said.
Vice Mayor Alysen Africano Nila said she discovered that similarly sized Lighthouse Point in Broward County has its own fire department, and she suggested the town’s financial advisory board do some preliminary research into the feasibility of starting a department in Highland Beach.
“Obviously, it’s feasible for a small town to have its own fire department,” she said.
Financial advisory board members, meeting late last month, reviewed the numbers provided by Delray Beach and decided to bring the matter back to commissioners to determine if a task force to do a financial analysis would be preferred.
Under a current interlocal agreement signed two years ago, Delray Beach provides staffing for Highland Beach’s fire station as well as a fire truck and a rescue wagon. The vehicles will be purchased from Delray Beach in about eight years for $10.
In return, Highland Beach pays for the staffing and benefits of the fire department employees assigned to the station, which is owned and maintained by the town.
Meeting with Highland Beach commissioners late last month, Delray Beach Fire Chief Neal de Jesus pointed out that salaries for the staff at the Highland Beach station increased almost 8 percent while overtime increased nearly 55 percent.
The pay raise, Delray’s fire chief said, was the first increase for staff in the city’s collective bargaining unit in 12 years.
De Jesus also told Highland Beach commissioners that numbers provided to the town are only an estimate that will be “trued up” after the end of fiscal year.
“The estimate is the best we can do coming into this,” he said.
The chief repeatedly offered to meet with commissioners individually so he could answer any questions.
“I want this to be a relationship we’re all happy with,” he said. “I believe there is true value in the service we provide.”
Highland Beach has scheduled budget workshops on Aug. 6 at 11 a.m., Aug. 14 at 10 a.m. and Aug. 29 at 1:30 p.m. In addition, public hearings on the budget are set for Sept. 6 at 5:01 p.m. and Sept. 18 at 5:01 p.m.
The budget must be adopted by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.