By Rich Pollack

Residents in Highland Beach could soon be paying more in property taxes as town leaders, faced with increasing fire service costs, have tentatively agreed to a slight increase in the town’s operating tax rate.
During budget meetings last month, commissioners set the operating tax rate for the 2018-2019 fiscal year at $3.12 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
That’s slightly higher than the current rate of $3.07 per $1,000 of assessed property value, and marks the first time in four years the tax rate would not drop.
The increase is needed because of a significant increase in the fee Highland Beach pays Delray Beach for fire service, according to commissioners.
Highland Beach has budgeted $4.28 million to pay for fire service from Delray Beach plus maintenance costs next fiscal year. The fire service cost jumped to about $4.22 million, up roughly 8.6 percent from this year.
“This number is out of control and it’s affecting the millage rate,” said Vice Mayor Alysen Africano Nila.
In addition, the town’s Police Department budget for 2018-2019 will increase from $2.45 million to $2.54 million, making public safety account for just more than 56 percent of the town’s overall $12.1 million proposed budget.
The proposed budget also includes funding for a new position, an assistant town manager/public information director, with a salary between $51,780 and $82,848.
Also in the proposed budget is $100,000 for an environmental consultant and an additional $60,000 for legal fees, bringing the total budget for outside legal assistance to $200,000.
To help keep from raising the tax rate even higher, commissioners agreed to take about $571,000 from their reserve fund, leaving about $4.5 million for emergency situations.
Mayor Carl Feldman said he didn’t think it was wise to whittle away at reserves.
“I’m not in agreement with robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.
Commissioner Elyse Riesa said she thinks it is better to use reserves than to put a heavier burden on taxpayers.
“If we have to raise our millage rate, let’s do it a little at a time,” she said.
The Town Commission will hold special meetings this month, each with a public hearing on the budget. The public hearings, held in accordance with state law, will be Sept. 6 at 5:01 p.m.
The final meeting on the tax rate will be held on a date to be determined.

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