By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach property owners are likely to see a very slight increase in their municipal taxes as town commissioners move closer to finalizing their fiscal 2020 budget.
During an Aug. 29 meeting, commissioners agreed to tentatively set the final rate for the year beginning Oct. 1 at $3.79 per $1,000 of taxable property value, up 8 cents or about 2.2 percent from this year’s $3.71 per $1,000 and 21 cents or 5.9 percent from the $3.58 rollback rate.
That means that the owners of a $1 million home would see their municipal property taxes increase from $3,710 per year to $3,790, or up about $80.
Commissioners will finalize the tax rate and the town’s $11.9 million general fund operating budget at their second public hearing Sept. 19.
“This is a very strategic budget,” Commissioner Barry Donaldson said. “It’s very well crafted.”
The overall operating budget is up from $11.83 million and represents a $65,600 increase in expenses.
Property tax revenues are the biggest source of income for the town, generating about $9.5 million or about 80 percent of the overall general fund.
On the cost side, public safety continues to be the biggest expense, with fire service provided by Delray Beach expected to cost $4.47 million, or about a 5 percent increase over this year.
The town’s Police Department is expected to cost about $2.5 million, or about 1 percent more.
In setting the tax rate, commissioners debated whether to pledge money from the unrestricted reserve funds rather than raise taxes.
About $1 million from the reserve funds had been pledged over the last two years to help balance the budget. This year, however, the majority of commissioners agreed to break the trend and not tap into the $5 million fund.
“I strongly believe we shouldn’t touch reserves,” Mayor Rhoda Zelniker said.
“I try to be very conservative with other people’s money,” said Commissioner Evalyn David, who agreed to the slight increase in the tax rate rather than touch reserves. “I believe our rates have been kept unreasonably low in the past.”
During the meeting, commissioners praised Town Manager Marshall Labadie and Finance Director Matt Lalla for their work on the budget.
Commissioners also agreed to give Labadie a 5 percent merit increase — which is in line with what other high-performing employees are eligible to receive in the coming fiscal year.
The increase pushes Labadie’s salary from $150,000 a year to $157,500.
“We’re getting exceptional value from someone who is working morning, noon and night,” Zelniker said. “Marshall has done wonderful things for this town.”