By Mary Thurwachter
Budget workshops seldom draw a crowd in Lantana, where the tax rate has remained mostly the same for the past 21 years. That changed this year after word of a proposed tax hike spread.
Despite a 15.8% increase in the town’s tax base this year, Town Council members are planning to increase the tax rate 7.1% on top of that, for a total $1.06 million tax increase. Town officials are concerned about how inflation and the overall economy are going to affect town expenses — and residents are worrying the same thing about their personal budgets.
The council chambers were filled on July 11 for the second budget workshop. One by one, residents voiced their opposition to an increase, but to no avail. During the regular council meeting that followed, members voted 4-0 to up the tentative rate from $3.50 to $3.75 per $1,000 of taxable value.
Reached by phone, council member Mark Zeitler, who the night of the meeting was in the hospital recuperating from a work mishap, said he didn’t think the town needed to raise the millage rate and he would have voted against it.
Town Finance Director Stephen Kaplan said factors affecting budget development that are creating economic uncertainty include the COVID-19 crisis, the war in Ukraine, a challenging labor market, rising inflation (which was at a 40-year high), supply chain issues and increasing fuel costs.
Raising the tax rate will bring in an additional $365,000, Kaplan said, enough to balance the proposed budget.
Vice Mayor Pro Tem Lynn “Doc” Moorhouse said that the $3.75 rate could legally be reduced before the budget is adopted in September. He cautioned against that, however, saying the town was “turning a corner” and not raising the rate would slow the progress. Not raising taxes, he said, would result in the infrastructure’s “going to crap again.”
But residents weren’t happy.
“Everything’s tight for everybody right now,” Hypoluxo Island resident Mark Hodnett said during public comments. “If you guys are having trouble with your budget at the town level, you can imagine the trouble we’re having at home. Some of us are living paycheck to paycheck. And some people can’t put gas in the car right now because of fuel prices. Every nickel matters. Please, please, please look for other ways to do this other than raise the taxes.”
Another islander, Ann McGlinn-Work, said that for the town leaders “to nonchalantly raise taxes by 7% — or 22% if you look at the rollback rate — is a little extreme right now.” The rollback rate, which this year is $3.06 per $1,000 of taxable value, is the tax rate the town would charge to raise the same amount of taxes as it received the previous year (excluding taxes generated from new construction).
McGlinn-Work criticized the proposed tax rate increase, given the extra taxes already expected from rising property values and $23.5 million in new construction, and other higher bills facing residents. “We have an 8% increase in our solid waste fees. We have an 8.6% rate adjustment for water and sewer utilities. This is all getting a little out of hand,” she said.
McGlinn-Work also said the proposed 5% to 8.5% cost-of-living adjustment seemed excessive. “I don’t know of any company giving that up right now,” she said. “I’m just asking you not to do it.”
Kaplan said the town wanted to retain staff and kept that in mind when looking at pay increases.
“The private sector sometime differs from the public sector,” Kaplan said. “In some policies, it actually points out that we should be putting in for 8.6%” raises.
The preliminary budget currently contains money for 5% raises, he said.
“We looked at the other surrounding agencies because that’s what we’re in competition with,” Kaplan said. Their planned pay increases “range anywhere from 3% up to over 8%, with the majority around 5%,” he said.
Erica Wald, who also lives on Hypoluxo Island, wanted to remind council members they were spending other people’s money.
“The tax base is up, property values are up and we’re still spending like there’s no limit. Please, look at our money carefully,” she said, urging negotiation on each expenditure.
Dave Stewart, the town’s former mayor who served for 21 years, encouraged the elected officials to remember their campaign promises not to raise taxes.
“This increase from $3.50 to $3.75 is unacceptable,” Stewart said. “It’s unsustainable. You need to look at where the money is going and try to budget within your means. This year, because you have an increase in property values from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion, you should be able to stay at the current millage rate or even reduce it.”
Several residents noted that some projects in the budget were in last year’s budget, as well, and were concerned about duplication. They also questioned why the town was buying new vehicles so often.
Kaplan explained that the town wasn’t double-dipping but that “in some cases, only the first phase of a project was funded this year, and the second phase was in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Sometimes, as we see prices increase, the funding we had is not enough.”
Town Manager Brian Raducci addressed the complaints about buying new cars.
“A lot of the vehicles being replaced have been deferred for a long time,” he said. “We’re playing catch-up.”
As far as overall spending, Raducci said the town was “trying to be a little more proactive than reactive and it takes funding to do that.”
During a visioning workshop in April, council members chose maintaining infrastructure as their priority, followed by beautification projects. Both needed more attention, Raducci said.
“The town didn’t get to where it is in a year or two,” Raducci said. “It’s not going to get turned around in a year or two. It’s a process. We’re starting that process.”
As of the July 11 workshop, the proposed budget was $25.7 million. The first and second public budget hearings will be in council chambers at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 12 and Sept. 26.