By Larry Barszewski

Ocean Ridge commissioners reviewing the town’s proposed budget for next year have decided the town doesn’t need a paid lobbyist, and commissioners don’t need computer tablets or a pay raise.

But Town Manager Lynne Ladner can replace her broken office chair.

Some commissioners questioned going into such detail that Ladner’s chair would be part of their July 10 budget workshop discussions, but Ladner was assuming nothing when making her first budget presentation as town manager.

She walked the commission through her proposed $11 million general fund budget for the 2024 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, as well as the town’s planned capital improvement projects.

Commissioners aren’t planning to increase the town’s tax rate, but at a special meeting July 24 they approved a not-to-exceed proposed property tax rate of $5.5372 for every $1,000 of taxable value, an increase of under 1% from last year’s approved rate of $5.50 per $1,000 of taxable value.

The proposed rate can be lowered — but not increased — during public hearings on the budget set for Sept. 5 and 18.

“Just say between now and when we finalize the budget something catastrophic happens, we would not be able to increase the millage rate over what we say today,” Mayor

Geoff Pugh told Commissioner Carolyn Cassidy, who wants to lower the tax rate. The higher proposed rate is just saying “let’s hedge our bets and make sure we are able to go somewhere [higher] if something happens” before the final rate is set, he said.

If needed, the slight rate increase would provide less than $60,000 in additional cash to the budget.

Even if commissioners decide to keep last year’s rate — or lower it but not significantly — that would still be considered a tax increase because of rising property values in town, which went up an estimated 12.9% this year.

The average owner of a home with an assessed value of $1 million last year, who receives a homestead exemption, would see a town tax increase of $165 if the tax rate stayed the same as last year. A similarly valued non-homesteaded property would see a $550 increase.

If the town were to adopt the higher proposed rate set at the July 24 meeting, the total town tax increase would be $201 for that homesteaded property and $591 for the non-homesteaded property.

Commissioners covered a variety of topics during their budget workshop.

Septic-to-sewer. While the town has had on-again off-again discussions about being prepared for the day the state will mandate an end to septic systems on barrier islands, commissioners decided to hold off on spending $63,520 in planning — including a financial analysis — because there are no current expectations that the state will require the conversion.

Lobbyist. Commissioners decided the town doesn’t need to continue spending $20,000 on a lobbyist to represent its wishes in Tallahassee. Cassidy said the town would be better off working through the Florida League of Cities and directly with the town’s own legislators. “I think a lobbyist is an unnecessary third party,” she said.

Town picnic. Residents should plan on partying together, as Ladner has added $9,000 to the budget for a barbecue, picnic or some other event for town residents, probably on a Saturday afternoon in January or February, she said. “People would like more community events, more opportunities as a community to come together,” she said.

Town shirts. Town employees don’t get enough recognition, so Ladner said she is looking at purchasing polo-style shirts for them embroidered with the town emblem.

Technology overload. Commissioners have received town phones, but they told Ladner not to spend $20,000 included in her proposed budget to buy computer tablets for them and for members of the town’s appointed boards.

“To be perfectly frank I do not want a tablet. I don’t even want the phone,” Pugh said.

Vice Mayor Steve Coz also questioned the need for the phones: “I brought my phone and I looked at it. Guess who called me? My other phone.”

Ladner requested the computer tablets so commissioners could receive and review their meeting agenda packets online, rather than having staff print them out for delivery to commissioners, a more time-consuming and paper-wasting process. But commissioners say they like having their paper agendas instead.

Ladner understood the consensus was to keep things the way they are — “like the 1980s.”

Commission pay raises. Ladner didn’t include money for a salary increase for commissioners, who earn $1,200 annually, but she checked to see what the commissioners wanted to do. They said they didn’t want a raise.

Building permits. The Town Commission approved at its regular July 10 meeting purchasing a new online building permit system made by the same company that Highland Beach uses, after discussing the idea at the budget workshop earlier in the day.

“The town of Highland Beach’s permit process beats everybody,” Pugh said. “The program that they’re using in Highland Beach is amazingly simple on the building side.”

The town already has an approved contract for a different system, but Ladner hasn’t been satisfied with the performance of that company — and her newly proposed system will interface better with other town software, she said.

The town probably will have to pay $22,000 for the first year of software from the old contract that wasn’t used, while Ladner is working with the town attorney to get the city out of the rest of the contract with Tyler Technologies.

Ladner expects to save $41,000 from the original contract in the first year of the new contract with BS&A, which is for $40,425.

Coz said the town needs to tap into the expertise of its residents more, especially when it comes to software.

“We continually are buying the wrong product, or about to buy the wrong product, when we have people in this town that could tell us the right product,” Coz said.

Inflation hits fire contract. Because of inflation, the cost for the town’s contract with Boynton Beach for fire services is expected to rise to $1.4 million. The contract calls for a flat 4% annual increase unless the inflation rate is higher. This year, the inflation figure being used is 9%, meaning the increase will be about $111,000, more than double last year’s $50,000 increase, according to the proposed budget. And it may end up being even higher.

“I want to double-check the fire contract,” Ladner said. “I think it may be higher than what was calculated.”

Street paving. While Commissioner Ken Kaleel said the town’s streets need to be paved on a regular basis, Ladner said the current plan is to defer paving for another year because of other capital projects.

“When we get off of a schedule, it ends up costing us more,” Kaleel said. But Coz said that’s not always the case. “In the last two budgets, nobody could find a road that needed paving,” Coz said.

Ladner planned to research the paving issue and update the commissioners in August.

Employee raises. The commission didn’t reach a decision about employee raises, so Ladner will return with options for commissioners to consider in August. Ladner told commissioners the town has no cost-of-living increase and employees are eligible for only a merit increase of up to 5%.

Ladner said the cost of living itself has increased more than 5% in the past year, suggesting that something additional may be warranted for employees. Coz said the commission did address the issue last year when it awarded $7,500 one-time bonuses that didn’t get added to the employee base salaries.

Cassidy appeared skeptical about additional raises. She said she remembered the same conversation last year, when she wondered “why was there no discussion about some kind of cost-of-living acknowledgement for residents” in the form of a tax decrease.

Solid waste fees. The garbage collection bill will increase $29, to $260, for single-family homes, and will increase $20.30, to $182, for multi-family homes.

Land purchase near Town Hall? Ladner mentioned she might add the purchase of a land parcel to the budget that may cost about $200,000 to $300,000. “It would be the last parcel in the preservation conservation Town Hall area, to lock up that canal,” Ladner said. “It’s an area right behind us. It’s zoned residential.”

Budget surplus. Ladner’s proposed budget included $550,000 more in revenues than she needed to cover expenses, something Cassidy said would be better back in the pockets of taxpayers. Whether that money remains unspent could depend on what the commission does regarding employee raises and capital projects.

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