By Dan Moffett
Years of neglected infrastructure maintenance have left Ocean Ridge with a hole in its budget that town commissioners will have to reach deep to fill.
“I’m the bearer of bad news,” acting Town Manager Tracey Stevens told the commission during a May budget workshop. “Your capital expenditures are going way up this year due to the infrastructure needs.”
The good news for Ocean Ridge is that it has a healthy reserve fund and a growing tax base to soften the blow. Property values in the town rose about 6 percent in the last year to an estimated $1 billion, according to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office, driving up tax revenues.
Commissioners are hoping to hold the current tax rate of $5.35 per $1,000 of taxable property value despite the rising costs and major capital projects in the $8.1 million 2019-2020 budget.
Expenditures overall are up 14.66 percent and the town is facing a deficit of about $510,000, most of it going to cover the needed infrastructure repairs and upgrades for fire hydrants, water lines and storm drains.
“We have two choices,” says Mayor Steve Coz, “raise taxes or tap into reserves. Or we could do a combination of both.”
Ocean Ridge has about $4.8 million in unassigned reserves on hand, or roughly 67 percent of the annual general fund expenditures. Town auditors have told commissioners 45 percent is considered satisfactory, and even after tapping into the reserves, about 48 percent of annual expenditures will remain. So the reservoir of ready cash should be large enough to handle emergencies.
Recapturing the police contract with Briny Breezes could bring in an additional $180,000 in revenues. Ocean Ridge held the contract until losing it to Boynton Beach three years ago. Police Chief Hal Hutchins said he hopes to have a decision from Briny by Aug. 1.
The commission denied Hutchins’ request to spend $20,000 on body cameras. Three commissioners — Coz, Vice Mayor Don MaGruder and Phil Besler — said they were opposed to the idea philosophically, and the tough budget year was no time to reconsider.
The commission also persuaded Hutchins to wait a year before buying a new $48,000 vehicle for the department.
Results of a salary survey found that some of the town’s top employees were underpaid compared with those in surrounding municipalities.
Commissioners approved a total of about $13,000 to boost the salaries and benefits of two police lieutenants. Hutchins also got a roughly $16,000 boost to $120,000 per year.
The commission agreed in principal to make permanent the promotions of Stevens, the former town clerk, to manager and Karla Armstrong to the clerk position. Both have received high praise from commissioners. Stevens will get a $27,000 raise to about $102,000 and Armstrong will go up $15,000 to $60,000.
Still, the town will save about $40,000 between the two positions compared with salaries in the survey.
“All I’m trying to do is save money,” Coz said, saying the pay was appropriate for two relatively inexperienced employees. “I think it’s fair for people who have days on the job, not years.”
MaGruder and Commissioners Kristine de Haseth and Susan Hurlburt supported spending $23,000 to participate in a regional study of the long-term effects of sea rise on the town.
Residents also should expect their solid waste and recycling fees to go up by a modest amount in the next fiscal year.
The commission plans to formally set a maximum proposed tax rate at its next budget workshop on July 15 beginning at 5 p.m.