By Dan Moffett
Several Ocean Ridge commissioners have suggested that this could be the town’s most challenging budget year since the Great Recession.
That probably would have been the case even without the COVID-19 pandemic. But with the public health crisis, and the resulting depletion of state and county revenue contributions to the town, the fiscal picture gets more challenging still.
Ocean Ridge finds itself trying to close a $725,000 hole in the 2020-2021 budget. A resident sent a written question asking Town Manager Tracey Stevens what cuts the commission was looking at making.
Stevens answered with a long list of slashed expenses: travel, training, vehicle maintenance, postage, phone service, office supplies, uniforms, gas, oil, equipment, holiday event downsizing and yes, even electricity. Employees are mindful to turn off lights when they leave a room.
Ocean Ridge taxpayers do have some hopeful news, however. Stevens said the town could wind up with unspent dollars at the end of this fiscal year: “Stab in the dark, maybe $300,000, or maybe $250,000.”
That surplus could take a sizable chunk out of next year’s shortfall. Also, the town has been fiscally prudent for years. It has general fund assets that exceed committed expenses by about $5.4 million; in other words, plenty of financial firepower in reserve to easily cover next year’s rising costs.
Mayor Kristine de Haseth said one of her goals was to base the level of the town’s reserves more on the amount needed for emergency operation, such as disaster response, rather than adhering to a predetermined percentage of the overall budget. She said the town has made a “herculean” effort to reduce the looming deficit to where it is.
During their July workshop, commissioners agreed to continue the aggressive cost-cutting, keep the millage at last year’s $5.35 per $1,000 of taxable property value, and cover the shortfall from reserves.
With the town’s property values up about 4.26%, the proposed millage maximum is well above the rollback rate of $5.17 that would hold taxes flat year-over-year. The first public budget hearing is Sept. 8 at 5:01 p.m.
The increased expenses the town faces include:
• A proposed $395,000 for legal services, up about $250,000 or 172% over last year, largely because of civil litigation against Ocean Ridge and revisions to the town’s charter and codes.
• A proposed increase of about $127,000 or 3% over last year for police and fire-rescue services, caused by incremental hikes in contracts with Boynton Beach and the police union.
• A salary increase of about $26,000 for town administration, including a pay raise for the manager, who transitioned from an interim position to permanent status.
• About $45,000 in new costs for stormwater drainage improvements, landscaping and pest control, an increase of about 10% over last year.
In other business:
Ocean Ridge voters made a strong statement in the Florida primary on Aug. 18 that they like their town’s Police Department and aren’t in the market for mergers with outside agencies.
By an overwhelming margin, 87% to 13%, voters approved a charter amendment that makes it considerably more difficult to change the department’s independent makeup.
The new law requires a ballot referendum to approve a merger, and it requires a four-vote supermajority of the Town Commission to put the issue on the ballot in the first place.
“I’m delighted,” de Haseth said. “I totally support the voters having a voice in what happens to their Police Department.”
Turnout was relatively high as 567 residents voted, or 34%, compared with 26.5% overall in Palm Beach County.
• Town officials have spent weeks studying and debating what to do about code violators — in particular, residents who don’t cut back their coconut trees before storm season. Dozens of the trees are in violation, officials say, and many encroach on the town’s rights of way.
After a lengthy debate on Aug. 3, the commission unanimously voted to approve the second reading of an ordinance mandating coconut tree maintenance. However, commissioners also decided not to send violators to a magistrate hearing until staff develops a tiered plan for code enforcement penalties.
• In July, the town hired Durrani Guy, 45, as its new building official, replacing Wayne Cameron, who resigned to take a similar position in North Palm Beach.
Guy comes to Ocean Ridge from C.A.P. Government, the building services company that works for numerous South Florida municipalities. Guy has an associate’s degree in building environment from the Caribbean School of Architecture and two decades’ experience in the construction industry. Guy will earn $89,250 annually. Ú