By Dan Moffett
In March, South Palm Beach voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment that gave the mayor the power to declare emergencies.
When the Town Council debated putting the referendum on the ballot late last year, the thinking was the charter change would allow town officials the latitude to react quickly to natural disasters — hurricanes, in particular.
No one saw the COVID-19 pandemic coming, however.
Now the council is poised to take a second look at the measure to see how to adapt it to deal with a broader range of emergencies beyond storms.
“It has to be reshaped and discussed,” Vice Mayor Robert Gottlieb said during the council’s meeting on Aug. 11.
“We don’t want to rescind it,” said Mayor Bonnie Fischer. “We want to revise and rewrite it.”
Councilman Ray McMillan, who won his seat in the March election, has complained that the mayor’s declaration of emergency has resulted in transferring too much power to the town manager.
Fischer declared a state of emergency shortly after the election because of COVID-19. The council approved it in a resolution that gave the manager the authority to suspend town meetings and activities, reschedule events and close Town Hall, until the mayor declares the emergency ended.
“One person has a whole lot of power,” McMillan said of the manager.
“And I have used the power very judiciously,” said Manager Robert Kellogg, who told the council he wouldn’t hesitate to “shut down Town Hall for the safety of the staff” again.
The mayor said the council should have a role in making decisions related to emergencies, and the language in the charter change doesn’t cover this.
“We need to provide some oversight,” Fischer said. “I don’t think we’re serving the town’s people if we have one person managing every aspect of the town.”
Town Attorney Glen Torcivia told the council he would look at possible revisions that might give the council more control and make emergency declarations flexible enough to deal with potentially long-running crises, such as the pandemic may be. The council expects to discuss the issue again at its regular meeting on Sept. 8.
In other business, council members, during budget workshops this summer, had approved setting the 2020-2021 tentative tax rate at last year’s level of $3.59 per $1,000 of taxable property value.
But that could change.
Gottlieb says he wants to push the rate lower and give taxpayers a break. “I’m in favor of a millage reduction as we have done in previous years,” the vice mayor said.
The council scheduled its first public budget hearing at 5:01 p.m. on Sept. 8. By law council members can reduce the proposed $3.59 millage between now and the beginning of the new fiscal year but cannot increase it.
Taxable values are up 22% in South Palm Beach, more than any other established municipality in Palm Beach County, thanks largely to the opening of 3550 South Ocean Boulevard, a $72 million luxury condo building.
The council has lowered the town’s tax rate in each of the last four years, Gottlieb said.