By Margie Plunkett
Briny Breezes was the poster child of budget uncertainty this season. The only town in the county with increasing property values, Briny Breezes at the last minute more than tripled its proposed tax rate to cover its bases on rising expenses that were still unknown variables in its budget equation.
While Mayor Roger Bennett expects the town will adopt something much lower than its proposed 10.0 millage rate, it had to play it safe: There is little leeway in its small budget to deal with unanticipated expenses, he said.
Coastal cities, including Briny Breezes, neared the final round of the budget process, wrestling to complete details in still changing budgets ahead of September public hearings that will finalize next fiscal year’s financial plans. Municipal taxes are only one of many that make up county residents’ total tax bill. Sagging property tax rolls this year pinched every municipality in the county — except for Briny Breezes. Other income sources were squeezed by the economy and expenses such as health insurance were on the rise. That pressured city officials to find replacement revenue, cut spending, dip into reserves and raise taxes. Discussions of salary freezes, layoffs and reduced hours were in the mix as well.
“We’re going to be walking a tightrope and it’s going to be difficult,” said Delray Beach Commissioner Adam Frankel at an August meeting. “No one wants to see cuts. No one wants to see tax increases. There’s going to be some on both ends. We’re going to have to find a balance.”
Discussions on rising taxes and reduced services echoed through governments across the area. At an August public hearing, resident Sharon Lev-Har told Delray Beach commissioners that at the business she owns, “We’re cutting down to the nitty gritty. We have to do that in government. I can’t afford more taxes. We have to make commitments in this city to lower taxes, not to raise them.”
Delray Beach’s proposed tax rate was at $7.38 per $1,000 of assessed value, about 15.5 percent more than last year’s.
In Gulf Stream, which faced challenges to its $2.7 million budget such as the $125,000 increase in fire-rescue services supplied by Delray Beach, the discussion turned to private sector vs. government. Everything is re-pricing in the contracting economy, said Commissioner Chris Wheeler, as he prodded the town manager to view the economic predicament as a permanent state and go through the exercise of looking for cuts in recurring expenses.
Ocean Ridge’s $5.4 million proposed budget drops $86,038, reflecting changes in personnel in the Police Department and employees picking up a portion of the deductible in their health insurance benefits. The proposed millage rate rises to 5.8 percent, up nearly 13 percent from last year.
In Boynton Beach, raising the millage rate from last year was necessary to avoid layoffs, according to the proposed $71.6 million budget. The proposed tax rate would rise to $7.30 per $1,000 of value from last year’s $6.46 and below the rollback rate — the rate that is needed to bring in the same amount of tax revenue as last year. If the city kept the rate the same as last year, it could lay off 37 employees, among other cuts, the budget document said.
Lantana voted against changing its existing millage rate in July after hearing from town residents struggling to pay increasing utility bills. Commissioners then charged Town Manager Michael Bornstein with finding other ways to fill the $341,000 deficit in its $14.8 million budget. Manalapan proposes a rate of $2.80 per $1,000 and a dip into its reserves to make up for the shortfall in its $3.6 million budget. “We’re reacting as we should to an economic decline,” Commissioner Robert Evans said at an August meeting. The town has reduced two employee positions to part time and has frozen salaries, while at the same time picking up a 15 percent increase in employee health benefits.
Commissioners agreed that budget reserves were designed for an emergency such as this year’s economy. “I’m OK with dipping into the reserves — as long as it’s not habit forming,” said Commissioner William Bernstein.
The budget discussion in Manalapan, like elsewhere, isn’t finished, however. The mayor’s poll of commissioners revealed division on whether the town should freeze employee salaries, keep the lower proposed tax rate, or the alternative, increase wages, keep the tax rate at $2.91 per $1,000 and put money back into reserves. “Lowering the millage rate to borrow from the reserve is almost a gimmick,” said Bernstein. “I’m a little troubled by that.”
2009/10 Budget Season
Proposed 2009/10 budgets and related information for coastal communities. Municipalities can still change budgets and millage rates, which are scheduled for the public hearings shown.
Municipality | 2009 Taxable Property Value | % Chg. from 2008 | Proposed 2009/10 Budget | $ Change from 2008/09 | Proposed Millage* Rate | Public Hearing Dates
(estimated, July 1) 2008 Budget Rate 1st/2nd
Boynton Beach $4.6 billion | -18.2 | $71.6 million | -$2.4 million | 7.3000 | 9-14/9-22
Briny Breezes $38.9 million | +2.3 | $551,498 | -$29,393 | 10.0000 | 9-17/9-24
Delray Beach $7.0 billion | -14.4 | $97.4 million | -2.1 million | 7.3833 | 9-10/9-22
Gulf Stream $703.0 million | -5.9 | $2.7 million | +$10,464 | 3.0437 | 9-11/9/23
Lantana $869.7 million | -13.8 | $14.8 million | -$4.8 million | 3.2395 | 9-14/9-28
Manalapan $920.5 million | -5.3 | $3.6 million | -$201,396 | 2.8000 | 9-10/9-16
Ocean Ridge $727.2 million | -13.3 | $5.3 million | -$211,160 | 5.5000 | 9-10/9-17
All PBC Cities $96.0 billion | -12.2
SOURCE: Palm Beach County Property Appraiser; Municipalities
*One mil equals $1 for every $1,000 of taxable property value.