Heated discussion marks OK for higher preliminary Wellington tax rate

Village residents could see a rise in next year’s tax bill.

The village council on Tuesday approved increasing the preliminary tax rate for the coming fiscal year. The vote was 3-1 with Mayor Anne Gerwig dissenting and Councilman Michael Napoleone absent.

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The vote set the stage for a more heated discussion at the council’s first budget workshop Aug. 13, as Gerwig voiced opposition to what she described as a rate that is paying for “soft costs that I don’t think merit this kind of increase.”

The adopted preliminary rate is $2.55 for every $1,000 of taxable property value, a 4.7 percent increase from this year’s $2.43 per $1,000. Setting the rate is a required step in the village’s budgeting process, with state law saying Wellington can’t set a tax rate higher than what was approved Tuesday.

The higher tax rate would bring an estimated additional $1.7 million in property tax money, Administrative and Financial Services Director Tanya Quickel said.

RELATED: What to know as Wellington’s annual budget survey kicks off Monday

The proposed budget is $97.3 million, down from this year’s $110.4 million. The village is cutting operating costs by about $2.4 million by eliminating seven full-time and two supplemental positions, Quickel said.

There will not be layoffs or firings, Village Manager Paul Schofield said. Instead, jobs will be eliminated as employees leave the village.

Another $10 million is being cut from the utilities capital improvement budget, which was higher than normal this year because of improvement projects at Wellington’s water and wastewater treatment plants.

The proposed budget includes $1.2 million for planning a Lake Wellington waterfront redevelopment, a line item Gerwig said she is “seriously opposed to” because there have not been any public-input meetings on the project. She also said the budget should do more to address safety.

“I don’t think we’re addressing the needs that our residents have, which is feeling safer in our homes,” she said. The proposed budget has a 3 percent increase in the village’s Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office contract. Other municipalities that contract with PBSO also are being asked to pay 3 percent more next year, Schofield said.

RELATED: Wellington council OKs first step toward license-plate cameras

“I don’t feel that Wellington is unsafe in any capacity,” Vice Mayor Michael Drahos said. “I have not had a single person come to me and say they feel unsafe in Wellington.”

He said the preliminary tax rate is a good starting point to set Wellington up for success in future budgets as all governments in Florida eye an expected drop in revenue if a proposed increase in homestead exemptions passes in November.

“Either we can kick the can down the road, or we can make a slight increase now that we can sustain over many years,” he said. “… I see this being a responsible projection.”

Councilmembers Tanya Siskind and John McGovern agreed, with Siskind saying the preliminary tax rate is “represented well” in the proposed budget.

The council also approved keeping preliminary rates the same for the Acme Improvement District and solid waste collection, while a slight increase was approved for water and wastewater preliminary rates.

Wellington is taking public input on budget priorities via its Budget Challenge survey, which is available through August at community events and online at www.wellingtonfl.gov/survey.

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