After 4½ hours of mind-numbing minutia about the proposed annual budget, some members of the Key Biscayne Village Council threatened to unravel the plan literally at the 11th hour on Wednesday night.
As the clock neared 11 p.m, Mayor Joe Rasco said he wanted to soften the proposed 9.9% average tax increase, without identifying any specific cuts in the $41.5 million budget Council Member Ed London asked for millions to be stripped from the current proposal.
Many of the objections brought up by council members appeared performative since the issues had been discussed for months in workshops and privately with Village staff. The move demanding tax reductions came even though no resident asked for spending cuts during public comments.
The Council passed – with only London voting no – manager Steve Williamson’s 2023-2024 fiscal year budget as it is on first reading. It also approved the proposed property rate – nearly identical to last fiscal year. But while the rate is the same, taxes on non-homesteaded residents and commercial properties would rise sharply because property values soared 9.7%.
Homesteaded owners would see a modest 3% tax increase, far below the rate of inflation –consumer prices are up 7.8 percent over the 12 months ending in August. The nature of the property tax system shifts the burden onto renters and commercial property owners.
But Rasco directed Williamson to create budget proposals for the next Sept. 26 budget meeting that consider lower rates. He wanted the council to lower the rate on the spot, but Vice Mayor Frank Caplan pushed back.
“On the basis of the premise that we’ll change our mind and do it two weeks from now seems reckless to me,” Caplan said.
Key Biscayne holds the distinction of having the lowest tax rate in Miami-Dade County – a household average income of $245,000 and a medium home price of $1.5 million, an island paradise that sports amenities most municipalities would envy.
The tax rate is based on millage – the assessment for each $1,000 of property value. Williamson’s proposed budget is based on a 3.16 millage. A change of even a tenth of a percentage point can mean some program, some position is not getting funded, unless the income is made up in some other way.
Rasco told Williamson that he thinks that the millage rate can be brought down to 3.15. London proposed it be brought down to 3.0.
In the absence of finding new revenues, Williamson and his staff will be tasked with finding about $97,000 in cuts. Under London’s proposal, $1.5 million would need to be cut.
London said he had an easy solution – eliminate $2.7 million from the general fund that pays part of capital expenditures. “Besides, you can cut a lot more,” he said.
The budget calls for $21 million in capital spending projects – many of them devoted to flooding and sea-level rise. The rest is for new fire and police vehicles and security cameras. Most of the money is derived from grants, borrowing, and funding from previous years.
The Council also seemed to once again embrace – at least with lip service – the infrastructure and resilience plan to harden the island against sea-level rise. They have spent months pushing back on everything about the project, such as the creeping price – at least $310 million at last estimate – and the hiring of consultants who would help the staff manage the massive project.
“Mr. Manager, I don’t know if you’ve heard me before, but you better hear me now.I want to be in construction. I want it to be out of design,” Rasco said to Williamson – who has repeatedly said the Village was behind schedule and has been trying to answer a battery of obstacles raised by council members.
There were plenty of references by members on the dais throughout the night to chatter on social media criticizing the spending plan in the budget. But during public comment, not one resident got up asking for lower taxes or asking for spending cuts.
Former Council Member Alan Fein encouraged the Council to stay strong against criticism and conspiracy theories spun in the chats., “Even if we spend the most money that we need to spend to harden our island, it’s going to be a tiny percentage of each of our tax bill,” he said.
The only reaction from the crowd – which included former Village Council candidate and budget critic Louisa Conway – came with loud clapping to London’s proposal to not purchase two new fire-rescue vehicles. Instead, he proposed taking the 12-year-old dilapidated ambulance tops and putting them on new chassis, saying it would save $800,000.
London also talked about cutting back on fire and police staff, as well as how vacation time is utilized.
Fire Chief Eric Lang said the older vehicles pose a safety hazard not to just his personnel but to patients As for staff cuts, he bristled: “I don’t support the idea of reducing our workforce down to 29 people. It will burn our people out. It’ll make for an extremely disgruntled work group.”
Still, Williamson said he would look into London’s alternative to put old ambulances on new wheels.
Councilmember Alison McCormick tried to placate London – who seemed to get more energetic as the night dragged on.
“Ed has an idea that I’d love to wrap my mind around more, but it’s not going to happen at 10:50 (p.m.),” she said.