A newly formed anti-tax group is rallying its membership to demand the Village Council cut expenses and lower taxes by tapping into millions of dollars set aside in case the island gets hit by a hurricane.
“Please go on Tuesday. The Village has been chronically overtaxed for many years now. The only conclusion I can come to is that the Village is hoarding cash – to what end I don’t know,” said former Village Council Member Ignacio Segurola at the monthly meeting of the Key Biscayne Neighborhood Association Tuesday.
Fausto Gomez, a former mayoral candidate, said it is a “very old trick” for Village Manager Steve Williamson to say that potential cuts under one budget scenario would mean a 15% reduction in money for events like the July 4th parade.
“It really is up to us what we want to do. Do we want to take it or do we want to go to Council and say, ‘This is unacceptable,’” said Gomez, a former lobbyist.
Also attending the meeting was former Mayor Mayra Peña Lindsay, who is widely thought to be considering another run for office. A member of the audience said, “I have a suggestion – you should run again.”
“I heard that rumor too. It’s fascinating. Thank you,” Lindsay said with a hint of coyness. The former mayor declined to comment when asked about her future plans, however.
The Key Biscayne Neighborhood Association formed in July, describing itself as a nonpartisan group aiming at informing residents about local government. However, its meetings so far have focused on criticizing most members of the Village Council, the Village’s current fiscal policy and various infrastructure projects.
About four dozen attended Tuesday’s night meeting at Village Hall to talk about next Tuesday’s budget meeting by the Council.
Property taxes are slated to go up under the current working budget because property values have increased 9.7% from last year – the tax rate for the Village is relatively the same and remains the lowest in Miami-Dade County. Homesteaded residents would see much smaller increases.
Segurola said the Village needs to tap into its reserve funds. “It’s time to use that surplus to reduce our taxes or reduce debt,” said Segurola, who served on Council from 2018 to 2022.
Village Chief Financial Officer Benjamin Nussbaum has said reserves are required to maintain good bond ratings and lower borrowing costs.
Village Manager Steve Williamson recommended a higher level of reserves because of Key Biscayne’s exposure to potential natural disasters and a tour he took in Fort Myers after Hurricane Ian. The Village would have to pay for any recovery efforts up front and then get reimbursed by the state and federal government.
The initial proposed budget adopted by the Council calls for $16.4 million in reserves – up $600,000 from the year before. There is also a $4.1 million emergency reserve fund.
At the Council’s first budget meeting on Sept. 12, there were no speakers calling for lower taxes. The Council approved on first reading a $41.5 million budget that translates to a 9.9% tax average increase for non-homesteaded property owners.
Then, Mayor Joe Rasco asked Village Manager Steve Williamson to come back with three alternative budgets with various taxation levels for the second reading of the budget and setting of the millage rate. Neither Rasco nor any other council member identified any areas for cuts – leaving that thorny task to Village administration.
The deepest tax cut plan would only save – on a per capita basis – $317 a year for the average household, according to the U.S. Census.
The Council could be in for a repeat of an avalanche of citizen complaints and personal attacks similar to what happened when it approved the Strategic Vision Plan. That non-binding blueprint for mapping out the Village’s future brought out residents who criticized it — without evidence – as a plan for over-development.
Island social media chats this week have also been abuzz about the budget, with one poster attacking Council members personally – and their families.
Council Member Ed London – who attended the meeting – told the group they need to be respectful to get their point across. “I hear a lot of bad things about the Council,” he said. “I might disagree with council members on many things, but I got to say everybody’s heart is in the right place.”
London favors lowering the tax rate to $3 per $1,000 of taxable value — a move would necessitate $1.5 million in cuts. It is that plan Williamson said would eliminate the planned installation of public security cameras, as well as leave less money for events and programs.
Gomez said Williamson was trotting out a “parade of horribles” to scare the Council into supporting the budget plan that has the least cuts. “Frankly, that is not the sort of Village that we want to live in – which is irresponsible,” Gomez said.