After hours of public comment, Village CFO Benjamin Nussbaum took a few minutes to eviscerate the talking points about the new budget bouncing around Key Biscayne’s social media echo chamber.
At the final budget hearing on Tuesday night, the budget hawks came out firing that somehow the Village sits on a pile of cash while at the same time spends like a drunken sailor. Many who lambasted the proposed budget were members of the newly minted Key Biscayne Neighborhood Association.
KBNA wants the Village to tap into its $20.5 million in reserves to pay down debt and lower tax rates. It believes the Village departments are overfunded and too much taxpayer money is being dedicated to capital improvement projects.
Council Member Ed London – who’s spoken at KBNA gatherings twice– called the reserves a “slush fund”, a term usually reserved for criminal or illicit financial activity. He also supported a budget that cut $1.5 million in spending and proposed eliminating positions in the fire and police departments and other cost-cutting measures.
But then it came time for Nussbaum to answer questions from the Council. The KBNA’s slings and arrows mostly went clank thanks to the force field of knowledge employed by Nussbaum. London’s proposals didn’t stand a chance.
The CFO paved the way for the approval of the $41.2 million spending plan championed by Village Manager Steve Williamson that tackles much-needed resiliency projects.
On the reserves, Nussbaum explained that to pay down debt the Village actually loses money because the Village is only being charged 1.2% interest. In the meantime, the reserves are making 5.5% in interest for Key Biscayne. The reserves also are a safety net in case the island gets hit by a catastrophic storm and can operate the government for six months. And finally, the reserves allow rating agencies to award the Village the highest possible credit rating.
On over-budgeting, Nussbaum explained that critics were using figures that only showed 10 months of spending by departments – not a year. The budget book is made months in advance of the end of the fiscal year.
On hoarding cash, Nussbaum said that the Village Council gets to decide what to do with any extra money during the fiscal year. “So last year, we made three budget amendments, we carried forward the surplus and identified certain capital projects. So if there’s a surplus going on this year, we will do the same. It’ll be a transparent process,” he said.
On $11 million in additional expenditures, the CFO explained that money came from grants that couldn’t be budgeted in advance because they weren’t guaranteed. The money went into capital improvements.
On those capital projects, Nussbaum responded to critics that money was being spent when there was no actual work being accomplished. “A lot of capital projects cannot be done in one year. There is the planning phase, the design phase and construction phase and we need to show the full cost of that project,” he said.
London left the dais after Nussbaum spoke – he had a plane to catch in the morning – and didn’t vote on the budget. The die had been cast, he said. The budget passed 6-0 without significant cuts.
In fact, most of the critics and KBNA members also left.
The budget still gives the Village the lowest property tax rate of any municipality in Miami-Dade County, with a millage rate of 3.1245.
Taking into account that property values have risen 9.3%, that translates to an average tax increase of 8.79%. Residents who are homesteaded get a break because their property value increase is capped at 3.0%.
Former Mayor Mike Davey said Nussbaum was key in refuting claims “that were tossed up there” during public comments. “The staff can only respond with facts – but the facts show people what’s really what’s going on,” Davey said.
Davey’s former colleague on the Council – Ignacio Segurola – suggested during public comment that Williamson wasn’t being honest about his budget to the current Council.
“We live in the Village of Key Biscayne, not Fantasy Island,” Segurola said. “You just need to eliminate the waste, the over-budgeting, and everyone gets fully funded, and we don’t get over-taxed.”
Fausto Gomez, who ran for mayor last year, said there “was an orgy of overspending.”
Mayor Mayra Peña Lindsay was more specific, telling the Council not to spend money on a new forklift, among other points about zero-based budgeting.
There was also the wacky. One speaker created his own budget for the Council to consider – never mind the months spent by staff. Another suggested that too much money was being spent on maintaining athletic fields.
In July, Nussbaum was honored as a business leader when the South Florida Business Journal named him to its annual 40 Under 40 list. He is a staffer who is respected by both sides – on Tuesday night a couple KBNA members fawned over him during a break.
“You go sit with him and he will explain things. A lot of the times I’ve spoken to him, he doesn’t even have to refer to notes,” Davey said. “He knows this stuff. He’s committed.”