Florida Keys News
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Layton looks at 34 percent tax increase

LAYTON -- As it currently stands, the 2013-14 budget for this tiny Middle Keys city calls for a 34 percent increase in property tax collections.

But a group of Layton residents is looking for more details before the budget comes forward for its final two votes in September.

"We want more people to understand where and how we spend our money," said Laurel Palmeiri, whose group of five or six residents plans to meet twice in the next couple weeks to look through the budget both for potential cuts and for areas where expenses could be more clearly indicated.

In a preliminary vote on July 11, the Layton Council gave unanimous 4-0 approval to the budget proposal of Mayor Norman Anderson. It calls for tax collections of $126,000, up from this year's collections of $94,000. The budget also calls for a tax rate of $275 per $100,000 in taxable property, up from this year's rate of $194 per $100,000. Total daily operating expenses would increase from $172,000 to $188,000.

The council can still reduce the tax rate at its September hearings, the first of which is schedule for Sept. 5, but under state law, it can't raise it further. Municipal governments frequently set the rate relatively high in July, before bringing it down during the final votes in September. Last year, for example, Layton lowered the tax rate 9 percent during its September hearings.

The proposed $16,000 in spending increases for 2013-14 would be spread over several budget areas, with the largest increases going toward elections and council stipends. This year, the five-member city council chose to forego its stipends, but under the proposed budget for next year, each member would be paid $900. Also, Layton expects to spend $5,000 on city council elections next year. In contrast, the cost of last November's mayoral election was borne by the county elections' office, since it fell on general election day.

Anderson didn't respond to a Free Press phone call for comment last week. But the budget drew praise from longtime resident Alice Miserocchi, even though she said she'd prefer to see the council forego stipends once again.

"They have done an excellent job," Miserocchi said, referencing Anderson, his assistant, Skip Haring, and City Clerk Mimi Young.

Councilman Bill Murchie, who was absent on the day the council approved the tentative budget in July, said the tax rate likely will be cut in September. One way to do that, he said, would be to use more money from Layton's still healthy unrestricted cash reserves. This year the town used more than $22,000 from reserves to supplement daily expenses. But the 2013-14 budget calls for the use of only $10,000 in reserves.

"I think everybody pretty much agreed that we need to increase that amount," he said.

But Murchie said he will also look for cuts. One area he singled out is the $8,600 in total travel expenses that are penciled into the budget.

He added, however, that Layton can't keep running on less money. Expenses in 2011-12 were some $33,000 more than the projection for this year.

Palmeiri emphasized that she doesn't believe there has been any wrongdoing on the part of Layton officials and that's not what the group she is facilitating is looking for. But she wants more details in the budget.

The document released to the public ahead of the July council meeting includes only general expenditure categories. For example, the item "Building Inspection Services" is budgeted at $35,000. But there are no specific line-items that say how much of that money is for the salary of part-time Building Code Administrator Thomas Bray and how much is for other inspection functions.

Likewise, the 2-1/4 page budget document doesn't have specifics on the salaries of Haring or Young or details for the other expenditure categories, such as "Special Events" and "City Utilities."

Flushing those numbers out is important, according to Palmeiri.

"I think the people in town will be calmer if they know where it is going," she said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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