A consensus of city commissioners Tuesday set the upcoming fiscal year's tentative millage rate at $2.9847 per $1,000 of taxable property value, which would cover $1.2 million in pay scale raises for general staff.
That rate, which the commissioner may lower but not raise before the budget becomes final in September, could make it $13 higher.
At Old City Hall on Tuesday, the second and final day of budget hearings, only Commissioner Mark Rossi opposed the millage rate.
"I will not support that, I'm sorry," Rossi said. "Let the record show that please."
Assistant City Manager Sarah Spurlock led the budget hearings, a line-by-line reading of the entire proposed 2015 operating budgets of $44.6 million, a $3.5 million increase over last year's.
Staff and commissioners will return in September for a final round of budget hearings.
"We've chopped a lot of things out of this budget, but we'll continue to do that," City Manager Jim Scholl said Tuesday.
Commissioners Clayton Lopez and Billy Wardlow agreed that city employees deserve some type of higher starting pay.
"Even if we have to sacrifice our individual or collective pet projects -- some of the things we're just thinking about or just proposed," Lopez said
That $44.6 million budget includes $1.2 million to allow the fire department to take over ambulance services from a private company. The plan is to buy four ambulances and enough supplies to start serving the island, fire officials said.
The $1.2 million includes six months' worth of payments to Care/American Ambulance, which late last year told the city it was pulling out of Key West but would stick around in exchange for a monthly rate of $45,000.
But the $44.6 million operating budget does not include a pay scale upgrade, estimated at $1.2 million, which a consulting firm recommended this year after finding that Key West doesn't pay all of its employees the minimum market rate.
Cutting out the pay scale raises for entry-level jobs would make the millage rate $2.7625 per $1,000, staff said, and increase the monthly city portion of tax bills to up to $5.
City employees on the payroll receive raises each year, said Greg Veliz, who runs the public works department as part of Community Services.
"Why don't we raise the floor?" Veliz asked during his department's turn at the podium this week. "I've got a guy who for 16 years has been cutting grass at the baseball field. He's making $14 an hour. We're not getting anyone moving, just a view from the bottom."
Veliz said most of the lowest paid employees are working second jobs.
"Think how efficient they are showing up after stocking groceries all night at Winn-Dixie," Veliz told commissioners. "It's been 15 years since we've raised the entry-level position of $10.36 an hour for guys coming in the door."
The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority pays $15.38 an hour to its lowest paid, newest employees, Veliz said.
"I've got openings all the time," he said. "I can't keep them filled. As the economy gets better, I get fewer and fewer applicants."