ISLAMORADA -- The village would increase daily operating expenditures by $1.2 million next year and raise property tax collections by 4 percent under the preliminary budget proposal put forward last week by the administration of Village Manager Ed Koconis.
Among other things, the town would use the extra money to beef up staffing at its fire stations, increase local marine patrol, make several capital purchases and provide modest raises to village staffers.
The Village Council was scheduled to discuss the proposed $13.7 million daily operating budget, which includes $3.1 million in emergency reserves, for the first time this past Tuesday evening, after press time.
"Off the top of my head, they're certainly on the right track," Mayor Ken Philipson said of Koconis and Finance Director Maria Aguilar. "There are certain things, I think, where we can save money, probably in staffing and salaries. But [there are] certain things we need to add, so maybe it will come out the same."
The budget proposes a tax rate of $254 per $100,000 in taxable property for the 2013-14 fiscal year, the same as the village levied this year. However, because Islamorada's total property values jumped 4 percent -- its first increase since 2007 -- total tax collections would increase $104,000, to just less than $6.2 million.
The bulk of the $1.2 million increase in daily expenditures, however, would be covered by $775,000 in reserve funds, nearly half of which come from a projected $350,000 surplus this year. Even with the use of those reserves, the $3.1 million the village would retain in its "rainy day" fund would be a healthy 30 percent of proposed operating expenses.
New expenditures of $144,000 would come with the hiring of three new full-time firefighters -- one for each of the village's fire stations. Those hires would move the department toward Fire Chief Terry Abel's goal of having three firefighters on each shift at each station.
The new patrol officer, proposed in the budget at a cost of $60,000, would help the Monroe County Sheriff's Office increase its presence at a popular party spot just off the Lower Matecumbe Key bayside.
Proposed across-the-board raises of 3 percent would add $113,000 to the daily operating budget and cost the village $134,000 overall, counting salaries that are paid out of the funds set aside for items such as wastewater and the Founders Park marina.
The village's day-to-day legal expenses are budgeted to increase by $73,000 as a result of the council's recent decision to replace its contracted Weiss Serota law firm with an in-house attorney. And the Finance Department would get a $75,000 accounting software upgrade, under the budget proposal.
Aguilar said she expects legal costs for daily operations to remain higher in the long-term under the in-house attorney system, since the proposed increase for next year doesn't reflect any extra expenses related to smoothing the transition.
Litigation costs, though, are a separate variable. Council members who pushed hardest to replace Weiss Serota argue that the move should reduce those costs, since the in-house attorney won't bill hourly and will therefore have no financial motivation to litigate.
As for the rest of this year's budget proposal, Aguilar said she attempted to take into account the wants of the council members. For example, one or more council members had spoken publicly well before Tuesday's meeting about staff raises, new firefighters and a marine patrol officer.
The extra general operating expenditures also reflect a change in budgeting approach for the village, Aguilar said. Under the budget proposal, the town would use its daily fund, which relies heavily on property taxes, to purchase several capital items. Those items include $95,000 in Founders Park facility and equipment upgrades as well as a new fire truck, which will require a down payment of $100,000 next year as well as an $80,000 loan payment.
In the past, purchases like those might have come from village's capital project fund, which gets its revenue from sales taxes. But under the preliminary budget, the village would instead transfer $1.2 million from the capital fund to subsidize wastewater rates until 2018. The budget also calls for the village to use $900,000 from its transportation fund, which gets its revenue from gas taxes, to pay for road paving related to the sewer work.
"I think it demonstrates that we are trying to use as many resources as we can to minimize the wastewater cost burden on property owners," Aguilar said.
At Tuesday's meeting the council was scheduled to vote on a maximum property tax rate for the coming fiscal year. Council members can still lower the rate during either of two public hearings scheduled for September.
The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.