September 12, 2018

ISLAMORADA — The Islamorada Village Council takes a trimmed property tax rate into its final budget hearing at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12.

Councilwoman Cheryl Meads blocked a proposed 3.2 millage rate favored by the other four council members at the Sept. 5 budget hearing at the Founders Park Community Center.

The village tax rate now being considered at the final hearing for the 2018-19 fiscal year is 3.0247 mills, or about $303 for every $100,000 of taxable assessed property value.

Because Islamorada’s 3.2 millage rate was 20 percent higher than the previous year’s 2.8 mills when factoring in rising property values, state law required the vote for it to be unanimous.

“You’re not going to get 3.2,” Meads told the council. “I would not be able to sleep at night if we do this to our community.”

A motion to adopt the 3.2 mill rate was defeated when Meads dissented on a 4-1 vote.

The lower rate of 3.0247 mills then passed on a 4-1 vote, Meads again voting no. The lower millage, however, can pass on a four-fifths vote.

For a home valued at $500,000 with no homestead exemption, the difference between the higher and lower rate would be about $85 in Islamorada municipal taxes, $1,515 compared with $1,600.

Councilman Jim Mooney, a Realtor, said the average home price in Islamorada is “just over” $500,000.

The council majority contended the higher rate would replenish the village’s reserve fund, depleted by an estimated $8 million in costs blamed on Hurricane Irma.

Islamorada, like every other Florida Keys tax-supported government body, expects to eventually receive Irma reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, the wait for the funds could drag on for years.

If Islamorada runs out of money this year to pay its bills, it must seek lines of credit, Village Manager Seth Lawless said.

“If we dip into it, we have to pay the interest,” he said.

“We have to look at a budget without [receiving FEMA] reimbursement,” Mayor Chris Sante said. “We’ve got to replenish our reserve. … I don’t want to plan our budget waiting on the reimbursement.”

Islamorada had a healthy reserve before the hurricane, he said, “and it paid off.”

In public comment, Larry Barr was lone person to object to the higher tax rate.

“You don’t have to replenish the reserves overnight,” he said.

Councilman Mike Forster noted the lack of an outcry from property owners.

“When we talk about [plastic] straws, there are 100 people here,” he said. “People are not lined up here to say that 3.2 [mills] is crazy.”

Mooney agreed, saying, “I think the citizens are happy. Our taxes are not going through the roof, and there is a reason we’re Islamorada.”

Islamorada, with property values now assessed at nearly $3.5 billion, is looking at a $15 million budget.

At the 3.0247 millage rate, property taxes will generate about $10.2 million, or around $680,000 less than the 3.2 millage rate.

Fees for service and other income help balance the remainder of the budget.

The tax rate can be lowered Sept. 12 but cannot be raised above the 3.0247 rate.

In a related budget note, Lawless said he recently severed ties with Islamorada’s recovery income consultants over their lack of progress in preparing needed documents.

kwadlow@keysnews.com