From left, Councilman David Webb and Vice Mayor Henry Rosenthal. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Soaring property values, rising costs and vacant staff positions were among the items Islamorada council members confronted during their first budget workshop on Aug. 8. 

Inside the Founders Park Community Center, five council members intently listened as Maria Bassett, finance director, guided them line-by-line through a proposed budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year. 

A rise in property values this year to $5 billion and a tentative millage rate of 3.00 set by the dais projects to raise $14.8 million in property taxes. If council chooses to keep the same millage rate, it would essentially raise taxes due to an increase in the village’s taxable value. Last year, the village council adopted a budget with a 3.00 millage rate. With a taxable value in Islamorada totaling around $4.2 billion a year ago, the village raised $12.3 million in property taxes. 

The village projects $20.7 million in revenues from property taxes, fines, park fees, license and permit fees, grants and half-cent sales tax.

Bassett reminded the dais that 65% of properties in Islamorada are not homesteaded, meaning they’re either second or third homes, commercial properties or rentals. The remaining 35% of properties in the village are homesteaded, meaning increases in the assessed value of the home is capped at 3% or the annual Consumer Price Index, whichever is less. 

Expenditures within the proposed 2022-23 budget total around $19.4 million. That’s up from the previous budget, when expenditures totaled around $18.3 million. 

A large portion of the village’s budget deals with personnel. Cost of living adjustments rose close to 6% earlier in the year. In addition, the consumer price index is at 9.10%, and that could go higher. 

Village staff including fire rescue would receive a 5% pay raise, per the current budget proposal. Bassett said Evie Englemeyer, human resources director,  contacted other Keys municipalities to find out what decisions they made on employee raises. Keys Energy is giving its employees a 4.5% raise. Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District is eyeing a 10.1% increase for its employees. 

New Village Manager Ted Yates just entered his second week of office. He told the council that he’s learning about the departments, staffing levels and job responsibilities. Yates said he agrees with a 5% raise. 

Councilman David Webb asked Yates if he plans to look at entry-level pay and offer recommendations for an adequate rate. Yates said he plans to examine executive-type compensation and entry-level pay.

“The entry-level (pay) is probably more critical than anything because as we look at retaining individuals to do maintenance work or lifeguarding or any of those hourly positions, we’re going to start competing with organizations being built. Up in Homestead, we mentioned Amazon. Amazon’s going to be constructed up there. It’s going to decrease the ability for us to bring people down to do the basic things.”

Village hall currently has vacancies for senior planner, senior inspector and inspector within the building department. Village attorney and legal assistant positions are also vacant. The law firm Weiss Serota provides legal counsel to the village. The proposed budget shows the firm receiving $520,000 for its services. 

As for staffing increases, fire rescue saw the addition of five firefighters. Those positions are funded through a three-year federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency) grant. The only other staffing change is the addition of an AV technician within the village’s IT & Communications Department. 

Bassett said the village has worked to keep 25% of expenditures in the unassigned fund balance account for hurricane response. Bassett said that equates to about $4.3 million. Per current projections, an additional $6.9 million sits in the unassigned fund balance that can be designated for other purposes like land acquisition.

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Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family (he's expecting a little boy in October).