Mayor Buddy Pinder discusses the village’s millage rate for the upcoming fiscal year at a final budget hearing on Sept. 19. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Islamorada council members considered several millage rates for the upcoming 2023-24 fiscal year during a final budget hearing on Sept. 19 at the Founders Park Community Center. In the end, the dais agreed to go with a rate of 2.7992, or $2.79 per $1,000 of a property’s home valuation, to bring in roughly $15.7 million in property tax revenue to the village. 

Kicking off discussions, Councilman Henry Rosenthal proposed the council approve a rolled-back rate of 2.6634 to raise roughly $14.9 million in property taxes. Last year, a previous council adopted a 3.0000 millage rate, which brought in $14.6 million. Rosenthal’s proposal to go with the rolled-back rate didn’t get support from the council, however. He then moved to go with a 2.7500 millage rate. Again, the dais didn’t support the request. 

Councilwoman Elizabeth Jolin’s initial motion to set a 2.7992 millage rate didn’t get council support, as discussion ensued over the elimination of funding in the budget for three transportation projects. Jolin said those projects, which include repairing village hall, resealing the roads and embarking on a road elevation study, could still be funded. Maria Bassett, finance director, explained that the village has added to its fund balance over the years between unanticipated revenues and expenses that came in less than originally projected.

“Considering the substantial amount we have, $14 million in fund balance, it strikes me as a fiscally responsible middle ground to land on,” Jolin said. 

Jolin again moved for a 2.7992 millage rate; this time the dais unanimously agreed following back-and-forth discussion. Before the motion and vote, Rosenthal said he wanted a lower tax rate to benefit the local residents. 

“In many cases, it lowers the rent. The guy who owns the property doesn’t have a reason to raise the rent,” he said. “I’m looking at affordable housing, which is No.1.”

Property tax income continues to increase in the village, and that’s due to rising property values – increasing from $5 billion during the 2022-23 fiscal year to $5.7 billion this year. The village is expected to gather $15.7 million in property taxes for the upcoming fiscal year. In 2020-21, the taxable value in the village was just under $3.9 billion, with $12 million raised through property taxes.

Homesteaded properties in the village are protected under a Save our Homes amendment passed in 1995 to limit annual increases in the assessed value of a property to 3% of the change in the National Consumer Price Index. According to Bassett, 65% to 70% of Islamorada homes aren’t homesteaded

The village is expected to have $14.6 million in its fund balance for the 2023-24 fiscal year, of which 40%, or $8.7 million, is designated for hurricane response. 

Following approval of the millage, the village council unanimously supported a $20-plus-million spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year. Local law enforcement and fire rescue accounts for roughly $10 million in spending, followed by general government, which includes the majority of other departments in the village besides public works and parks and recreation. 

Council members agreed to add a human resources position and a maintenance worker for the parks and recreation department. The dais also decided to maintain a currently vacant planning and development services director position previously held by Dan Gulizio. A decision to keep the job wasn’t unanimous, however. 

During a first budget hearing on Sept. 12, a lengthy discussion ensued over the planning and development services director, which oversees staff in the planning, code and building departments. Three council members elected to keep the position with the other two believing the departments are currently operating well under Jennifer DeBoisbriand, planning director, and Sheila Denoncourt, chief building official. Evie Engelmeyer, human resources director, told the dais the job came and went with different village managers. She said the position is highly compensated with a $205,000 salary. 

Upon her hiring in December, DeBoisbriand said there was a lot of confusion during the first few months over who was in charge — Gulizio or her — and who was assigned to what duties. 

Bassett said while Gulizio was in the position, he realized there was a skillset void in the planning department. 

“He (Gulizio) prioritized bringing her in,” Bassett said. “Her skillset differed from his and she’d be  a benefit to him and his role.”

Rosenthal, who voted to keep the position, believed the planning department needed someone like Gulizio, who began to address issues surrounding inconsistencies and gaps in the village code. Gulizio was let go by then-manager Ted Yates in late May. 

“I got numerous calls from folks who disagreed with Mr. Gulizio, but on the way out the door they respected him with his decisions,” he said. “If we can’t bring Gulizio back, I strongly suggest interviewing someone of that ability to plug into the planning department.”

In speaking to DeBoisbriand, Councilman Mark Gregg said she’s ready to dive into issues surrounding the code. DeBoisbriand has 25 years of experience in zoning, affordable housing and community economic development. 

“Jennifer’s talents are grossly underutilized,” he said. “She’s processing files. … Some people call it grunt work. We haven’t even tapped into her talents of proposing ordinances.”

Rosenthal, Jolin and Vice Mayor Sharon Mahoney chose to fund the development services and planning director position. Gregg and Mayor Buddy Pinder voted to leave the position out of the budget.

Jim McCarthy is one of the many 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 4-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, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.