Islamorada council members unanimously set a tentative 2023-24 millage rate and a spending plan, which includes a new resiliency and sustainability coordinator position, during a Sept. 12 budget hearing.

The tentative budget for the upcoming fiscal year maintains a currently vacant planning and development services director position previously held by Dan Gulizio. A decision to keep the job wasn’t unanimous, however. 

Inside the Founders Park Community Center, the dais mulled a break-even millage rate of 2.9574, which would bring more than $16 million in gross property tax revenue to the village to cover expenses for the 2023-24 fiscal year. The council also examined Councilman Henry Rosenthal’s proposed 2.75 millage rate, which would generate $15.9 million in revenue. Rosenthal believed the council should return some money back to the taxpayer. 

Last year, a previous council adopted a 3.000 millage rate, which generated $15.2 million in property taxes, and a $19.3-million spending plan. 

If the council happened to pass a rolled-back millage rate of 2.6634, which raises the same tax dollars from last year, property owners would still face a tax increase. That’s due to rising property valuations in the village, which now total $5.7 billion. In 2022, valuations in the village totaled $5 billion. 

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 Maria Bassett, finance director, 65-70% of Islamorada homes aren’t homesteaded. 

Council members are expected to discuss possibly decreasing the tentative rate at a final budget hearing on Sept. 19 at Founders Park Community Center. 

With concerns over sea level rise, council members agreed the village needed a resiliency and sustainability coordinator. In the Keys, Monroe County is the only other municipality with resiliency official on staff. 

Questions arose whether the position was full time. The council ultimately agreed the person in the resiliency coordinator position could also handle work within the planning department. 

“I don’t think it’s a secret that most coastal communities are moving toward addressing resiliency issues,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Jolin. 

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 chose 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.