On July 14, the City of Marathon passed a preliminary 2021 budget: the millage rate (2.59) stays the same for the fourth year in a row, while the amount of taxes collected increases alongside property values by about 5%. The tax rate will generate $7.3 million in revenue for the general fund.
“The largest change to the general fund budget for FY21 is the movement of the Building Department out of the General Fund and into a Special Revenue Fund,” said Marathon’s financial officer Jennifer Johnson. “This is the result of Florida Statute 553.80, which limits the amount of reserves we can carry for the Building Department Services, and is also a recommendation by our auditor.”
The proposed 2021 budget calls for staff merit raises (up to 3%), anticipated employee insurance benefit increases of 15%, increased software subscriptions, new parks and recreation positions and increased staffing costs for the public works department.
“Overall the FY21 general fund revenues are projected to be approximately $20.1 million, while the estimated expenditures are about $17 million,” Johnson said. “This budget includes the actual FEMA reimbursements received of approximately $4.8 million in 2020 and anticipates another $6.4 million in 2021. If these 2021 reimbursements come through we are projected to end the year with $8.3 million, or more than seven months in reserves.”
The city’s goal is to have 12 months in reserve, a leap from the 6-month reserve that was put aside before Hurricane Irma and exhausted almost immediately.
This is the preliminary tax rate. In subsequent budget meetings, the council can vote to decrease the rate, but not increase it. Councilman Mark Senmartin asked if it wouldn’t be safer to set it higher in case City Manager Chuck Lindsey wanted a deputy manager to “ease” some of Lindsey’s job duties, but the council voted in favor of keeping the 2.59 millage rate it has employed since 2018.
Before the budget discussion, the council had a lengthy discussion about co-signing a letter from the Village of Islamorada asking the governor to cancel lobster mini-season in the Keys. Thousands of visitors descend on the islands every year; some regard it as a nuisance and others as a welcome injection of cash for local businesses. In the end, Senmartin and Councilman Luis Gonzalez voted in favor of the cancellation, but the other three councilmen declined. Senmartin brought the item forward.
“I want to do what’s best for Marathon and what I believe is best is for us to throw our vote to the village and leave the decision to the next level. I’ll stand up,” Senmartin said.
Councilman Dan Zieg said the timing was too short to cancel, or attempt to cancel, mini-season. “I appreciate and understand what you are saying, but I don’t think it’s practical to cancel two weeks before it happens. People have already made travel arrangements. It’s a gallant thought, but useless,” Zieg said.
“If we cancel, they are coming anyway,” said Councilman John Bartus, adding that any move now would be a “paper tiger or straw argument.” Bartus suggested setting new rules for a future season that would require divers to hunt lobster farther from shore to suppress the number of visitors.
Gonzalez was vocal in his support for cancellation. “Our coronavirus cases are continuing to rise and we are supposed to be in the business of protecting our citizens,” he said.
Mayor Steve Cook said canceling mini-season would “put restaurants out of business if we do this.” He also questioned whether the gesture, signing the letter, was futile. “Don’t back a horse that isn’t going to run. We need to mitigate the best that we can.”
City Manager Chuck Lindsey said he looks at mini-season from an emergency management perspective. “The actual issue is COVID-19. Does mini-season increase our risk if we cancel or does it not? It might increase our risk” because then visitors might not be on the water where transmission risk is low, and instead be on land where transmission rates are high.
The rest of the meeting was devoted to housekeeping issues, literally. Discussion focused on the state of roads in the Coco Plum neighborhood, as well garbage generated at Sombrero Beach and vacation rentals. The council also discussed widening 86th Street, adjacent to an almost complete affordable housing and market rate development in Marathon.
“When is the developer going to widen 86th Street like he promised,” asked Angela White during public comments. “Right now two cars cannot pass each other.”
Lynn Landry, who also sits on the city’s planning board, reiterated the plea.
City attorney Dirk Smits said he has reviewed the development agreement and conditional use that was approved by the city, as well as watched the video of the meeting. “It was pretty clear intent there be some design for a widening of the road. It’s not perfectly clear, but there is enough evidence to warrant more investigation.”
Cook agreed to direct staff to come up with a solution with the developer.
In other news:
• Zieg asked his colleagues whether or not Marathon should keep its current sign ordinance, or ask staff to rewrite it. The other members of the council said such changes would not be productive in the current economic climate.
• Cook asked staff what can be done to lessen the amount of “loose trash” associated with vacation rentals.
• Bartus asked almost the identical question about Sombrero Beach. At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the city removed the grills from the pavilions and cut the electricity to them. Now guests are attempting to smuggle grills onto the sand. Staff said the beach is seeing more activity than usual since recreation limitations have been imposed on some areas of the Upper Keys. Staff agreed to try closing all the gates but one, and staff the entrance, as well as put out more garbage cans, emptied more frequently.
• Sarah Cizmas and Melissa Grady were appointed to another term on the Fire Pension Board.
• The council agreed on a method of interviewing a handful of clients for an in-house attorney, including a possible contract with acting attorney Dirk Smits.