First, the good news: It’s looking as if the Key West powerboat races will be allowed to proceed, following last year’s cancellation due to COVID.

Organizers of special events in November through the end of the year have submitted COVID plans to the city manager, who reserves the right to cancel events if necessary.

City Manager Patti McLauchlin told the city commission on Sept. 23 that she had attended a luncheon the day before, where health department administrator Bob Eadie and Lower Keys Medical Center CEO David Clay spoke about COVID.

“They both said COVID isn’t going away, but Monroe County is 79% vaccinated,” McLauchlin said. “My question is do we cancel events forever?”

McLauchlin said enforcement of an organization’s COVID plan for masking is a big concern.

Commissioner Sam Kaufman pointed out that the city has limited control over downtown crowds and hotel pools, and he questioned whether the city should “be a hammer against small events that draw 100 or 200 people, when the bigger problems are out of our control. I’m not saying we throw up our hands, but how much can we control?” Kaufman said.

Mayor Teri Johnston suggested that any events that take place without enforcing their COVID plan will have their event permit canceled for the following year.

And now for the budget…

Key West city commissioners last week voted 5 to 2 to approve a 5.5% property tax hike, a significantly lower increase from the 8% that was proposed in August. Commissioners Sam Kaufman and Billy Wardlow objected.

Finance Director Mark Finigan told the commission he’s “comfortable” with the budget that was approved on Sept. 23, but warned them not to delay any of the additional revenue-generating operations that are included.

“This budget is based on a set of assumptions that have to work out and be implemented as soon as possible to work out,” Finigan emphasized. “Yes, it has some flexibility, but what it doesn’t have is six months of waiting before we start to do something that we’ve committed to do.”

The revenue increases that enabled the balanced budget include a program that will charge a “reasonable rate” for weddings on the city-owned Smathers Beach. The city commission also agreed to increase some regulatory and licensing fees, and the installation of additional parking collection kiosks in the 500 to 900 blocks of Whitehead Street, Finigan said.

“One thing this budget doesn’t address are legal fees that may come up as the city attorney gets into negotiations with an attorney, whoever that may be (for the cruise ship issue). We know it will be more rather than less of an expense and we’ll have to lose some of our reserve days for that.”

Kaufman and Wardlow also opposed the first reading of the budget earlier this month.

“This budget includes 13 new positions, an unprecedented number of increased positions for the city in recent memory,” Kaufman said. “This budget includes $2.7 million in staff raises across the board without any relationship to merit or performance standards.”

“I believe the majority of these new positions and staff increases could be implemented without any tax increase if phased in over a two- or three-year period. Tax increases from the various local government entities add an expense to property owners. I am especially concerned about our non-homestead residential property owners who will receive a greater share of the tax burden and then likely pass on the additional expense to tenants renting in the city.”

The approved budget sets a tax rate of $2.14 per every $1,000 of assessed property value. By levying this amount of property tax, the city will collect 5.5% more tax revenue than last year.

“This is a robust budget,” City Manager Patti McLauchlin said. “It allows us to move forward with the community’s priorities as laid out in our strategic plan. And it allows us to bring our employees up to competitive pay levels, as defined through the recent Evergreen study. This combination means the community can look forward to a productive year.”

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.