Increased healthcare costs and employee salaries were among the issues discussed at the city’s budget meeting on Monday.
As commissioners approved a millage rate of 6.5547 – which consists of a general millage of 5.99, the parks bond debt service rate of .1881, and the city hall debt service rate of .3766 – they were still looking for ways to cut money from the budget and possibly lower it further. The millage rate generates $16.8 million in revenue for the city. The total budget is $35 million.
The tentative millage rate has resulted in a decrease of $13.70 for homeowners covered under Save Our Homes and an increase of $130.88 for those not covered. Commissioners could lower the rate at the final budget and millage meeting, Sept. 20 at 6:30 p.m., but they can’t increase it.
“It’s not much below six but it is there,” said Commissioner Tom Green. He added that the millage was lowered but the city was still able to maintain services to residents. “I’m very happy.”
Paul Rolli, president of the Central Area Neighborhood Association and commission candidate, said the city should lower the millage rate even further because a lot of the increases in revenue have been “eaten up” by rising costs.
A new fire assessment fee was also passed. Single family homeowners will have to pay $210.18 over last year’s $194.97. Commercial users will have to pay $42.65 over last year’s $29.29. City Manager Leigh Ann Henderson said the rise in cost is because of a rise in calls and operational expenses.
Resident Paul Kuta said he was concerned that fire costs were threatening to get out of hand and that the city should try and smooth out its capital improvements. He also said the city shouldn’t be planning on spending $492,000 on renovations to the fire station if it is also planning on spending $3.5 million on a new fire station in 2019 or later.
City Manager Leigh Ann Henderson said the new station was only added to the budget to make the city eligible for future grants. “We don’t want big fluctuations but we have to put it in,” said Henderson.
Employee healthcare is one of the biggest expenses commissioners said they wanted to see reduced. “Insurance, I hate to tell you, is 10 percent of our budget,” said Mayor Gary Resnick. He called the rising costs unsustainable.
This year, the cost of employee insurance is projected to rise from $1.1 million to $1.3 million. Resnick said he understands that the city will most likely have to accept an increase but wants city staff to find a way of saving at least some money to “send a message.”
Dio Sanchez, human resources director, said he was investigating ways of saving the city money on insurance. That could include changing the benefits offered and/or asking employees to contribute more money.
The issue of raising employee pay was also discussed but commissioners decided that the previously discussed 1.5 percent cost of living and 0 to 3 percent merit pay increases were enough. Resnick said the city is already very competitive on employee pay and that increases in salaries have a compounding effect over time.
Commissioner Justin Flippen said he’d like to decrease the gap between the pay police officers get and the pay non-police employees get. Vice Mayor Scott Newton said he doesn’t mind the gap because police officers risk their lives and should be paid more because of it. Flippen added that he has a lot of respect for law enforcement but just wants to be as fair as possible to everyone.
Commissioners also want to find ways to reduce the $50,000 cost of producing and mailing the city’s official newsletter, the Town Crier, and lowering the city’s yearly $300,000 electric bill.
But commissioners also increased at least one budget item. Instead of $5,000 for a train station from the general budget, they designated $50,000 from the reserves. A commuter rail line is planned for the FEC railway. City officials hope to be one of the cities selected but Wilton Manors may get left out in favor of Oakland Park and Fort Lauderdale getting stations. Commissioners said designating money from the reserve fund was only a placeholder. If the city received a station, they could take the money out of the regular budget. Newton said $5,000 wasn’t enough to show the city was serious.
Flippen said it was important to show the city was committed to getting a station. He likened a station to Wilton Drive, saying that it was a way to bring more people into the city to patronize bars, restaurants and other businesses. Green said the city would be “adversely impacted if we don’t do it.”
Resnick said if Wilton Manors doesn’t get a station it should work with Oakland Park to provide shuttle services to bring people to the city. He said a regional approach should be taken. Green agreed but said cooperation should take place after the stations have been selected.