Lower taxes, higher salaries?
By Sarah Stover
Staff writer
Posted: 2006 Sep 22 - 01:10

SINGER ISLAND - Riviera Beach City Council members voted in favor of a raise for their services and a slight decrease in the tax rate, for city residents recently.

The five members of the Council also work as the City Redevelopment Agency board, storm water utility board and utility district board. As such, they decided to compensate themselves accordingly.

At the Sept. 6 Council meeting, three of the members voted in favor of raising their annual salaries from $10,000 to $19,000. The mayor's salary will increase from $11,200 to $20,200.

"The city chairperson and mayor get an additional $1,200 in compensation for their additional responsibilities they have for their positions," said Bill Wilkins, city manager.

Councilwoman Norma Duncombe was not at the table for the vote and Councilman Jim Jackson, who represents Singer Island, was on vacation.

Mr. Jackson is in favor of the raise though.

"Most of the city councils around us are paid more than us and they don't sit on any other boards. I'm going to meetings every day of the week. It's a full-time job," he said.

Salaries paid to elected officials in neighboring municipalities were researched before the recommended increases were made, said Mr. Wilkins.

No public comments were made, but that does not mean residents are satisfied with the decision.

"Taking on the CRA board tasks and the water utility district board tasks were their doing; nobody asked them to take on those roles and they shouldn't be doing them anyway, they should be composed of separate boards reporting to city council. Any justification of added work isn't warranted," said resident Gordon Rowse.

"The increase in the council and mayor's salaries should have been put on the ballot for the March election. Let the people of this city decide if elected officials have merited a 90 percent increase in salary. I think most residents would vote in favor of increasing the police and firefighters salaries 90 percent," said resident Dawn Pardo.

The issue will be heard again as a second reading at the Council meeting on Sept. 20.

Although the salary increase did not come under fire at the meeting, discussion of the millage rate did.

The Council tentatively adopted a rate of 8.75 mills, which equals $8.75 for every $1,000 of property. The rate is down from 9.5 last year.

The proposed tax rate would generate approximately $31 million in ad valorem tax revenue for the city. The reasons for the rate increase include funding for an additional 28 positions in various departments, the increased cost of liability insurance, and $851,000 to supplement pension contributions, said Mr. Wilkins.

Two public comments were made regarding the tax rate. One came in the form of a letter written by Grace Svokos, who owns a condominium in Singer Island. Chairwoman Ann Iles read it into the record.

"According to the notice if (the city's) budgets are passed, taxes on my property will increase over $1,100 this year. This is not the first five-digit increase in my property taxes in the last three years. I find these increases not only disturbing, but highly suspect, as I cannot justify how (the city's) budget increases so much each year," said Ms. Svokos.

She ended her letter with an implication that residents in Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach pay less taxes and the increase might cause some property owners to move.

Ms. Iles wanted to respond to the letter.

"I'm interested in (how much) out of (the) $1,100, is city tax," said Ms. Iles.

She felt it was unfair that Ms. Svokos was implying all of that was going to Riviera Beach. Portions of the taxes go to utilities.

"I think we need to do some education in this community," said Ms. Iles.

For some residents, the amount they pay in taxes is not the issue, but what happens with the revenues derived from them concerns them.

"There is nothing wrong with the more affluent paying their fair share of the tax burden, but when Singer Island residents pay over 60 percent of the real estate burden and have less than 12.5 percent of the population that's quite an imbalance," said Mr. Rowse. Very little of the money that comes in is spent on the Singer Island portion of Riviera Beach. There really needs to be better management of the money that flows across the bridge."

Ms. Pardo agreed.

"We don't have street signs and our roads are in dire need of repaving. The north end of the island barely has sand. The roads and landscape are just as shoddy. We do know that our tax dollars continue to go to 'consultants'," said Ms. Pardo.

"However, I really don't see any improvements on the west side either," she added.

Dennis Widlansky, who worked as the city's former finance director and town manager, also protested his taxes as at the meeting. He referenced discussions the Council had in 1998 and 1999 when the tax rate was 8.7 mills. At that time, the Council said in order to lower the tax rate, the city needed to increase its tax base. He argued that since 1999, the city has tripled its tax base.

Further, Mr. Widlansky said an exemption that was once discussed is now off the table.

"State law allows for an extra homestead exemption for the elderly and poor. Mr. Jackson and Ms. Duncombe acknowledged that it was a good idea (for the city to consider it) in last year's campaign," said Mr. Widlansky.

Councilwoman Liz Wade was OK with looking into the extra exemption, but in reference to the rate itself, she commented on what residents were demanding of the city.

"People want better services. Services cost money," she said. She spoke of how the city needs to increase its salaries to stay competitive, since fire rescue workers and police officers are underpaid in comparison with other municipalities.

Councilman Jackson echoed Ms. Wade's comments.

"We wanted to drop it to 8.5, but we weren't able to because people wanted more firefighters and police officers and other services," said Mr. Jackson.