Village of Key Biscayne Budget Workshop

As the village manager led budget workshop began on the evening of June 18 with council; Mayor Mike Davey presciently said he hoped the heavy rains that came down outside chambers right before the meeting start did not forecast any stormy conversation ahead; but his hunch was right and it did.

Besides the challenges from the get go with the village in the red, and differences of opinion about where the millage rate or TRIM should rest come August 1 when the manager must file her report, tensions erupted after two hours in, when council member Ignacio Segurola questioned the veracity of the Key Biscayne Community Foundation (KBCF) funding requests and insisted on greater transparency.

His resulting heated exchange with council has polarized Key Biscayners (with many requests-to-run editorials sent in to Islander News after the production submission deadline for the June 27 issue). A July 2 special meeting at 6pm at Council Chambers was recently scheduled to address and possibly resolve these concerns.

“We are net negative $150,000” said manager Andrea Agha at her presentation outset describing what was attributed to a larger scope decline of about $700,000 due to the near three percent drop in property values recently reported by the Miami Dade County property appraiser.

“Once we competitively award contracts and efficiencies through summer I believe we can absorb that deficit,” she said.

Voices from community groups

The workshop format was atypical in that budget season usually begins (as is the case in most municipalities) with council hearing directly from the community groups and boards making their case as to why they deserve new, continued, or increased financial support.

“My understanding is historically they would come and present,” said Agha.

“What I am trying to do in the spirit of efficiency is get them (council) the information they need and move through the meetings quickly and efficiently this year.”

She said that for the first time all of the budget requests were presented together to review as a whole (except for Zero Waste Culture not-for-profit’s request of $13,805 for composting that was not included in the master list). In lieu of the presentations, the groups shared narratives prior or turned in material to Agha or staff, that was available as back up during the meeting.

“Some groups that spoke during public comment were thrown off,” said Agha.

“When you implement new things, things get thrown off and there is confusion for some, we will do better next year.”

Public comment was when many groups opted to say a few words to further their cause.

Former council member Luis “Lucho” de la Cruz was the first speaker and as chair of the 2040 Vision Committee supported their request for a $100,000 consultant.

“Without funding of the professional we can’t do the work,” he said.

Next was Michelle Estevez and fellow red white and blue decked out Fourth of July Parade Committee members; then ASK Club President Ed Stone spoke with Bobbie Savage representing the “3500 active seniors on the key and their 22 different programs.”

Treasurer of the Chamber of Commerce Bob Brookes said he wasn’t prepared to speak but that “without a vibrant commercial corridor, all businesses fail.”

Citizen Science coordinator with the KBCF Rumya Sundaram, in addition to presenting her brief overview of the organization’s work, also announced that the Yacht Club and Crandon Park had just failed a recent test for tolerable levels of bacteria in the water.

Joan Gill Bank discussed the twenty years of milestone achievements of the KB Historical and Heritage Society: “we are island keepers…standing watch to preserve the rich past and future history.”

Village Manager Presentation

Next came the manager’s lengthy overview covering a wide range of related topics starting with village level of service acceptability.

Berming swales, unsettled trees, fading groundcover, and ongoing aesthetic pruning needs long championed by community activist Ceci Sanchez (who was present in the audience) were mentioned and descriptive photos shown as well as images of an unsightly trailer outside village hall, and trip and fall hazards from misaligned pavers pushed up by tree roots.

On community groups and boards Agha said there is excellent civic engagement and that many good ideas came up in their discussions with representatives.

“All of the organizations that have a budget request, many are here tonight. The information they provided is in the agenda packet and additional information will be made available by email this evening.”

“The total (request) in 2019 was $430,000 with additional, looking at just over $700,000 is something we need to think about going into the 2020 budget.”

Other main topics she addressed were staffing a resiliency officer, communications challenges, possible undergrounding strategies, securing federal beach protection, completing 530 Crandon, and how to manage capital improvement projects with five million dollars of working capital available.

At the end of the three meeting she said in conclusion, “The entry block is off the table, we are not pursuing it further. We will not have a second workshop at this point but soon a budget draft will be available for first reading (The next budget meeting is scheduled for September 10). As soon as I am ready I will reach out to you, I have your travel schedule.”

The next village council regular meeting is set for August 27 following summer recess.

Village Council discussion

“It’s going to be a difficult year,” said council member Luis Lauredo.

“We have to live within our means and sacrifice across the board. We can’t fund everything…if everything is important than nothing is important.”

He congratulated the manager on her presentation and the savings he has seen in his six months thus far of service. He said he is focused on core business “like policing, fire, recreation, and a few other things.”

“Tell the community groups here we are all going to have to face this together, we have limited resources. Twenty seven years ago (founding of the village) we thought small and efficient, usually small is efficient.”

Lauredo also supported putting a hold on negotiating over what he described as an ever-escalating cost for the entry block, and spurned more outsourcing for consultants, including any future transportation coverage for the undergrounding consultant group, Raftelis.

He later independently announced a substantial reduction in the Art in Public Places board ask.

Council member Ed London wanted to know if the homestead exemptions were taken into consideration on property values. He also requested confirmation on what the manager should state on the August 1 millage rate report deadline.

Interim finance director Chris Wallace sat at a table in the back of chambers ready to clarify budget speak for the lay viewer along with the village’s new deputy finance director (formerly of Miami Beach), Benjamin Nussbaum; who was officially introduced earlier by Agha.

In response to London’s question, Wallace said he would not make any presumptions on homestead exemptions.

“For the audience edification we are talking about taxable values and basing the budget on taxable values, the decrease is baked into the numbers.”

“All we have from the Dade County property appraiser is taxable value from last year.”

Davey said if the millage rate were to remain at 3.1 it would constitute a reduction of taxes and Wallace proceeded to explain the meaning of the millage and roll back rate for the general public (at 1 {hour}: 58 {minutes} into the recorded meeting).

“We are not raising the millage rate tonight,” said Davey.

“If the manager reports 3.1 we have no recourse going forward. My feeling is put it to roll back rate and deal with it at the September meeting.”

The ultimate decision was to keep it at the roll back rate (3.195) to allow for some flexibility if unanticipated surprises present themselves and to provide more wiggle room to deal with open variables so far unreported. Vice Mayor Allison McCormick, and council members Brett Moss and Katie Petros said the still hope is to keep it firm at 3.1.

“Keeping the millage rate you could balance the budget, but not with community outreach programs or capital improvements,” said Petros.

“The decision (then) is the roll back rate…you are saying to move it up to 3.195…not doing so gives us the ability to do it,” Lauredo requested several times to confirm.

“This is going to be divisive in our community. We are sending a message that we don’t have enough confidence in our efficiency.”

“For the record I do not think anyone is interested in increasing unless absolutely necessary,” said McCormick.

Community Foundation funding questioned

Segurola opened up his comments by predicting the demise of undergrounding. He suggested the council decision not to proceed with a referendum and the wait on the Public Service Commission report that will not be out until next spring, along with hardening lines possibly up by then, doomed it.

“(If) undergrounding is delayed by two years the appetite for undergrounding may be dead by then.”

“The only concrete numbers we have before us here today are asks by the community boards and a lot will have to take hits with us.”

Moss then suggested perhaps now was not the time for 2040.

Segurola continued and said his main gripe was with the community foundation and what appeared to be a lack of transparency:

“They are an incredible foundation and charity but the problem I have is with the village giving money…it doesn’t look right and negates transparency and I will explain why.”

“The foundation is asking to do things that the village should be doing…as a third party not contracted administrator for village funds and taxpayer funds that’s just wrong, that’s bad policy in my opinion.”

The KBCF requests are $125,000 and $99,000. Segurola also took issue with the foundation getting free office space and requests related to the shared space.

London, McCormick and Davey immediately responded.

“Without Melissa here she can’t answer these things,” said London.

Executive director of the KBCF Melissa White told Islander News in a subsequent interview that when the budget workshop was rescheduled she was not able to be present. She believed that if the organization had had an opportunity to present before council, it could have cleared up some confusion.

“We were told they were doing it different this year,” said White.

“We usually do a full presentation and we were told not to so it’s hard not to feel we were not blindsided. Community groups wouldn’t present this year we were told.”

“We are a public charity which means we have to file with both the state and Department of Agriculture for solicitation of contributions and the IRS. We do not receive reimbursement until we provide supporting documents on how it was spent and that it is an approved expenditure.”

“The line item reimbursements for the different community groups’ reimbursement was approved by the last council in the September 2018 meeting. It’s unfair to make these accusations without all of the information.”

Vice Mayor McCormick told Segurola his assumptions were incorrect.

“I’m not making any assumptions,” said Segurola.

“But you kind of are.”

“My point is the foundation should not be administering funds for things the village manager can and should be doing, why, because it eliminates transparency. Prior to the meeting I asked for an accounting of the numbers they have been given and received checks for the fiscal year October 2018 to the present and payments for another 370,000.”

“But a lot of that was pass through” said Davey.

“Pass through is improper. At the very best they are an uncontracted third party vendor; they don’t have a contract.”

In a later interview Agha said that both Segurola and White were correct regarding the money trail.

“They are both right,” said Agha.

“The general ledger print out was just a high level checks to the foundation it didn’t drill down to the details in our financial system. Right now we don’t have the ability to back up documents, they are kept in hard copy. Notwithstanding, every financial bill village back up is there. We can get that for him.”

She also said, and Davey later seconded, that she has been working since her arrival to finalize a contract with the foundation but has had to prioritize other demands ahead on the que and so it is still a work in progress.

“We are putting an agreement in place for the scope of the work and compensation for what the work is,” said Agha.

“I don’t think that right now the village has the core competency or bandwidth to provide the services.”

In a subsequent interview Segurola cited Article 7 Section 10 of the Florida Constitution and House Bill #869 supporting his case.

“It’s an issue of accounting across the board,” he said.

“I think they do great work, the transparency is lacking. When I threw out those numbers nobody knew that’s a problem and it’s not just them. It’s basically every community group that asks money from the village…I’m not saying they did anything wrong we just need more accountability for everybody, we need more clarity.”

“It is my first year here and I’m trying to do the best job I can with the faculties I have…just trying to do the right thing and follow the law.”

White sent a long detailed letter to the Council following the workshop. It explained in greater depth KBCF’s work with the free transportation FreeBee program, and that there exists an agreement in place as of 2015 that is currently being updated.

She also said she is readily available, and had approached Segurola to present the information he sought. She expressed her overall disappointment with the course of the inquiry that seemed to besmirch their organization and said she wants to help clear things up.

Both White and Davey believe there is a toxic phantom of ill will in the air demonstrated by way of aggressive “chats” reminiscent of internet trolling that seem to thrive on creating dissension by demonizing people and organizations with unfounded accusations causing polarization and divisiveness in the community.

Davey disclosed in the workshop that he had formerly professionally worked for the foundation. Although he does not believe it should have silenced him during discussion and his declared support for KBCF, he is nonetheless seeking an ethics opinion in response to a perceived negative buzz about it.

“I was disappointed with the way (the concerns) came out in the meeting….this is much ado about nothing,” said Davey.

“There is a malignancy out there and they hide in the shadows. Sometimes they come to the meetings and make a blurb of a statement then walk away. If they think there are better ways to be more transparent they are welcome to come out from underneath the rocks and work with us through this.”

Segurola also expressed a hope to work through these issues this summer. The KBCF board attorney sent him a follow up letter explaining in kind donations and other parameters of the KBCF work ethic. Segurola forwarded White’s letter to the council to key island residents.

The conversation is set to continue at the July 2 special meeting of the village council in chambers at 6pm. Perhaps by then emotions will settle down during these summer doldrums of inclement weather and intense heat…and a Key Biscayne nice cool refreshing breeze will prevail.