For the city of Key West, affordable housing is top on the list

Terri Johnston, Mayor of Key West, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about what’s been going on in the city.

Budget talks have been under way for a while now.

Johnston said, “There was a report on the city of Key West budget, talking about that there were no new funds available for affordable housing, even though affordable housing is our number one strategic objective and has been for a number of years. That’s somewhat misleading and I’m sure it was not intentional. The city of Key West, under the leadership of Al Childress, has been working diligently to acquire the funds needed so that we can continue our affordable housing efforts outside of our normal budgeting process. Those funds are coming from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation from Live Local, from our land authority funds, from any number of sources outside of the city of Key West budget. So these monies, we have millions of dollars that we have set aside and are working on right now to advance our affordable housing process, but they are not coming from taxing our citizens. I think that’s going to be good news for our citizens and good news for those people seeking affordable housing. I think what it looks like is the city of Key West is not working on that when it couldn’t be further from the truth. We have a number of projects and a number of funding sources that we are developing and finalizing to continue our affordable housing efforts.”

It looks like the millage rate to be adopted on Thursday will be 2.0822 mills.

Johnston said, “It’s the same millage rate as we’ve had last year. It’s one of the lowest millage rates in Monroe County. Even though we have the highest number of residents, we have the highest number of tourists, I think we’ve done a really good job this year of moving ahead projects that need to be moved ahead. Al is asking every single department before they take on new projects to finish up their old projects. I think it’s a very, very solid budget. You hear a lot of people throwing around the term rollback. Well, what rollback means is you’re bringing in the exact same amount of money that you brought in last year. Well, it doesn’t take long to figure out that with the cost of goods and services and employee benefits and insurances that continue to go up that if you are rollback, you’re actually providing less services for your community than you did last year. What that results in and I’ve been talking to a number of different governments about rollback. When a City Commission decides they’re going to be a rollback, it actually sets the city back five years. It takes you five years to make up for that decision and then ultimately, what happens is you give people a giant increase, which is unexpected and unaffordable. So we continue to move up in a very small manner, but a consistent manner so people can budget. Our increases in ad valorem taxes that people see are about 50 bucks a year. So that’s what we would like to continue to do instead of throwing out this term rollback, which really is very detrimental to the service levels that the city of Key West can provide for our not only our residents, but our guests.”

While the city does have a $6 million shortfall in affordable housing funds, the monies will be made available from other sources outside of taxing residents.

Johnston said, “We’re going to heavily subsidize the 3.2 Lofts area and we have a lot of work that’s being done right now in infill and new units in Poinciana, up on Duck Avenue. We’re taking a look at the major things for the Key West Housing Authority, because all of those buildings are aging. We’ve got some structures that are in some very bad shape. And of course, with our very scarce land availability, what we’ve got to do is be more creative than most communities, and we’ve got to build new units, move people from the existing crumbling structures into those new units replaced there. So we’ve got to do some moving around that most communities don’t have to do, but it’s doable. It really is. I mean, we know our parameters, we know our restrictions. So we find ways to work around those, but we do have to improve the housing for our Key West Housing Authority and we do have to continue to create affordable workforce housing, to keep our labor force stable and our economy vibrant in the city of Key West.”

The budget also includes 92 reserve days, something that was used heavily during Hurricane Irma.

Johnston said, “That’s how we kept the city running. It costs the city right around $160,000 a day to run and to provide the services that our residents are used to receiving. So when you go into a hurricane, when your revenue is cut off immediately, you are creating emergency services and emergency supplies for your community, we were able to do that during Hurricane Irma and we used from 92 to we brought it down to about 38 reserve days. But that’s in comparison to other communities and other counties that had to go out and secure a short term loan and at considerable rates, interest rates. We were able to continue our operations without a hiccup and continue to serve our community from our own sources. So we are back up to 92 reserve days, which is at the high end of our scale. Everybody should feel very comfortable because we can operate the city of Key West for almost three months without bringing one cent of revenue in.”

The city is always looking to maintain and improve service.

Johnston said, “You’ve seen it throughout the community with us taking care of our buildings with us taking care of our streets and our sidewalks. Even though the cost is astronomical right now, I mean, that’s our focus, to eliminate and reduce our fall trip lawsuits. As you’re walking along a sidewalk and see a crack in the sidewalk, we now have, click it and fix it where any resident can take a picture of that, send it to the city of Key West, and we’re going to get a crew out there to repair that. So we’re taking great measures to make sure that we’ve got a wonderful community, for our residents, and also for the guests that we invite.”

Mike Stapleford of KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM noted, “There’s not many tourist destinations that are as popular as Key West whereby you can really feel safe on a continuous basis. So I want to commend Chief Brandenburg and the police department as well as our fire department, too, for really enabling our visitors as well as our residents to really be able to just walk down any street pretty much at night and feel safe and secure that this is an environment where they don’t have to feel threatened.”

Johnston said, “That is so true and thank you for bringing that up. They are two very important departments and that’s why you’ve seen in last year’s budget, and this year’s budget, we continue when the chief and the fire department come up, we evaluate very seriously their need for personnel and fulfilling their openings that they have. In fact, on our City Commission meeting that’s coming up next week, we have a new ambulance that we’re going to be voting on, which is $340,000, in order to keep our residents and our guests safe and have access to quality medical care, and to get people who are in need to the hospital. It costs a great deal of money to run our city and we take that very seriously.”

Tomorrow’s special meeting will have one agenda item – the budget.

Johnston said, “This is an opportunity for the public to come forward to talk about any issue that they would like. I know in there has been a new story that’s been out there regarding the new position for deputy police chief. That is a position that Al identified very early because of succession planning. As you know, from the past couple of years, we have had a number of long-term employees that are in the drop program who have left. It’s just smart planning to have the next person ready, who can be able to work with the chief of police when the chief leaves and be able to step in seamlessly without any type of disruption to service, not only to the police force, but also to the citizens and guests of the city of Key West. So that’s part of our budget and that’s part of our succession planning, which is a really smart way to handle our long term retirement seamlessly.”

For tomorrow’s agenda, click here:

Johnston said, “I would like to thank the entire community for coming out to honor our second son, Jimmy Buffett, who passed away suddenly on Saturday and the community just as we always do, came together, had a wonderful, wonderful tribute to a man that helped put Key West on the map. We have several tributes that are in the works right now. Al is working with a number of different organizations. We’ve had a suggestion that we take Jimmy’s studio and make it a museum and statues and murals and all kinds of ways to remember this icon of Key West. So thanks for the community and thank you particularly to Paul Menta, who on very short notice, organized the second line procession on Duvall Street, which we had over 4,000 people there. Thanks to community service, thanks to our fire department, thanks to the police department. And thank you for Al for organizing this.”