The countywide tax rate has increased more than 25 percent over the past two years as property values have declined and the county has attempted to keep the revenue coming. If you own a homesteaded property, your valuation has probably gone up, even with market values in free-fall, so you have seen those double digits in your tax bill.
This year, at the direction of the County Commission in January, County Administrator Bob Weisman has delivered a budget with no tax increase. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he is getting there by cutting very visible and popular programs that are sure to turn out Palm Tran Connection riders (fares would go up), PBSO boosters (the sheriff is being asked to drop $21 million), lifeguards (pools would close and lifeguards laid off) and other special interests that come every year to defend their turf.
The answer? Why, raise the tax rate, of course. Weisman has asked the commission to raise the millage to a rollback rate of 4.922 (from the current 4.75), which would “allow the board to reinstate some of the less desirable budget cuts.”
The sheriff is not happy about the submitted budget and has told The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board, “Such a large cut is impossible without laying off deputies.” He also threatened to appeal any cuts to the Florida Cabinet, and if that failed, he would close down facilities.
In the county, there are givers and receivers. Most are givers if they own property. The receivers are the multitude of special interests who live off the $4 billion county budget; the more than 11,000 employees of the county, the Sheriff’s Office and Fire-Rescue, and the school district’s 21,000 employees. When a visible area is on the chopping block, those who benefit can be expected to speak up at the budget hearings to protect their interests. Last year, about 100 lifeguards showed up to get the pools restored (they were), and 60 or so PBSO employees in Police Benevolent Association shirts came to protect the sheriff’s budget (they did). And every year, it seems they try to cut Palm Tran Connection, only to recant when the disabled riders show up to point out how cruel that is.
Most years, there were few citizens speaking for the taxpayer, but that changed in 2010 with the creation of the Taxpayer Action Board. TAB is a coalition that includes tea party and 912 groups, civic associations, organizations representing town governments, and political clubs. (BIZPAC is a TAB coalition partner.) TAB members meet with commissioners and staff, write emails and attend the budget hearings. They also produce independent research on budget trends and collaborate with groups such as Florida TaxWatch on county studies. Their work product can be found at pbctab.org.
This year, TAB has started early in asking the following of the County Commission:
1. Maintain the millage at 4.75. The economy is still fragile, and after the 25.6 percent rate increase of the last two years (mostly borne by homestead property owners), it is time to pause. Additionally, you will be seeing savings from Florida Retirement System reform of nearly $36 million this year (for county and PBSO employees, by our calculations), and the decline in property values is less than originally projected. These two circumstances should make holding the millage easier than in past years.
2. Take the majority of cuts from PBSO, not county departments. As a percentage of the general fund budget since 2003, PBSO has grown from 46 percent to 59 percent, and much of this increased spending has gone to compensation enhancements so that sworn members are paid 30 percent above their peers nationally. See Palm Beach County Pay and Benefits – How Much is Enough? The submitted spending plan cuts the sheriff’s budget by $22 million. We think that should stand.
3. Take action to reduce the inventory of county property and reduce the debt. The debt as of September, not including the waste-to-energy facility and convention center hotel, is over $1,600 per county resident, and the budget director estimates that 14 percent of tax receipts go to paying the interest. Florida TaxWatch is currently performing a study of this debt compared to peer counties and researching unused or underutilized properties that could be sold or otherwise disposed of. The report is expected to complete by July 1, and we hope you will give it due consideration.
The TAB partners will be attending the meeting and writing emails in support of this proposal. What do you think? Join us on Monday night at 6 p.m. at the County Commission chambers at 301 N. Olive Ave. in West Palm Beach, and tell commissioners not to raise our taxes again.