In a gutsy 11th hour move at Tuesday night’s budget hearing, County Commissioner Burt Aaronson suggested restoring all cuts proposed that night and cutting $7 million from the road construction budget. Aaronson said he had been speaking with County Administrator Bob Weisman and County Engineer George Webb and that they agreed this was a viable option. Commissioner Karen Marcus was stunned, asking why the road budget alternative had not been brought up previously.
Webb noted that $3 million to $4 million would not affect the road program over the next year, but cutting $7 million could “make a project go away.” With that, Aaronson suggested taking $3.5 million from the road budget and $3.5 million from reserve funds. Weisman disagreed with tapping into reserves, saying it could hurt the county’s AAA bond rating.
Weisman has refuted a September TaxWatch report that found the county has reserves higher than comparable counties, specifically Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Orange, and that such high levels of contingencies are not beneficial to taxpayers. In order to maintain a AAA rating, TaxWatch says a normal level of “unreserved funds” is at about 25 percent of a county’s total expenditures. However, the TaxWatch report said, “Palm Beach County has consistently maintained ‘unreserved funds’ at 50 percent or more of its total expenditures over the past five years. More importantly, Hillsborough County has maintained a level of ‘unreserved funds’ between 13 and 24 percent of its total expenditures during the same period,” while still maintaining a AAA rating.
The TaxWatch report also noted that Palm Beach County holds a larger amount of vacant land and buildings than is necessary. The county could generate revenue of an estimated $54 million by selling just 25 percent of its holdings.
Earlier in the evening, commissioners listened for nearly three hours to pleas from the public to not cut services and not raise taxes. Among those opposing cuts were teen swimmers who worried about the impact on their college scholarship prospects and Olympic dreams with their aquatic center funds on the chopping block. The disabled also turned out to oppose Palm Tran fare increases and funding cuts to the Center for the Blind. And a south county contingency spoke against funding cuts to the sheriff’s District 6 Substation west of Boynton Beach and the Green Cay Nature Center west of Delray.
Those speaking against a tax increase were mainly members of the Taxpayer Action Board TAB, the South Florida 9-12 group, but a few unaffiliated citizens spoke up to say they could not afford any additional tax hike. TAB had previously submitted recommendations to the commission that also referenced items from the Florida TaxWatch report. TAB’s recommendations included maintaining the countywide tax rate at 4.75, taking the majority of cuts from the sheriff’s budget, reducing the inventory of county property and covering any remaining shortfall from reserves.
After commissioners couldn’t come to a consensus as to which proposed cuts to fund and which to exclude, the motion was made to set the tax rate at 4.79 and restore all cuts in the current discussion. The motion passed with Marcus and Commissioners Steven Abrams and Paulette Burdick dissenting. Abrams questioned the deviance from shared reductions in past budgets by the county and the sheriff, who refused to make any cuts this year.
Weisman was given direction to secure funding for the approved tax rate, but to find additional cuts in order to get the rate back down to 4.75, the same level as last year. The next public budget hearing will be held on Sept. 27 at 6 p.m. in the commission chambers.
Photos contributed by Michele Kirk of BizPac Review.
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