Santamaria pounds Realtors at tense county budget hearing

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Fewer people attended Tuesday’s Palm Beach County Commission budget hearing than last time, but a majority of those who did begged commissioners not to raise taxes for a third year in a row. Many, too, urged the commission to seek more cuts from the sheriff’s budget, a demand that drew little more than a stare from the man himself, as Sheriff Ric Bradshaw stood quietly in the back of the room throughout the hearing.

Amid all the begging and pleading, commissioners struggled to find ways to cut the budget, but the sheriff did come through with some needed last-minute revenue. Still, it wasn’t enough close the funding gap, and the commission ended up approving a tax hike of less than 1 percent over last year’s rate.

Community and nonprofit groups that had their funding spared from the chopping block two weeks ago did not return for Tuesday’s hearing. Those who did return included Realtors, members of the Taxpayer Action Board advocacy group and others who came to support TAB’s budget recommendations. They were all witness to a lengthy, hostile discourse between County Commissioner Jess Santamaria and certain real estate agents who spoke up against raising taxes on already-burdened county residents.

Matthew Leger of the Realtors Association asked the commission to hold the line on taxes, prompting an angry response from Santamaria, who blasted the real estate group for supporting low-dollar property rights transfers that Santamaria blamed for helping to dry up county revenue.

Dionna Hall, senior vice president of the Realtors Association, tried to correct Santamaria, saying Realtors have never been part of that discount program, but the commissioner then criticized the industry’s support for impact fees. Later, when Nancy Hogan, also a Realtor and a former Ocean Ridge town commissioner, lamented that her property value had dropped by $300,000 over the past couple of years, Santamaria replied that the assessment was not a true value, but that it was an imaginary figure because of “house flippers,” banks giving away money and landowners inflating prices. The commissioner said he was tired of hearing Realtors complain about higher taxes when they had raked in 6 percent commissions on property sales throughout the prosperous years.
Those and other combative remarks by a sitting county commissioner at a public hearing appeared to stun many in the audience. One Realtor even held up her palm in an attempt to get Santamaria to stop talking, generating a buzz through the crowd.

While there were a few people who asked the commission to keep the sheriff’s budget intact, several made specific recommendations as to what should be cut. Iris Scheibl of TAB questioned why sheriff’s employees continue to get raises while all other county departments have frozen staff pay. She also pointed out that the agency’s take-home-car policy is costing the county nearly $5 million a year. Scheibl said it was not unreasonable to ask the sheriff to cut 1 percent from his budget when the county had cut so much from other departments.

Commissioner Paulette Burdick agreed that the sheriff’s budget needed cutting, saying she feared reductions from road projects would cost jobs at a time when the county should be creating them. Commissioner Karen Marcus repeated her preference for shaving down the county’s reserves instead of cutting deeper into the road program,but her fellow commissioners opted to keep the contingency fund intact.

Saying budget balancing requires raising revenues in addition to cutting costs, Aaronson suggested the county install parking meters at public beaches and parks, as some cities have done. Commissioners will address those and other revenue-generating ideas at a future meeting.

After an hours-long debate on how to ease the burden on taxpayers while also closing a $40 million budget shortfall, the sheriff offered $1 million in excess fees from his budget to reduce the tax rate. With the additional money, commissioners voted 4-3 to approve a $4 billion budget that set the tax rate at $4.78 per $1,000 of taxable value. Commissioners Steve Abrams, Marcus and Burdick voted against the new spending plan.

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