Fire/Rescue Sales Tax Surcharge to Make a Comeback

If you thought the Fire/Rescue Sales Tax surcharge was off the table, think again. Earlier this year, against significant opposition from the business and grassroots communities, the County Commission voted to place the measure on the ballot in 2010, only to withdraw it a day later on the advice of counsel. The stated reason was that the authorizing statute (which came into being primarily through the lobbying efforts of The Palm Beach Fire/Rescue Union) had significant flaws. The statute in question is Chapter 212.055 FS, Section 1 Subsection 8, entitled “EMERGENCY FIRE RESCUE SERVICES AND FACILITIES SURTAX”. This was added by SB1000 and HB365 of 2009.

In June, 33 of the 34 speakers were vehemently opposed to the measure and represented business groups, realtors, chambers of commerce, at least one city (the Mayor of Palm Beach spoke against it), grassroots
organizations, and political clubs. The lone voice speaking in favor simply delivered a statement from the Village of Wellington that they supported it. (Wellington is part of the county MSTU and is not one of the 12 municipalities that get a “vote” on the issue.)

The correct course in our view would be to REPEAL the statute– Fire/Rescue should have to justify its budget every year, just like other county departments, not have a multi-year slush fund in which to fund even more exorbitant compensation packages. (The AVERAGE compensation for Fire/Rescue employees under the current budget is $146,000 / year!).

The 2010 Legislative priorities of the current Commissioners however contains a line item “Fire Rescue Sales Tax Surcharge Glitch” on page 32. It says:

During the 2009 Session, the Emergency Fire Rescue Services and Facilities Surtax Act was passed by the Legislature. In order to implement the provisions of the Act, several clarifications are needed. Support legislation that would provide the following changes to current law:

  • The addition of a sentence that specifies that the term “emergency fire rescue services” as used in the surtax statute does not include volunteer fire department services.
  • A statement that any surtax (all of which are subject to original approval by referendum) must be
    reauthorized by referendum at least once every 10 years.
  • Clarification that a Municipal Services Taxing Unit is eligible to receive surtax proceeds under the
    distribution formulas in the act.
  • Clarify provisions requiring that participating jurisdictions reduce either taxes or other revenues by
    the amount of the surtax.
  • Include provisions that protect community redevelopment agencies from loss of revenue as
    a result of imposition of the surtax.
  • Change in the date surtax collections will be initiated after approval from January 1 to October 1 to
    ensure the surtax will not provide a windfall to participating governments.

Now is the time to contact your state representatives and ask them to REPEAL, not fix the Fire/Rescue surcharge addition to FS 212.055.

Commissioner Burdick Off to a Good Start

New County Commissioner Paulette Burdick is off to a promising start. TAB was impressed with her challenge to several Consent Agenda items at the December 7th meeting. Among them:

  • She raised concerns with increasing fuel flowage fees at local airports, siding with the Aviation and Airports Advisory Board, which voted 4 to 3 against establishing the fees for the North County and Pahokee Airports and raising them at the Lantana Airport at its October 8, 2010 meeting. The other commissioners had no qualms about over-riding the board in search of revenue. They voted 6:1 for the fees with Ms. Burdick in sole opposition
  • Ms. Burdick had an item moved to the 12/21 BCC meeting in order to explore local sources.
  • She questioned the rationale for library warehouse leasing.
  • She sought measurable performance standards in PBSO Law Enforcement Trust Fund (LETF) grants. Ms. Burdick noted that perhaps legislative relief was in order to allow these grants to be used in other circumstances, pointing out that the sums being considered could have otherwise been used for the Drug Farm or Eagle Academy if the statute were amended. Administrator Weisman deflected her questions to PBSO. (NOTE: For TAB’s view of the LETF, see below.)
  • Most encouraging was Ms. Burdick’s opposition to the acceptance of a US Justice Department Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), Hiring Program Grant award in the amount of $2,634,400 for the period of September 1, 2010, through August 31, 2013. While no matching funds are required during the grant period, there is a retention period of 12 months after the grant ends. The ongoing cost, assuming these ten officers are retained would be almost $1 million/year. The other Commissioners and Administrator Weisman expressed minimal concern – basically saying ‘what’s a million dollars in a four hundred million dollar plus budget?’ or ‘why worry about something 4 years down the road? Another grant will come up.’ The item was passed 6:1 with Commissioner Burdick opposed.

Kudos go to our newest Commissioner for considering the economy, the tax-payer and the long-term implications of ‘free money’. Keep it up!

NOTE: TAB considers the current operation of the LETF to be the Sheriff’s equivalent of the Commissioner’s “slush funds” from a few years back. The statute states clearly that the funds can only be spent on a narrow list of items, but PBSO spends the money on whatever they choose, with minimal justification. In September, the LETF was used to fund Cultural Council items that had been cut by the BCC. Today’s line item had funds for local charities. To see how much of a stretch this is – read the justifications: HERE

Florida Statute 932.7055 lists these as the only approved uses of LETF funds:

“… the support or operation of any drug treatment, drug abuse education, drug prevention, crime prevention, safe neighborhood, or school resource officer program(s). The local law enforcement agency has the discretion to determine which program(s) will receive the designated proceeds …”

Should Ethics Director Johnson Get a Raise?

A pay raise for the Ethics Director? This question has recently entered the public sphere.

Shortly after the Palm Beach County Ethics Commission was formed this year, Alan Johnson was hired in April as the Commission’s Executive Director. ( Press Release ) Mr. Johnson had been senior counsel for the Public Integrity Unit of the State Attorney’s Office.

At the time, the ethics ordinances had been in place for a few months, and discussion had already begun on the ballot initiative to bring the cities under the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction, so it should be a surprise to no one that the measure passed and the scope of the Commission will be expanded, subject to the charter amendments that are to be written.

With expanded scope, larger budget and staff, Mr. Johnson has made it known that he would like a larger salary than the $118,000 plus benefits that was offered and accepted in April. Several Commissioners support this concept, suggesting that it was their plan all along. Commissioner Fiore went so far as to say they knew they were “underpaying” Johnson.

See the article on the subject by Andy Reid in the Sun Sentinel HERE

With the exception of the Fire/Rescue and PBSO employees who are compensated under a union contract, few if any county employees have had a raise in quite some time. Is it fair then to give Mr. Johnson a raise after only a few months on the job?

Let’s examine the facts.

In the database of county salaries (PBSO is excluded), Mr. Johnson’s $118,000 salary places him at number 328 in the total pay hierarchy when all county employees are considered. (Of course most of that list are firefighters – remember that their average compensation is currently about $140K. As a matter of fact, 69% of those earning more than Mr. Johnson are the 225 Captains and Chiefs and the like in Fire/Rescue). When only the county staff are considered, he would be number 103.

If PBSO were included in the comparison, there are an addtional 209 employees with total pay above $118K, so that would put Mr. Johnson at number 537 in the hierarchy.

Just above that level are the Assistant Director of Roads and Bridges, and the Assistant Director of Libraries. Just below that level is the Director of HCD and a title called “Fiscal Manager II”.

If you were to compare Mr. Johnson’s salary to the private sector, for an advise and consent, administrative job with 2 employees reporting to him, $118,000 is a lot. For the county though, where the compensation is plush and comfortable, maybe it is an outlier.

As a taxpayer, I believe that all the county salaries and benefits have reached levels that are unjustifiable and there should be a public outcry – particularly about Fire/Rescue. For Director Johnson though, I do believe he should make more than the Assistant Director of Libraries, and it is unfair to single him out for scrutiny when the rest of the county coasts by out of the public eye.

So yes – Alan Johnson should get a raise when the scope of the job expands to cover the cities. It would be premature for the Commission to act prior to that time however, since the job was offered and accepted at the current level, and the scope has not yet changed.

Volunteers Wanted for TAB “Shovel-Ready” Projects

As more volunteers come forward to work on TAB Research, and we have begun considering paid studies, the time has come for a “to do” list of projects that are “shovel ready”. The objective of these projects is to increase our understanding of the trends in county spending and taxation, and to bring to light areas of excess, or unsustainable trends that bode ill for the future.

Many of these projects can be undertaken purely from publicly available materials, others may require staff contact and/or public records requests. All will be useful as we make our case for a rollback of county spending to pre-boom levels.

If you would like to volunteer for any of these projects, or have more projects to add to the list, add a comment to the post or mail us at

If you decide to participate, you will not be working alone. The TAB team can provide the tools, technology, contacts, analysis techniques, and moral support. Join us today!

Project List

GB:General Budget
SS: School System
FR: Fire/Rescue
CS: Core Services
GS: Govt. Structure
CD: Capital/Debt

Project Title Tasks
GB1: Pension Cost Projection Prepare a spreadsheet of the county pension costs by year since 2003, then project it 10 years into the future. List all the categories of pensions by type of position or bargaining unit, projecting them individually
GB2: Health Insurance Projection Prepare a spreadsheet of the county employee health care costs by year since 2003, then project it 10 years into the future. List all the categories of plans by type of position or bargaining unit, projecting them individually
GB3: Peer County Comparisons For the 5 largest Florida Counties (Palm Beach, Broward, Dade, Hillsborough, Orange), show the percentage budget growth (spending and ad-valorem taxes) for the years 2003-2011. In years that Palm Beach has exceeded the growth of the peer counties, examine which components grew the most (eg. PBSO, county staff, etc.)
GB4: Payers and Payees Build a list of the municipalities and unincorporated areas of the county and for each, estimate their county tax burden (based on valuation). Based on population of each, determine per-capita tax burden. If possible, estimate “tax dollars returned” to those communities.
GB5: Allocation of ARRA Funds Of the more than $500M in inter-govermental transfer funds, much in the last 2 years came from federal ARRA money. Track down where the money was spent and estimate whether it provided a general benefit to the county or was spent on special interests.
SS1: School Budget Trends Develop a budget trend chart (spending and ad-valorem taxes) for the school system for the years 2003-2011, in a format for comparison with other county spending.
SS2: School System Salary Skew Using a salary chart for all school system employees, analyze compensation for teachers versus administrators. Show growth in salaries for both groups from 2003-2011, as well as the number of teachers versus administrators.
SO1: PBSO Salary Skew Using a salary chart for all PBSO employees, analyze compensation for sworn deputies versus civilian employees. Show growth in salaries for both groups from 2003-2011, as well as the number of each.
SO2: PBSO Spending History Using information gleaned from pending open records requests, adjust the TAB PBSO trend data to reflect the population of the service areas by year, new jurisdictions added, and special mandates (eg. Homeland Security requirements). Build a chart of spending per capita (in the service area) and spending per call.
FR1: Fire Rescue Salary Skew Using a salary chart for all Fire/Rescue employees, analyze compensation for union represented firefighters vesus other employees. Show growth in salaries for both groups from 2003-2011, as well as the number of each.
GS1: State Mandates Build a list of Florida statutes that are impediments to substantive budget reduction in the county. Determine how much of the county budget growth can be attributed to state or federal mandates, and develop legislative proposals that could be used to restore local control.
CD1: Surplus Holdings Develop a list of surplus buildings, land, and equipment (eg. Mecca Farms). Investigate the carrying costs and develop proposals for divesting assets to save money over the long term.
CS1: Appropriation Constituencies Break down the county departments into “general benefit” (eg. parks, law enforcement) and “special benefit” (eg. Community Revitalization, Charity). Determine the size of the constituency of “special benefit” spending and examine the justification for that spending.
CS2: Program List Build a list of all county programs and separate them into those that are clearly the function of government, those that are clearly not, and those in a gray area. Build a case to terminate the second category and create a plan to evaluate those in the gray area.