Coalition Partner Defines Mission

The Town of Palm Beach County Budget Task Force, a TAB coalition partner, has adjusted its goals under new chairperson Mayor Gail Coniglio. Members Carla Cove, Erica Elliot, Bobbi Horwich, Bruce McAllister and Jere Zenko reached consensus on 4 areas of focus:

  • Continue working with TAB on county budget issues
  • Create position papers to disseminate to media and civic groups
  • Reach out to like-minded municipalities, particularly the coastal towns, to join in a common cause.
  • Establish a presence for the task force at county budget hearings and in meetings with commissioners and staff

TAB has been involved in discussions with the task force and Florida TaxWatch to define a TaxWatch study of county spending that will bring an independent perspective using their respected methodology to the table in time for the June workshops. As part of the work, TaxWatch would present their findings to the Board of County Commissioners, and promote it through their website and media contacts. TAB will work to firm up the proposal while members of the task force pursue the needed funding.

For a complete synopsis of the meeting, see the David Rogers article in the Palm Beach Daily News: Town’s county budget Task Force sets priorities, mulls Florida Tax Watch study

Public Sector Compensation – Some Perspective

With the conflict over public employee compensation raging in Wisconsin and likely to spread across the country, there are still misconceptions about how public employees are compensated (and how well), the role of unions in setting the levels of compensation, and the political aspects that typically are more significant than the economic aspects.

We at TAB believe that setting equitable compensation for public employees is as important to budget reform as finding and eliminating programs that have outlived their usefulness. Just as entitlements are the major challenge to the federal budget, state and local budgets are defined by their personal service costs.

The following is a list of facts (and some opinions) that we think will structure the debate in the coming months, both in faraway states like Wisconsin and Ohio, as well as in Tallahassee and at the county and municipal level all over the state.

  • Salaries and other compensation are the largest government expense at the local level.
  • Compensation dynamics are considerably different than the private sector. Providing government services is a monopoly where spending restraints (where they exist) are political not economic. Salaries are driven less by market forces than by what the taxpayers will accept.
  • Conventional wisdom that “public sector = lower pay and better benefits” is no longer true. Flush with cash from the mid-decade runup in property valuations, municipal and county governments have allowed their personal services expense to far outpace inflation.
  • Public sector unions have made a convincing case to local officials that they should share in the property tax windfall – both in salary today and in pensions to be paid in tomorrow’s dollars, and as long as the public wasn’t looking too closely, they didn’t feel ripped off.
  • With both their employees and their unions making the case that they should “share the wealth”, and no organized advocates for the citizens, local officials have often been tempted to take the path of least resistance.
  • Officials are further incented by the contributions and manpower that the employee unions can bring to their re-election campaigns.
  • When local pressure is not enough, public sector unions have been very successful on the state level to get statutes enacted that constrain local governments from resisting upward pressure on personal service costs.
  • It is only the current prolonged economic downturn that has shed light on how this whole system has gotten out of hand – when looking at ways to constrain spending, many are appalled and surprised at how their personal services costs have exploded, and how little they can do about it.
  • State level resistance to unbounded growth in public sector compensation, initially led by Chris Christie, and followed by many more of the Republican governors and legislatures elected in 2010 (including Rick Scott) is a potential game-changer.
  • Those municipal and county officials who would really like to restore sanity to public employee compensation have a small window of opportunity to get on the train before all this comes to a head this year.
  • They could start by supporting FRS reform as outlined by the governor, which if enacted would save around $60M at the county level.
  • Once established, FRS reform could be used as a blueprint for local pension plans.
  • FRS reform is not “draconian” and would still provide better benefits than the private sector.
  • For example, reduction in special risk accruals from 3% to 2% would return to the original concept – to provide an equivalent pension at 25 years for those in high stress jobs that other employees would get at 30 years.
  • Another area for reform is longevity raises – this is a public sector phenomenon that provides a rapid escalation in salary, irrespective of merit or performance. During economic downturn, local governments should have the flexibility to freeze or even reduce salaries as an alternative to layoffs, just like in the private sector.
  • As framed by the Wisconsin debate, the collective bargaining process by public employee unions is at the core of the problem. Pension and health care concessions in that state may fix this year’s budget, but next year (or when the economy improves) they will be back to the table to restore it. Once a mulit-year contract is in place (such as the PBC situation with PBSO and Fire/Rescue), necessary actions that would void the terms of the contract (such as a delay in raises) are not possible without justifiable economic distress – and maybe not even then.
  • A similar conundrum is about to play out in Tallahassee as the legislative committees to take up the Governor’s FRS reforms are already talking about “restoring” the status quo as soon as FRS is back to 100% funding. These same legislators, many of them Republicans, have already proposed that 5% is too much, the COLA must remain, and we can’t possibly mess with the special risk accruals. We can only hope that Rick Scott stands his ground.

Only by having an honest dialog on these subjects with all parties at the table – including the taxpayer, can we avoid the train wreck that is coming in public sector finance. Luckily, many have taken up the subject and it is being discussed in the media at all levels. If Scott Walker can round up his missing Senators and pass his collective bargaining reform, many states will initiate changes in their situations that would have been unthinkable only a year ago. Even if some compromise is made in Wisconsin, a line has been crossed and the battle has been joined.

Nothing less than the economic survival of the American Experiment is at stake.

TAB Study Referenced in Palm Beach Post Editorial

Our study of county pay and benefits ( Palm Beach County Pay and Benefits – How Much is Enough? ) was recently referenced in a Post editorial ( Rein in fire-rescue costs: Pay that was reasonable in better times no longer is ) regarding Fire/Rescue compensation.

We came to the conclusion that the county should consider these elevated levels of compensation when they begin contract negotiations with the IAFF shortly. The Post agrees.

It should be noted that since the time of our study, the Governor has proposed FRS changes that would require participants to contribute 5% of their salary to their pension. County Budget Director John Wilson indicates that each 1% pension contribution is worth $1.4M in Fire/Rescue. Additionally, the FRS accrual rate for special risk class (about 87% of Fire/Rescue employees) would drop from 3% to 2% – potentialy worth another 7% in expense. All other things being equal, these changes, if enacted, would reduce the average Fire/Rescue compensation by about $10,000.

Florida Cities, Counties Can’t Afford Promised Pensions

In a recently released study, the nonpartisan LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State has concluded that many local governments throughout the state cannot afford the pension obligations they have promised to their employees.

According to the Sally Kestin, in a Sun-Sentinel article today, municipal pensions account for more than half the payrolls in Miami, Pembroke Pines and Hollywood.

Called a “time bomb” by the report, and a “catastrophe” by state Senator Jeremy RIng (D-Parkland), the report makes several recommendations to ease the burden – none of which will be good news to those who have had promises made to them.

Read the story HERE.

It should be noted that Palm Beach County government, including PBSO and Fire/Rescue, participate in the state run Florida Retirement System (FRS). Although not fully funded this year, it is in better shape than some states, and Governor Scott has proposed major changes to FRS that will make it much more affordable for participating governments. By our measure, the Scott proposal could save up to $60M per year for PBC, although it will depend on some details that haven’t yet been analysed – particularly the contribution rate for special risk employees if the accrual drops to 2%. TAB will be publishing our estimates in this area in a coming article.

Chris Christie on Public Sector Salaries

This man tells it like it is.

TAB Legislative Wish-List – an Update

Since we published our “Legislative Wish List” last month, the outlook for the coming session has come into focus. Two of the 4 items appear to be off the table, while one of them – FRS reform, has been exceeded by the just announced proposal by Governor Scott. Here is an update.

FRS Reform

We support the county’s desire to require employee contributions to FRS, modify the fixed 3% COLA, reduce the DROP program, explore Defined Contribution plans, and tighten the calculation of AFC (Average Final Compensation), but consider their “things to avoid” as too restrictive.

The Governor’s plan on the other hand jumps to a full 5% participant contribution, ends the COLA on accruals after July of this year, drops the DROP altogether, and offers new hires a Defined Contribution plan only. Furthermore, the plan would cut the accrual rate for the “special risk” class from 3% to 2%. He estimates this plan will save the state’s taxpayers about $2.8B over two years. In TAB’s quick calculation, just two of these changes – the special risk accrual rate and the 5% contribution, would save Palm Beach County about $17M per year from Fire/Rescue pension contributions, and about $21M from PBSO.

We therefore much prefer the Governor’s proposal to the county’s agenda and hope that the county Delegation can support it against the significant opposition that is sure to come.

The opposition that will follow this proposal needs to be put in perspective. When the FRS statute was first introduced, the “special risk” class accrual was 2%. Meant to apply to police, corrections officers and firefighters whose physically demanding jobs required them to retire at an earlier age, the differential was to provide them with a roughly equivalent pension at 25 years that a “general class” employee would get at 30 years (approximately 50% of AFC). During 2000, Special Risk Class accrual rates were increased from 2% to 3% for all years between 1978 and 1993 for all members retiring on or after July 1, 2000; the Legislature funded this $696.8 million change from an actuarial surplus in the FRS trust fund over a three-year period.

The following is from 121.0515 FS:

LEGISLATIVE INTENT.—In creating the Special Risk Class of membership within the Florida Retirement System, it is the intent and purpose of the Legislature to recognize that persons employed in certain categories of law enforcement, firefighting, criminal detention, and emergency medical care positions are required as one of the essential functions of their positions to perform work that is physically demanding or arduous, or work that requires extraordinary agility and mental acuity, and that such persons, because of diminishing physical and mental faculties, may find that they are not able, without risk to the health and safety of themselves, the public, or their coworkers, to continue performing such duties and thus enjoy the full career and retirement benefits enjoyed by persons employed in other positions and that, if they find it necessary, due to the physical and mental limitations of their age, to retire at an earlier age and usually with less service, they will suffer an economic deprivation therefrom. Therefore, as a means of recognizing the peculiar and special problems of this class of employees, it is the intent and purpose of the Legislature to establish a class of retirement membership that awards more retirement credit per year of service than that awarded to other employees; however, nothing contained herein shall require ineligibility for special risk membership upon reaching age 55.

We think returning to the original intent of the statute is appropriate.

The following table illustrates the current FRS attributes, the county agenda, and the Governor’s Proposal. An excellent summary can be found in the Sun-Sentinel HERE.

Current FRS County Agenda Rick Scott Proposal
Accrual Rates 1.6% general
3% special risk
No Change 1.6% general
2% special risk
Participant Contributions None “Modest Amount”, indexed cap, sliding scale, “offsets” 5% across the board
Defined Contribution Plan Offered with few takers Incentives, but not mandatory Only option for new hires
COLA fixed 3% / year Indexed to inflation Eliminated for accruals past July 2011 (protects current retirees and accumulated benefits)
DROP Program Continue working for 5 years while pension accumulates, then lump sum Wait time lengthened, credit for federal employment Eliminated after July, 2011

Palm Beach County Sheriff Career Service Legislation

The county wants to modify this statute to allow changes to current benefits during collective bargaining. Currently, no existing employer-paid benefits and emoluments to all certified and non-certified employees of the Sheriff with regard to the pay plan, longevity plan, tuition-reimbursement plan, career-path program, health insurance, life insurance, and disability benefits may be reduced except in the case of exigent operation necessity”. We support this change, but have been told by county staff and several commissioners that it is dead in the water. As it is a local bill, unanimous support in the Delegation is needed and the politics are just not there for a measure that would have union opposition.

Neither this item nor the following one were discussed at the recent joint meeting between County Commission and staff and the Legislative Delegation.

Fire/Rescue Sales Tax Surcharge Fix

The county wants to fix 212.055 FS to enable a return of a ballot initiative to raise the sales tax in the county to fund Fire/Rescue. We would prefer to repeal the provision and save us the trouble of a ballot initiative fight. Fire/Rescue should have to justify their budget every year, just like other county departments.

A bill was introduced to limit the use of revenues so collected, but was withdrawn when it was pointed out that amendments could have enabled the tax. As far as we know, no further action is pending and no bill had been introduced by the deadline last Friday by any of the county delegation.

Local Accountablility

HB107, “Local Government Accountability”, was introduced by Representative Jimmie Smith, FH43, Citrus County, and is now in committee, along with the companion Senate Bill SB224. We like it for its provisions on budget detail to be supplied by the Sheriff. The bill does the following:

Revises provisions relating to procedures for declaring special districts inactive; specifies level of detail required for local governmental entity’s proposed budget; revises provisions for local governmental entity’s audit & annual financial reports; requires local governmental entity’s budget to be posted online; revises budgetary guidelines for district school boards.
Effective Date: October 1, 2011

This was brought to our attention by the Clerk’s Office and we believe it deserves support by the local Delegation.