Marathon Session for First Budget Workshop

Last evening, starting at 6:00pm, the first steps in the annual county budget dance were performed before a large audience. The meeting did not end until around 11:00pm

County Administrator Bob Weisman, along with OFMB chief Liz Bloeser and Budget Director John Wilson, explained the high points of the 4.75 millage $588M tax proposal, and explained why he’d really like to see it raised to “rollback” millage of 4.922.

While Weisman maintained there were no “Washington Monument” cuts and all were feasible, several commissioners pointed out that many of the “green page” cuts were in areas that were both visible to the public and in areas that would raise significant objections from the public. Commissioner Abrams went so far as to point out that the “green pages” even contained service impact notes listing the dire consequences that were about to befall the county as a result of taking the cut. If the expectations were so dire, then why take these particular cuts? He referred to the comments in the budget document as “advocacy” and we couldn’t agree more.

After a brief pitch by Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, requesting more money to “compensate” for the new law limiting the length of early voting (shorter time means she needs more facilities, equipment and overtime – who knew?), Sheriff Bradshaw went through his budget presentation.

The Sheriff made some interesting claims.

Much has been made of the growing percentage of the county budget that goes to PBSO – we estimate their portion the ad-valorem equivalent county-wide budget is now 59%, up from 46% in 2003. Not so fast, says Sheriff Bradshaw. If you look at the core operation of the agency, removing the aspects that are state mandated or are county responsibilities (the jail, crossing guards, etc) – his spending is only 25% of the county budget. We find this argument interesting but not very relevant.

Another claim has to do with the way the county is accounting for the “savings” from the retirement system (FRS) changes passed by the Legislature. (TAB estimates the savings to be about $20M for PBSO, $15M for the county departments and other constitutionals, and $11.6M for Fire/Rescue). Don’t call them “savings” he says – it is simply a change in rates that he will now use to calculate his budget. The change in rate from last year amounts to $18M by his calculation and he takes it directly off his budget. The county contends that this amount should be “shared” with the county departments – it is a windfall from the state that needs to be used to fill their overall budget hole. Since the Sheriff, with many “special risk” employees gets a much bigger “savings” than the county with “regular risk” classes, he should “share the wealth”. In this one, we believe the Sheriff occupies the moral high ground, and the FRS “savings” that occur in PBSO should stay in PBSO. After all – it is a net budget reduction.

This is a serious dispute that will need to be resolved before a clear view of the flat millage budget can emerge, and it appears that both sides have dug in their heels. There are other issues as well, including the $5M credit the Sheriff wants to take for FRS savings he will realize in the period before the new budget year on October 1.

The way the county allocates their FRS “savings” is much more convoluted. Complicating things is that the county staff is divided up between departments that are not funded by ad-valorem taxes (eg. airports) and those that are fully or only partially funded by tax dollars. Our estimate of $15.4M savings is reduced to a little less than $8M that can be used to offset the ad-valorem levy according to Budget Director John Wilson.

Even so, this $8M plus the Sheriff’s $18M in “savings” ($26M total) should be more than enough to plug the “hole” between the $603M adopted tax of FY2011 and the $588M that flat millage will collect in 2012. John points out that there are other “holes”, like decreased interest earnings that make the actual “hole” $45M, so cuts are necessary. Unfortunately for us TAB analysts, none of the budget materials provided to the public provide the documentation necessary to see the whole picture, but John has promised to provide us with what we need shortly. Watch this space.

With the conclusion of the Sheriff’s budget, public comment began. As with most budget meetings, we saw a parade of supporters of the various programs on the chopping block. By our count, there were about 40 speakers. Three spoke to keep the rates low for Palm Tran Connection, one to restore manatee protection, 5 for the nature centers, a couple for community revitalization, four for Small Business Assistance, and ten for victims’s services. The support for the latter was quite moving as victims of rape, shootings and other mayhem came forward to tell their stories. Given that the amount of the cuts to Victims services is a relatively minor $320K or so and 4 positions we would guess they may get restored. All of these areas amount to a couple of million out of $25M in cuts, so we will see if their advocacy will prevail. Other constituencies in jeopardy (eg. lifeguards, FAA) did not turn out at this meeting.

Fifteen spoke in favor of the submitted, flat millage budget. These included Fred and Iris Scheibl of TAB, Meg Shannon of Tea Party in Action, Shannon and Doug Armstrong, Ed Fulop, Victoria Thiel and Dr. Richard Raborn of South Florida 912, Phil Blumel of RCCPBC, Mayor Gail Coniglio of the Town of Palm Beach County Budget Task Force, Pat Cooper of the PBCA, Dick Clyde of the PB City Council, Dionna Hall of RAPB and several others. Other TAB coalition partners who could not attend the meeting but sent emails to the commissioners included Hal Valeche of Taxpayer Action Network, Mayor Dan Comerford and Councilman Chip Block of Jupiter Inlet Colony.

At the end of the meeting the commissioners discussed what they had heard. Although they did not vote or take positions on the budget proposal, by their comments we would assess commissioners Abrams, Marcus and Burdick as leaning towards accepting the flat millage budget, and commissioner Aaronson as wanting to raise the millage. Commissioners Santamaria, Vana and Taylor seem to be hedging their bets at this time.

For media coverage of the meeting see: Palm Beach County Commission balks at cuts — or raising taxes in the Post, and Palm Beach County’s proposed spending cuts prompt citizen backlash in the Sun Sentinel.

The next step in the budget process is the workshop on July 11 at 9:30am. There is also an off-site retreat for the commissioners where budget strategy and objectives will be discussed. That will be held on Thursday June 30 at 10:00AM at the Lake Okeechobee Outpost in Pahokee.


One Response to “Marathon Session for First Budget Workshop”
  1. Mark Stevens says:

    This is a wonderful article. Have you been to http://www.pbsotalk.com to check out some of the waste we expose? We uncovered there are 122 unmarked cars owned by PBSO that are issued to civilian secretaries and managers. This bumps the budget up another $5-$6 MILLION dollars.

    How about several members in the high-risk pension category that have no business being there? That’s on there, too.

    Of the executive staff that all ran out and purchased Apple iPads for themselves on their purchasing cards at the tune of $17,500 to the taxpayers?

    What about Sheriff Bradshaw falsifying a fraud affidavit to hide his Purchasing Card activity from a public records request? Nevertheless, we got his records, which show him spending THOUSANDS of dollars in hotels and regular meals at the Okeechobee Steakhouse, all paid for by Joe Taxpayer.

    I think you should check out the site because it is an eye opener. If you would like to contact me, please e-mail info@pbsotalk.com – Thanks!

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