[ PRINT ]

A Surrealistic Budget Hearing


Click HERE for Channel 20 Video of the meeting.


At about 11:00pm Tuesday evening, the County Commission voted to set the county-wide tax rate at $4.79 per $1K valuation. This is up 0.84% over last year – a small increase, but an increase nonetheless.

After the last meeting, the rollback rate of 4.8751 was on the table, intended to collect $607M in countywide taxes, $4M more than last year. The new rate will collect $596M, an $11M difference and $7M less than 2011. That is some progress, but going another $5M to flat millage would have sent a signal that the commission “feels your pain”. Any increase, no matter how small, sends the opposite message and all good will is lost. Thank you to Commissioners Abrams, Marcus and Burdick for trying to do the right thing.

Media Coverage of the meeting
Palm Beach Post
Sun Sentinel

The real story is how the dynamics of the meeting played out and the bizarre behavior of some of the commissioners.  What played out was a perfect example of why people are losing confidence in government at all levels. It was sad to watch.

The five and a half hour meeting started with a brief overview presentation by Administrator Weisman that contained a strangely petulant rant against the recent TaxWatch study on county reserves. It was if his integrity was being questioned by a Tallahassee interloper that had no business telling lies about his stewardship of the county purse. TaxWatch claims that Palm Beach County has excessive reserves when compared to objective measures or peer counties. Nyet, says  Bob. Move along, nothing to see here.

Next we had “public comment”. By TAB’s count there were about 80 speakers. 75% were very much opposed to any cuts in “their” programs, including all the usual suspects – Palm Tran Connection riders, directors of Financially Assisted Agencies with their hands out, the minions of COBWRA and others from the West Boynton area reacting to the Sheriff’s threat to close their substation, advocates for Victim’s Services, the blind, lifeguards and swimmers, Animal Control, and the eloquent (even poetic!) supporters of the Green Cay Nature Center.

Speaking for the taxpayer and greatly outnumbered were about 20 citizens opposed to the millage increase – almost all associated in some way with TAB. The other 1.3 million residents of the county stayed home last night and get the government they deserve.

When the public portion of the circus was over, the meeting “returned to the board” where the real show began.

In a motion that had jaws dropping throughout the chamber, Commissioner Aaronson proposed funding EVERYTHING on page 8 of the package (the list of programs they would like to restore above a flat millage benchmark). This would be done by adopting a 4.80 tax rate, then funding the additional $7M or so in additional  items (Sheriff adders, BDB, Cultural Council, Film Commission) by “taking the money from the roads programs”. If the $7M required would be too difficult for that department (it had been previously discussed with staff), then take the money from “reserves”.

Wow – an admission that we can spend reserves. (TaxWatch?, TAB?) Most striking was the hanging question, finally asked by Commissioner Marcus – how come we are just learning that this $7M is available? Couldn’t we have dispensed with stirring up all the constituent groups by just using this from the get go?

Steve Abrams said this was going in the wrong direction. Instead of funding everything on the page, why not use this “found money” to fund some of the programs while keeping the millage at 4.75?

It has been a long standing tradition that when cuts are made, the county departments and the Sheriff share them dollar for dollar. On the table was an additional restore for the Sheriff of $5M, not matched by the county. Steve Abrams wanted to see the tradition continue and Chairman Marcus polled the board to see if it could be maintained. No. Aaronson, Santamaria, Taylor and Vana will vote to give the Sheriff everything he wants. Case closed. The other three did not like this but there was nothing to be done. Chalk one up for the impressive Ric Bradshaw political operation. This was clearly a done deal before the meeting as there was no discussion on the topic.

The meeting then became a horse trading session – Shelley Vana would delete the mediation program that Priscilla Taylor wanted as well as letting Animal Control close one day a week until it was pointed out that there could be more euthanized cats and dogs (oh my!), prompting Vana to look horrified and say “oh no, we can’t do that!” and Taylor to say “if you restore that then give me back my mediators!” Finally, Vana threw up her hands and said “OK, Just fund EVERTHING!”. Now there is leadership!   Karen Marcus around this point made the observation “..we’re not looking too good up here right now..”.

Someone then threw out an arbitrary number – “Why don’t we set the millage at 4.79?” It was after all, getting late. One number is as good as another I guess. Chairman Marcus regained control of the meeting at this point and called a 20 minute “time out” to let staff calculate what 4.79 and “funding everything” would mean.

At the end of the break, staff reported that this would require an additional $7.9M, which would come from the roads program and/or reserves. Since there were not 4 votes to revisit the Sheriff’s share, Mr. Weisman was directed to identify this amount before the final meeting on 9/27, “taken from programs that have no constituency, like engineering or buildings and land”, and the meeting wrapped up with the formal votes on the millage rates.

So what are the take-aways from this meeting?

  • The millage was set at 4.79 or below, at most a 0.8% increase over last year.
  • The Sheriff got everything he wanted and was not required to match cuts with the county departments, breaking a long-standing tradition.
  • About $7M in surplus or deferrable program funds were mysteriously “found” after threatening all the programs with vocal constituencies that could have been satisfied with less.
  • After claiming TaxWatch was wrong and our reserves are too low to use, Mr. Weisman reversed course and offered $7M to fund the programs.

In summary, this was not too bad an outcome given where we started, but the cynical way the process was conducted by staff and some commissioners was not government’s finest hour.

Comments

One Response to “A Surrealistic Budget Hearing”
  1. Sherry says:

    While I appreciate the great work of TAB and the information in the article, I take exception to the assertion that 1.3 million people stayed home and get the government they deserve. I did not stay home, but instead made the difficult choice to attend my son’s open house at his school. This was the one opprtunity to start out in the direction we mean to go at the beginning of the school year, meet all of the teachers, understand their curriculum and expectations for the year, donate money and supplies to the classroom, etc. I know other high schools also held their open houses that night. Accident? I don’t know. But I understand there was a large and well attended Tea Party meeting that same night too. I have spent many years going to the meetings, trying to make the case for lower taxes, less government, to no avail. When I got home from open house after 9:30, I turned on the meeting and sat down to watch with a late dinner. Couldn’t eat. The reality is, we need new leadership.

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