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Florida TaxWatch Report on County Reserves, Debt, and Property Utilization


At the request of the Palm Beach Civic Association, the Palm Beach County Taxpayer Action Board, and the Town of Palm Beach County Budget Task Force, Florida TaxWatch conducted a study of several aspects of Palm Beach County Finances.

In addition to an analysis of the county debt and reserves compared to our “peer” counties – Miami/Dade, Broward, Hillsborough and Orange, updated from their similar 2006 report, they also investigated the quantity and status of unneeded or underutilized property owned by the county.

The complete report is available HERE. What follows is a summary of the major findings.

Major Findings


1. County Fund Balance (“money in the bank”) is excessive

  • The commonly accepted fund balance levels (unreserved) as a percent of expenditures for a government entity is 15%. Locally, 25% is considered prudent for hurricane preparedness. Palm Beach County has maintained a balance exceeding 50% over the last six years. Bringing this level down to even 40% would free up $188M of “excess reserves” that could be used for current spending, thus avoiding a tax rate increase through several cycles to come.
  • Peer counties retain AAA bond rating with considerably less reserves

NOTE: This finding supports point 4 of the TAB Proposal – Cover any remaining shortfall from current fund balances (reserves) which are excessive compared to peer counties.

2. The County owns vast amounts of “Vacant” Property

  • Of 2500 parcels owned, 353 parcels totaling 6200 acres are “vacant” – either unused or used for something other than their intended purpose
  • Selling 25% of this vacant property would generate $54M in revenue and return $270K/year (unimproved) to the tax rolls
  • Property record-keeping is unreliable and formal definitions and classification procedures are needed

NOTE: This finding supports point 3 of the TAB proposal – Take action to reduce the inventory of county property and reduce the debt.

3. County Office Space Allocation is overly generous

  • Office size for executives and supervisors greatly exceeds state standards
  • Reducing to standard could save $400K / year

In addition to these (and other findings), the TaxWatch team also made specific recommendations. Six were carried over from the 2006 study and are still relevant in 2011. The others are new and relate to the land and buildings aspects of the study.

Florida TaxWatch Recommendations


Recommendations from 2006 study that were not implemented:

  1. Establish a fixed cap on reserve funds as done elsewhere
  2. Implement a priority based budget process with performance metrics
  3. Adopt a budget reporting system that follows accepted standards and can be understood by the public
  4. Implement a Sunset Review process with automatic repealers
  5. Periodically rank all unstarted capital projects (partially implemented)
  6. Centralize services for constitutional officers

New Recommendations regarding property and buildings

Property

  1. Work with commercial realtor to plan and execute marketing plan to sell surplus properting over the next 18 months
  2. Institute formal definitions and procedures to identify “vacant”, “improved”, and “surplus” property
  3. Dispose of “strips” of land to adjacent property owners or bundle for sale
  4. Fully implement County Owned Real Estate (CORE) database and make available to the public
  5. Implement online marketplace to dispose of surplus property
  6. Apply full sunshine to property acquisition, exchange and sale process and separate from consent agenda
  7. Engage consultant to suggest utilization of surplus “right of way” property
  8. Incorporate vacant land disposition as part of County Comprehensive Plan

Buildings

  1. Require occupancy and vacancy rates of county assets be tracked
  2. Revise office space guidelines to align with Florida space allocation standards
  3. Make list of county owned buildings easily accessible to the public

Conclusion


TAB has argued that in this time of economic distress, tax hikes of any kind are counter productive. As the real estate bubble has deflated, the county has been increasing the tax rates in an attempt to prevent a decline in tax revenue. An alternative (in addition to the obvious – cut spending) is to buffer the shortfall with reserves accumulated during the “good” times. Not all government entities have that option as their reserves have been depleted.

The TaxWatch study points out that Palm Beach County is flush with reserves. Additionally, the county is carrying a significant quantity of unused or underutilized property that could be sold off over the next year or two, and the proceeds used to replace reserves spent to cover current spending.

It is our hope that the commissioners will agree and use this information to reject a tax rate increase for 2012.

Comments

One Response to “Florida TaxWatch Report on County Reserves, Debt, and Property Utilization”
  1. Laura Henning says:

    I’m a new student of the County Commission budget and your website has been a real eye opener! Thank you for your fantastic work. I’ll be at the Sept. 13 meeting.

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