Commission and Staff Hold Off-site Retreat

The County Commissioners and senior staff assembled today in Boynton Beach at the Intracoastal Park Clubhouse, for an off-site “retreat”.

In January of last year, a similar meeting was held at the Riviera Beach Marina, and a wide variety of strategic topics were discussed (energy and water costs, Glades restoration, Biotech investments) as well as the upcoming budget outlook. The most significant result of that meeting was the setting of clear board direction to staff to return a flat millage budget. This benchmark was the driving force for the budget workshops and resulted in a final budget in September that was very nearly flat. The meeting was successful largely as a result of then Chairman Karen Marcus’ efficient management style, which kept the discussion focused and moving.

This year’s meeting was different. Instead of herself leading the discussion, current Chairman Shelley Vana turned the meeting over to a professional “facilitator”, David Rabiner. Mr Rabiner’s website lists as one of his services “Retreat Facilitation for Governing Boards and Managing Teams”. As a leadership trainer, he was compelling and entertaining, and one could easily see him in a corporate setting. However, for this group, his techiques to “facilitate trust and an effective working relationship” between commissioners and staff were off the mark.

Last year’s meeting was effective because the commissioners spoke freely to each other and related their views on the budget and strategic topics in depth. In this year’s meeting, much of the content consisted of Mr. Rabiner talking about his views on process and how things work in his native Oregon. Perhaps the commissioners found it useful but I suspect not. Many people who attended the meeting to hear some discussion of the budget outlook left before lunch and did not return.

After lunch, Mr Rabiner attempted to extract from the group a clear direction to staff for this year’s budget assumptions. He failed. When the meeting ended at the appointed time, a conficting set of requirements were laid on Bob Weisman and staff.

Steven Abrams and Paulette Burdick want a flat millage budget like last year.

Shelley Vana wants a budget proposal that delivers a “consistent service level”, even if a millage hike is necessary. Priscilla Taylor seemed to concur.

Jess Santamaria wants a “flat taxation” proposal – ie. a rollback budget, regardless of millage rate.

Burt Aaronson wants to reverse the cuts that have been made in ad valorem spending over the few years and “enhance the product” with either a 3% or 5% increase in millage.

Karen Marcus does not want to see any layoffs this year, but wants to start with a “consistent service level” proposal and have the board make cuts to approach flat millage from the high side.

When the meeting ended, these conflicting positions were on the table. Hardly a “clear direction to staff”.

Commissioner Marcus’ proposal deserves further comment however, as it represents a new approach. Mr. Rabiner made the point that there are two ways to achieve budget cuts. The first is to cut “line items” – which are portions of programs similar to what is presented on the “green pages” and “blue pages” prepared by staff in the last two years, sized by dollar and people impact. The second is to cut programs entirely (presumably those that are not needed anymore or no longer appropriate to the current environment).

With the “line item” approach, the priorities are driven by the County Administrator and staff since they present to the board their list of potential cuts from which to choose. Typically, these are sprinkled with items with vocal constituencies, leading to the yearly “Kabuki Dance” of the colored tee shirts.

With the “program” approach, the priorities are driven by the board itself, and have the possibility of being strategic in nature, or at least policy driven.

Karen Marcus seems to be proposing the latter approach, with a consistent service level starting point. Criticism of her proposal pointed out that only the staffs have the inside knowledge of how the pieces fit together and without the green/blue pages, intelligent choice is impossible. This misses the point – the commissioners, particularly long serving ones like Marcus, do have the knowledge and experience to make informed choices for program elimination or even adjustment of sub items. We think they should give this a try.

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