Palm Beach County is not Wisconsin

On Tuesday, a sea of yellow shirts packed the commission chambers. None of the shirt wearers, who are members of IAFF local 2928 as well as employees of County Fire Rescue, took the podium to speak. That wasn’t why they were there. As acting union President Ricky Grau spoke in favor of “three men on a truck” and accused the county of understating the amount of reserves they have to spend, the sea of yellow shirts were there to send a not so subtle message to the commissioners.

What was the issue that brought out the troops? They objected to the action taken by Chief Steve Jerauld and Fire Rescue leadership in April to reduce the staffing on some EMS vehicles from three to two under some circumstances. This has reduced the amount of paid overtime. The Chief has assured the Commissioners and the public that in no way had public safety been compromised by this move. The savings are estimated to be $7.8M per year. Although no vote was taken, and only Karen Marcus and Burt Aaronson spoke strongly in favor of restoring the three man crews, staff took that as marching orders and agreed to spend the extra money.

None of this discussion involves any increase in millage or other revenue enhancement, and we believe that drawing down “excessive” reserves – stipulated by all sides to be “at least” $50M is the right thing to do. We also agree with Commissioner Marcus that IF the county policy is indeed “three men/women on a truck”, then it makes more operational and fiscal sense to fully staff the positions rather than paying overtime to a reduced staff. But should a bona fide attempt by the Chief to save taxpayer money by increasing efficiency at no risk to public safety be so quickly rebuffed?

The IAFF is a political force in the county and elected officials cross them at their own risk. The Fire Rescue collective bargaining agreement expired last September and they are currently working without a contract after a year of “negotiations” that led nowhere. Both sides (to their credit) were not suggesting pay increases in this economy, yet a county proposal for a 22% reduction in starting salary for new hires was never even acknowledged by the union. To see the Commissioners buckle over a truck staffing rule before the yellow shirted troops does not bode well for any substantive discussions in the future.

Fire Rescue funding is headed for a showdown when the reserves can no longer be tapped. As some cities are near their millage caps, the Fire Rescue millage has been flat since 2010 and revenue has trended down with property valuations. Spending on the other hand, mostly driven by escalating personal service costs built into the existing contract, contines to rise. Something has to give. We think the overly generous pay and benefits (compared to Fire Rescue national averages) need to be addressed. That is not likely in the game plan though and it would not surprise us to hear more talk of sales tax surcharges in the years to come.

Wisconsin was a wake up call to the public employee unions. Perhaps some of Governor Walker’s courage will rub off on our elected officals too.

For the Palm Beach Post editorial on the subject by Andrew Marra, see: Fire-Rescue headed for a financial emergency

County Commission Forum – District 1 Primary Candidates

On June 18, eight grassroots, civic and political clubs came together to sponsor a candidate debate for the County Commission District 1 primary on August 14. Moderated by local radio personality Tom Boyhan, the three candidates were asked six questions of county-wide interest, chosen from a list of twelve that had been given to the candidates in advance. They were also asked for a brief opening and closing statement. Below you will find a summary of the event, with the questions, their answers, and a link to a video of that section of the forum.

Click on the candidate’s picture for a short biography.

The event was well attended, and quite a few elected officials joined us, including: District 1 Commissioner Karen Marcus, from Palm Beach Gardens Mayor David Levy, Vice Mayor Bert Premuroso, and council members Joe Russo and Marcie Tinsley, Juno Beach Vice Mayor Bill Greene, Tequesta Mayor Tom Paterno, Lake Worth Vice Mayor Scott Maxwell, Jupiter Inlet District Commissioner Patricia Walker, Republican State Committewoman Fran Hancock, and PBCGOP Chair Sid Dinerstein.

Sponsors of the event were the PBC Taxpayer Action Board and their coalition partners South Florida 912, Palm Beach County Tea Party, and Singer Island Civic Association, along with the Republican clubs of Palm Beach, Northern Palm Beaches, the Palm Beaches, and the Jupiter/Tequesta Repbublican Organization.

Dan Amero

Harry Gaboian

Hal Valeche


Opening Statement:
Dan Amero: Thank you Karen, I will pay attention to Business (cornerstone of our success), Budget (no tax increases at all), Integrity (bring back “IRA”: Integrity, Responsibility, and Accountability)

Harry Gaboian: Filing fee is a very high obstacle for entry, hope I can be a good candidate

Hal Valeche: Local elections are important, thank you to Commissioner Marcus for all she has done, big shoes to fill
Question 1: Recently, a proposal for a half cent sales tax surcharge that would raise $100M per year for Palm Tran expansion and other uses was proposed by staff and a decision was postponed for a year. What is your view of this tax and how would you approach it next year if elected, and what other new sources of revenue would you consider appropriate?
Dan Amero: Oppose, we need public transporation but not at the cost of 90% subsidy

Harry Gaboian: A long way off before we have mass transporation here, need something in the city (museum?) to draw people in

Hal Valeche: Oppose, Palm Tran is inefficient – make it more rational, increase ridership (fares only cover 8%), make it work better
Question 2: Palm Tran is currently 92% subsidized, with fares making up only 8 cents of every dollar in operating costs. Ridership is down and many empty buses travel the existing routes yet staff and some commissioners would like to expand Palm Tran. A recent consultant study recommended (among other things), privatizing Palm Tran and/or raising fares. How would you approach this issue?
Dan Amero: Keep throwing money at it without a plan is ridiculous use of taxpayer money, experiment like the free golf cart transport in Delray Beach

Harry Gaboian: Use small vans run by small business like in the Caribbean

Hal Valeche: Privatization would not eliminate subsidy – need to make profit, don’t raise fares because low-income riders depend on it
Question 3: Attracting businesses and jobs to the county is approached in a number of ways. One is to provide tax incentives and outright payouts for infrastructure development like with Scripps. Another is to subsidize private business like with the convention center hotel. Another way is to make the county attractive as a place to create or expand a business by reducing the tax burden and simplifying the permitting process. What is your preferred approach to economic development?
Dan Amero: Companies are coming anyway, same reason many people have – the lifestyle, beaches, greenspace, etc., Max Plank / Scripps – was lot of money, little to show, lower taxes, lower fees will help our own people as well as attract new businesses

Harry Gaboian: Make the county an attractive place to live and work and that will attract businesses and keep them better than monetary incentives

Hal Valeche: easier permitting, lower taxes as incentives – business friendly environment
Question 4: The county has adopted the “sustainable development” agenda that promotes urban concentration over suburban development, mass transportation, and other “green” issues. Some would say that this will result in erosion of property rights and limits to the way we are allowed to live our lives. What is your understanding of “sustainable development” and how would you deal with the issue if elected?
Dan Amero: Florida Growth Management Act we have to follow, 11M pop growth by 2030, need 1M acres, need to start planning

Harry Gaboian: Agenda 21 is bad, but plans can be flexible – need to build things and work around obstacles

Hal Valeche: The comprehensive plan is a blueprint rather than mandatory, sometimes conflated with Agenda 21 (which is coercive, command and control, not good), county has done good job so far
Question 5: Shoreline erosion and beach replenishment is an ongoing problem for Palm Beach County. Recently, a plan to implement groins to protect the beach at Singer Island was rejected after complaints of the Surfrider Foundation and other environmental groups. What is your view of the Singer Island groin proposal and what should be done about this problem?
Dan Amero: More than just Singer Island problem, 47 miles of coastline, with tourism, “no beach, no dollars”, groins work in Ocean Ridge, need to try something

Harry Gaboian: Against the Corps of Engineers on that one, spent too much on study, go slow, try pilot project, let property owners pay for mitigation

Hal Valeche: Spending millions a year on replacing sand is stupid, we need a long term solution, groins/jetties are the way, Allen West is on board and will help
Question 6: The voters overwhelmingly approved the Inspector General and Ethics Ordinances and their application to municipal as well as county government. 15 cities have sued the county over the planned IG funding mechanism, but many would say it is an attempt to thwart the wishes of the voters. How should this standoff be resolved and what role should the county commission take in resolving it?
Dan Amero: Even though 72% of the voters said we want it, cities don’t want to do it, IG is a good thing for us, she’s making us a better government, I support 100%, you should too

Harry Gaboian: Stay away from it, its not our business, cities rightfully object when someone wants to look at their books

Hal Valeche: Cities should pay what they owe, it is a weak case against it, IG funding is good use of taxpayer money
Closing Statement:
Dan Amero: I’m the small business guy who wants the best for everyone in small business – the backbone of any successful community

Harry Gaboian: Commission doesn’t understand the free market system, lot of people and corporations with their hands out, need to fix that

Hal Valeche: Have record I’m proud of, spent my time on PBG Council looking out for the taxpayer

Some pictures from the event.

TAB View of 2013 County Budget Proposal

In preparation for the first budget workshop of the 2013 cycle next week, the county has published their proposal. The workshop will be held on Tuesday, June 12 at 6:00pm in the county building at 301 N. Olive, WPB.

Unlike the last few years which Administrator Weisman has called “the most difficult budget year the county has faced”, bottoming valuations have created a less austere outlook. With the expectation of a barely perceptible 0.39% drop in property values reported by Property Appraiser Gary Nikolits, (See: Has free-falling Palm Beach County real estate finally hit bottom? ) the days of trying to save programs and spending levels by big hikes in the tax rate may be coming to an end.

The county proposal is therefore modest – a 0.4% hike in the county-wide millage rate to 4.7984 (up from 4.7815 last year), and a 0.6% or $3.9M hike of taxes collected. There are no projected cuts to “vocal constituent” programs like the nature centers, lifeguards or Palm Tran Connection, and even though the Sheriff is asking for an increase of $4.7M in ad-valorem revenue and $8.8M in appropriation, it is mitigated somewhat from a “return of excess fees” of $10M.

What had been expected to be a $15-30M problem this year, was positively affected by smaller than expected costs associated with FRS, and the use of “one-time” sources such as sweeping funds from Risk Management, capital project and Fleet Management reserves. Given TAB’s emphasis last year on using reserves to cover shortfalls in the difficult times, we are glad to see this development.

The entire proposal is good news, considering how hard everyone worked last year to bring the initial proposal (3.6% increase in rates) down to the final 0.6%. Although we think that it would be an appropriate gesture for the board to keep the millage flat (at a cost of the $3.9M hike), as they are doing with the Library and Fire/Rescue MSTUs, if this proposal was approved as submitted we would not object.

That said, there are some cautionary statements in the proposal. It is mentioned that 35 positions (half of them filled) will be eliminated without a service impact, by various good management practices and the expiration of grant funding of temporary positions. It is also stated that general county employees have not received a raise since 2008. There is also interest in some quarters to increase spending on some programs.

We ask that the commissioners not try to address these things in this budget year. The private economy has not yet fully recovered, even if property values are leveling off. Consequently, we call on TAB partners and supporters to stay vigilant, attend the budget meetings, and let your commissioners know you don’t support any increases above the submitted proposal.

For the Post’s view of the proposal, see: County budget proposal: less gloom and doom