Dark Cloud of Sales Tax Referendum Hangs over the County

A “half-baked” proposal with a “half-hearted” sales pitch. That could describe what was brought before the commission yesterday. After the initial plan of a 6 year tax hike divided up among the School District, County and Municipalities fell apart when the School Board declined, a reduced proposal for 3 years and a 60/40 split between the county and cities was floated.

It was clear that Administrator Bob Weisman’s heart was not in it. We can only assume he was given direction to dust off the shaky proposal from May 2012 and make another try for the 2014 election window. There are some on the Commission, most prominently Mayor Taylor, who are not happy that our sales tax burden is not as high as some other Florida counties. We are leaving money on the table after all. After some modest pushback by the board, Mr. Weisman wisely suggested tabling it (unsuccessfully) for another two years.

About a dozen members of the public spoke on the issue, most against. In favor were a few folks who wanted some of the money directed at beach maintenance and Mayor Wilson of Belle Glade, who wants more tax dollars sent to the Glades cities. Others, including the Palm Beach Civic Association, the Economic Council, and TAB, objected to the unfocused wish list of non-urgent minor projects presented as the reason for the tax. In the words of one speaker: “..parking lots and drainage ditches, guardrails and other anonymous improvements, spread around the districts and the cities presumably to spread the wealth around..”.

With the exception of Mayor Taylor, who was enthusiastic for the prospect of more tax dollars, the rest of the commissioners found fault with the proposal. Commissioner Santamaria thought it wasn’t needed if we could restore the impact fee cuts. Commissioner Valeche was against it from the start but defended the impact fee cuts as pro-growth. Commissioner Vana agreed with the speaker’s view of the unfocused list, calling it a potpourri, and worried that an ill-formed proposal that would fail at the polls could poison the new tax well. Commissioner Abrams, calling it a “grab-bag” thought it too broad and that it would not pass. Commissioners Burdick and Berger both opposed the current proposal but would support more spending on roads and infrastucture.

An Abrams attempt to kill it outright (“don’t come back, regroup”) gained some support, but a Vana proposal to seek input from the business community and others for an acceptable plan in six months or so gained some traction (although Commissioner Berger would not focus only on a sales tax hike). The Mayor still wants it on the ballot this year though, so the motion that finally passed has staff coming back in a shorter time with a new proposal. The motion passed 4-3, with Valeche, Burdick and Abrams voting no.

Unfortunately, the dynamic that seems to be operating here is that a sales tax hike is good – just find an important enough project on which to market it. The “potpourri”, “grab-bag” and “wish-list” are clearly not up to snuff.

We would not oppose a sales tax increase that was accompanied by an equal reduction in ad-valorem taxes (ie. “revenue neutral”). We would not oppose a temporary hike for an urgent need such as relief after a major storm or other catastrophe. In this case however, it appears they are now “on the hunt” to find or create a project that could be used to justify the tax increase. That is putting the cart before the horse. Hopefully, if such a measure were to get on the November ballot, the county voters will not be fooled.

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