On Oversight, Checks and Balances, and the County Budget

Our system of government imposes an arrangement of checks and balances, so no person or group can acquire unchecked power.

When it comes to the county budget, Florida statutes clearly designate the legislative body – the county commission, to have the authority and responsibility to set priorities for spending and taxation. The administrator and his staff prepare a detailed budget, following whatever guidelines they have been given, and the commission meets in the sunshine for two workshops and two public hearings to discuss and adopt a budget before the fiscal year begins on October 1.

WIth $4B at stake, a bureaucracy exceeding 11,000 people, and limited time available, the commissioners themselves cannot physically evaluate every line item in this very complex budget, so they focus on insuring adequate funding for their own public policy priorities while much of the budget travels on automatic. Lower level line items like specific road projects, nature centers, or other items with a constituency, only get discusssed if the staff recommends a substantial change to the item.

What does get discussed every year is the Sheriff’s budget, since it is the major consumer of tax dollars, and outside the control of county staff.

Most everyone will agree that the function of PBSO – law enforcement, the county jails and courtroom protection, is necessary and should be adequately funded. The agency should have modern equipment suitable to the mission, and deputies and staff should be adequately compensated in line with peer agencies around the state and in the rest of the country, and it is the Sheriff’s responsibility to request a budget that delivers what he needs.

But what if his request is excessive?

In the county departments, managers submit budget requests that are a mixture of needs and wish list items. It is the nature of organizations to want to grow. The Administrator and his staff must adjust the requests of his departments in creating the overall budget, so that spending growth (if any) fits within the revenue expectations of the organization as a whole. If the priorities are not in line with the Commission’s expectations, they are free to make adjustments as a part of the process. Not all wish list items are funded. Although the other Constitutional Officers have a similar autonomy to the Sheriff, they usually “play nice” with staff and their budgets are rarely controversial. They are also relatively small.

The Sheriff’s budget is different. It is very large and complex, and very little detail is available to staff or Commissioners, and certainly not the public without a chapter 119 (open Records) request. The attitude is one of arrogance – “this is what I need and I am not willing to discuss it further.” Since the PBSO request must fit within the overall county budget, big increases there crowd out other county spending and severely limit the ability of staff or Commission to be fiscally responsible. Since they are charged with approving the budget, the public typically blames them for the excessive tax increases that result.

This year, many of the Commissioners told us privately that they agreed the Sheriff’s budget is out of control. They know they are responsible for approving his spending, but see no effective way to challenge him. This has been true for many years, as Commissioners have come and gone. While it is true that they have the statutory authority to reduce his spending (subject to appeal to the Florida Cabinet), they do not feel they have the political basis to do so.

This year, only Vice Mayor Paulette Burdick and Mayor Priscilla Taylor have publically questioned the Sheriff’s spending. This takes courage and we appreciate what they have said and done.

As for the others, they are hostage to an impressive political machine that can bring enormous pressure on wavering commissioners from the districts where the Sheriff provides most of the law enforcement. Just witness the array of speakers at the September 8 hearing – HOA Presidents, concerned citizens, even PBSO employees – all came out to speak the Sheriff’s praises and remind the Commissioners what the price of resistance would be. One particular Commissioner went so far as to admit that without the support of the Sheriff, their re-election would be in doubt.

There are about 1.3 million citizens of Palm Beach County. Almost 900,000 are voters. Yet only a small number of people follow what happens at the county, and fewer still participate in the process. We believe that most of the county residents would be surprised at the size and growth rate of the Sheriff’s budget, but they are not organized, and lack the time and assistance to provide sufficient cover to those commissioners who would act if they could. By carefully limiting the size of his increases, the Sheriff assures that we never reach that tipping point that would so outrage the citizens that they would spontaneously rise in opposition.

Some Commissioners have suggested that next year can be different, but we doubt it. As long as the status quo goes unchallenged, or the funding mechanism for the Sheriff’s office is modified through statute or charter, the Sheriff will continue to claim whatever portion of the county budget he desires.


One Response to “On Oversight, Checks and Balances, and the County Budget”
  1. Bruce A. McAllister says:

    Knowing your efforts, including skillful and diligent analysis of budgets past and present, can a case be made that PB County’s Shriff’s budget is outsized compared to similar counties in the country? I know that can be a Herculean task, given the many varieties of residents, the shapes and sizes of various counties.
    We need something to spark outrage, if outrage is indeed justified.

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