Services Unchanged In Draft County Budget

On Tuesday, the Palm Beach County Commission reviewed a proposed budget for next year that keeps the same amount of property tax income, made possible by a small increase in the tax rate.

However, members of the public urged the commissioners to make more cuts and keep the tax rate the same.

The proposed tax rate of 4.7984 mills maintains current county service levels but is slightly higher than the current year’s tax rate of 4.7815 mills.

At that proposed rate, countywide property taxes for 2013 would net $599.3 million, 0.6 percent above the current year, with the increase due solely to new construction, according to County Administrator Bob Weisman.

Additional cuts of $2.1 million would have to be implemented to reduce the tax rate to the current year’s rate. However, Weisman noted that it is likely that final taxable property values due in July 1 will be somewhat higher, which would generate additional tax revenues.

The proposed budget represents a $900,000 decrease in departmental budgets, but includes a $4.7 million increase in the budget for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

The county has a gross increase due to the construction of the $3.5 million Homeless Resource Center, Weisman said. The budget includes the elimination of 35 employee positions, of which about half are filed, but will not have a significant impact on services due to efficiencies and privatization.

Balancing the budget also required the use of about $10 million in one-time resources, including some risk management reserves, a reduction in Department of Juvenile Justice costs and a sweep of fleet surplus management reserves, because it was determined fewer vehicles were needed due to reduced county activity.

Weisman pointed out that the use of one-time resources will have to be made up for in the following year’s budget process. He also pointed out that general employees have not received pay raises since 2008 and that no increase is proposed for the proposed budget. He added that the employees are now required to make a 3 percent contribution to their state retirement fund and that two years ago the county increased their contribution to health insurance.

Despite budget cutbacks, the county has continued support to potential job-creating and economic improvement organizations such as the Business Development Board and Tourism Development Council, Weisman said. It has also continued to support agricultural interests and environmental and water quality protection, as well as public safety.

However, there have been significant cuts to the road repair budget. “Certainly, it’s a possibility that if any new revenues come in, the board can try to put some additional money into that in the coming months as we proceed,” Weisman said.

The county has also taken on extra costs, such as agreeing to finance the shortfall in Office of the Inspector General in the face of a lawsuit brought by 14 municipalities that did not want to pay into the fund supporting the office.

Tuesday was just the first budget workshop, and Weisman stressed that the budget would change once the actual property values come in July 1. Budget hearings will continue until September.

“There are really no decisions you need to make today,” he said. “I would encourage you to defer those decisions until after we get the property values in July.”

On July 10, the commissioners will set the maximum tax rate, and additional public commentary will be accepted until September.

“I’m very pleased with this budget,” Weisman said. “I think it accomplishes a lot for the board. I think this budget is invisible to the public in terms of changes to service delivery.”

Jack Borland, representing the Palm Beach Civic Association, encouraged the commissioners to cut costs further and achieve a flat millage rate while maintaining services. “This is the kind of work every business and every family is doing in the current environment,” Borland said.

Iris Scheibl also asked that the county continue to look for ways to reduce the budget. She encouraged commissioners to resist requests by organizations to make or increase its contributions to them.

Scheibl added that she had limited sympathy for county employees who have not received raises. “At least they have jobs, and more job security than anyone in the private sector can ever imagine,” he said. “While county employees may have seen a slight increase in cost of benefits, those in the private sector would jump at the chance to have those benefits, or to pay so little for them.”

Commissioner Priscilla Taylor asked about the PBSO’s wellness clinic implemented recently for employees that she said enabled him to return $10 million to the county, and whether a similar program might be implemented for general employees.

Weisman said he was not sure of the source of the $10 million, but that a wellness clinic for general employees might be problematic due to their locations all over the county. “We’re still looking at it, but we perhaps could have an opportunity to join with one of the other governmental entities,” Weisman said.

He also pointed out that the county has instituted a wellness program for general employees, although it does not include a clinic they can go to.

Commissioner Paulette Burdick also encouraged more attention to wellness programs.

Commissioner Burt Aaronson was pleased with the initial budget proposal but would be looking for an unchanged tax rate at the next budget meeting. “I think the people have spoken loud and clear, and I think it’s doable,” he said.

Commissioner Jess Santamaria said he thought the county has done a relatively good job cutting the budget over the past six years but that they could do more. “Taxes have gone down by more than $100 million the past six years,” he noted.

Nevertheless, Santamaria said he and his staff intend to scrutinize the budget for more cuts. He added that a lot of people in the county are suffering, even though this is one of the richest counties in the nation.

“I represent the Glades, so I know that there are a lot of people who are having a very difficult time surviving,” Santamaria said.