County Finalizes $3.4 Billion Budget Keeping Tax Rate Unchanged

The Palm Beach County Commission gave final approval Monday to a $3.4 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2012-13 starting Oct. 1.

The commissioners set the county’s general fund tax rate at 4.7815 mills, the same rate as last year. At that rate, the county will take in just under $600 million in ad valorem property taxes, up slightly from the previous year.

Fred Scheibl of the Taxpayer Action Board was the only speaker during public comments.

“This year’s budget is not a controversial one,” Scheibl said. “Without a large, visible cut to programs or a rise in the millage, there wasn’t a need for the kabuki dance and there wasn’t a need for the organized opposition to a tax increase, even though taxes did go up a little bit.”

Scheibl congratulated County Administrator Bob Weisman for balancing the budget through difficult departmental cuts that became necessary due to sharp decreases in property values the past four years.

“The valuation has taken a small uptick this year, the first since 2008,” Scheibl said. “We may be turning a corner on the revenue base, but while housing is improving, the overall economy is still weak. As this is the last budget cycle for some of you, a newly constituted board in 2013 is going to face this mix with a lot of pent-up demand for additional spending. As we go forward, I ask you to… resist the urge to outspend.”

Commissioner Jess Santamaria asked how many years it has been since county employees received a pay increase, and Weisman answered that it has been four for general employees. Santamaria asked what the increase in the Consumer Price Index has been over that four-year period; Weisman estimated about 10 percent.

Santamaria also noted that employees two years ago were asked to contribute 3 percent to their pension funds.

“I would say the cost of living with the contribution to the pension fund adds up to between 13 and 15 percent, and there have been no pay increases over that period of time,” he said. “Sooner or later, we’re going to have to look at that and see if there is a justification for re-evaluating the compensation of our employees if we want them to continue performing to our satisfaction.”

Santamaria said one way to evaluate the pay scales for county employees would be to compare them with similar positions in the private sector. “I would expect that we could be competitive so we can retain the quality of employees that we want,” he said. “I think that’s something we need to plan for the next budget year.”

Weisman said he will take whatever direction the commission gives him but that it is difficult to get private-sector information that is relevant to county positions. “The board is going to have to use every restraint possible when you get other requests for funding in this coming year if we’re going to be able to save enough money to give employees raises next year,” he said.

Santamaria said he thought it would be unwise if they were in a private business and did not give pay increases to employees who are performing to expectations and face cost-of-living increases. He told fellow commissioners that he thought they owe it to their employees to at least look into it.

Commissioner Steven Abrams said a more accessible comparison might be to see how many companies in the private sector have been giving raises.

“Commissioner Santamaria is correct in saying that it’s a desire to be able to give salary increases to employees,” Abrams said.

However, Abrams said, he does not believe the county is lagging behind comparable governments and private sector companies given the current economic climate. “I suspect everyone’s in the same general boat,” he said.

Weisman said the county’s human resources department is equipped to conduct salary comparisons with other county governments and has some contacts with the private sector. “The private sector tends to be quite secretive what their compensation is, but we can do that,” he said. “We can have something for you.”

Commissioner Burt Aaronson, who will be leaving the board this year, said it will be difficult for next year’s commission to weigh employees’ raises against cuts in services or a tax increase if the economy does not improve significantly. “If you want to raise taxes, you’re going to have these chambers filled when it comes budget time,” he said.

Commissioner Priscilla Taylor also supported looking into giving staff raises.

Taylor asked Sheriff Ric Bradshaw about the progress of a charter school initiated by the PBSO after closing the Eagle Academy, and Bradshaw said it is a work in progress.

“We’ve diverted a lot of the people who were at the Eagle Academy to the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches,” Bradshaw said. “You can’t snap your fingers and do this charter school thing, which a lot of people are finding out. The school system in itself has got a lot of issues going on. We haven’t given up on it.”

Commissioner Paulette Burdick said she was cautiously optimistic about the revenue picture.

“Next year, I think it’s vitally important that we maintain our credit rating,” Burdick said. “I think we’ll be one of six or eight nationally with the AAA. The reason why I’m very cautious is because we met with fire-rescue and [saw] the constraints that they have within their budget and the utilization of their reserves, and we hope that the economy continues to improve.”

Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue, which is part of the county budget but an independent taxing unit, took a small decrease in its millage rate from 3.4634 in 2012, which generated $177.2 million, to 3.4581 in 2013, which will generate $177.0 million. The decrease is depleting fire-rescue’s reserve, but the county is banking on optimism that the economy will continue to recover before the reserve is completely depleted several years down the road.

“Nobody wants to underfund public safety,” Burdick said. “Moving forward, we have to be very cautious and work together to maintain costs that we have out there.”

Aaronson made motions to adopt the countywide general fund millage and budget, which carried unanimously.