Weisman Explains County Budget At Santamaria Meeting

Palm Beach County Administrator Bob Weisman reviewed his proposed budget for 2014 at a meeting hosted by County Commissioner Jess Santamaria on Wednesday, June 19 at the original Wellington Mall.

Santamaria said “millage” has been his pet peeve during his tenure as a commissioner because he thinks the concept is generally misunderstood, but Weisman said it is difficult to explain the budget without using the term.

“I wish I could give this speech without saying ‘millage’ once, but you can’t,” Weisman said. “The law requires it.”

The county’s initial budget workshop was held June 11, when commissioners approved a proposed budget of about $1 billion, including $6 million in proposed salary increases, with a 0.03 millage rate increase. The commissioners will set the maximum property tax rate Tuesday, July 16. The first public hearing on the budget will be Sept. 9, with the second on Sept. 23, both at 6 p.m.

Weisman noted that the largest part of the budget is the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, which costs approximately $500 million, or about 47 percent of the budget.

“The general county budget for the other county operating departments, including Palm Tran, parks and recreation and engineering departments, is $278 million. That’s only 26 percent of the budget. The sheriff’s is 47 percent,” Weisman said. “Some people wonder why I speak about the sheriff’s budget so much. That’s because in the balancing of our budget, it’s more important to balance the budget for what the sheriff does, than all the other county operations.”

All the other constitutional officers’ departments aside from the sheriff cost only about $46 million, about 4.4 percent of the budget, Weisman said.

The county’s annual debt service is $85 million. “A little less than a third of that is tied to Scripps,” Weisman said. “A good portion of the rest of that is for the county courthouse and the county jail. That number is going to drop significantly starting in 2015.”

The reserve of $85 million helps assure the county’s AAA bond rating, along with other financial management controls and sound management of the county by the county commission, Weisman said. “That $85 million is money we don’t want to touch,” he said. “That provides sort of a safety valve.”

Bond rating agencies take that number into consideration, along with general management efficiency, he said. “When the bond rating agencies see that number, that’s the minimum,” he said. “We don’t want to go any lower than that, or they’re going to hurt our triple-A bond rating.”

Weisman said the taxable value of property will have decreased about 20 percent in 2014 from its high in 2007. “That was the peak year of county revenue and property valuation before the bad economy hit,” he said, pointing out that in the interim, financing for general departments decreased 22 percent. “We’ve actually cut the county operating budget by more than the reduction in terms of percentage than what was raised in taxes. I’m really proud of that because we’ve really maintained most of the services that the public looks for us to provide while we were making these cuts.”

The decrease in property value and financing for the county’s general budget is contrasted in the same time period by an approximately 23 percent Consumer Price Index increase and a 24 percent increase in the sheriff’s budget, Weisman said.

“We have been successful in balancing the budget with tax decreases because the general county has been very conservative,” Weisman said. “We’ve reduced our costs while maintaining services.”

The total proposed ad valorem tax revenue for 2014 would be about $625 million, which is up from $600 million collected in 2013 but still down 9.3 percent from about $689 million collected in 2007, Weisman said.

The county’s voted debt would go up slightly from $26.2 million to $26.6 million, but that’s down 16.4 percent from its high of $31.8 million in 2007. “We haven’t issued bonds like that in a few years,” he noted.

Special taxing districts such as Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue apply in Wellington, Royal Palm Beach, unincorporated Palm Beach County and the Glades cities, Weisman said.

“I think it’s true to say that all of Commissioner Santamaria’s district pays these taxes,” he said.

Library funding is proposed to go up slightly from $41 million in 2013 to $43 million in 2014, which is still down almost 20 percent from $53 million in 2007. “We’ve actually dropped library taxes $10 million in the past seven years, and we’re not proposing an increase at all for them in the coming year,” Weisman said. “We have an outstanding system that has been very cost-effective.”

The Fire-Rescue MSTU is proposed to increase from $177 million in 2013 to $182 million in 2014, which is still down 3.7 percent from $189 million in 2007, Weisman said.

“That is an incredible fact,” he said. “We’ve cooperated and reduced costs, particularly with the union, which is very influential and involved in how that department functions. We’ve had great leadership there in how to save money and keep taxes down.”

Weisman explained that this year there is no pay raise for firefighters or paramedics, and they are going to be hiring 80 new people because there has been much attrition.

“We negotiated with the union a lower starting salary for the employees,” he said. “It’s approximately 20 percent lower than a starting employee would have made five years ago. We had 1,200 applicants for the 80 positions.”

That has been whittled down to a short list of about 280 applicants, and the interview process has begun.

“I assure you there is no shortage of qualified applicants at the reduced pay rate,” Weisman said. “I suggested this to the sheriff as something he could consider in trying to reduce his cost in the future. This will allow us to keep costs under control for the coming decade.”