The Palm Beach County Commission held it first formal public hearing on its budget for the upcoming fiscal year on Tuesday. The commissioners approved a tax rate of 4.7815 mills, unchanged from last year.
However, rising property values mean that the tax rate will take in more revenue, and the budget will also spend more money.
The total proposed budget for fiscal year 2016, including all county districts, is $4.04 billion, compared to $3.97 billion in fiscal year 2015.
Of that, about $1.17 billion is in the general fund, which pays for day-to-day services. The proposed ad valorem property taxes for the general fund at 4.7815 mills would generate just under $730 million.
The commissioners also left the tax rates unchanged for the library district at .5491 mills and the Fire-Rescue Municipal Service Taxing Unit at 3.4581 mills.
County Administrator Verdenia Baker pointed out that the millage rate has been held steady for several years.
During public comment, Lillian Hall, representing the Acreage Landowners’ Association, asked for more police and fire coverage there.
“We currently have only three deputies and a sergeant on each shift who must cover 150 miles of roads and 39,000 people,” Hall said. “I know that the number of calls is lower than elsewhere, but the call number is misleading. Sadly, the majority of calls are domestic disturbances, which are two-car calls. Two police officers must respond to these calls because they are so dangerous.”
Hall added that the serenity of The Acreage masks the activity that goes on. “There are grow houses, halfway houses, juvenile shelters, drug overdoses, burglaries, vehicle thefts, as well as the domestic calls daily,” she said.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay asked law enforcement and fire-rescue representatives to address Hall’s request.
Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue Administrator Jeff Collins said that his budget reflects the same millage rate as the previous year with the same minimum staffing levels of 285 employees per day.
“The three main stations that cover The Acreage have a minimum staffing level of 14, and we do not anticipate increasing those levels in this current year,” Collins said. “I can assure you that we do constantly look through our planning section at the numbers and the statistics of call volume along with turnout times. The numbers are relatively good in terms of the entire system.”
He explained that The Acreage is also protected by two stations outside of The Acreage.
“We all know that there is going to be development in The Acreage,” he said, pointing out that one station in the area currently occupying a storefront with engines outside anticipates having a real station with the development of Westlake/Minto West.
Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Major Tony Araujo said that during his 33 years as an officer, he drove a beat car in The Acreage.
“I think it’s fair to say that The Acreage has changed,” Araujo said. “It used to be rural-type folks who were individualists and only wanted to see the police when something really bad happened. I’m not a planner, but it’s not the best laid out community to get to any point north, south, east or west, so those are some of the challenges that we have every day out there policing.”
He pointed out that in 2009, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw made a commitment to open a district substation to serve that area, which had been serviced previously by a substation in the North County area.
“And we did,” Araujo said. “We staffed it with a commander, and we do have a great facility there at the county office at the corner of Okeechobee and Royal Palm Beach [boulevards]. We turn out the shifts from there. The officers don’t stay there, however, we do house three detectives there.”
Araujo said that much of what Hall said was true.
“It’s 150 square miles,” he said. “You can’t get just about anywhere as the crow flies. You could probably see something across the canal, and it’ll take you 10 minutes to get there. It’s just the way the community was planned.”
Araujo said that even if he doubled the force there, it would not increase response times significantly, but acknowledged that residents want more of a community model of policing than the old rural model they once had.
On another topic, Ben Boynton of the Business Development Board thanked the commissioners for their past support and spoke in favor of a $500,000 increase to its current $2.8 million in funding, explaining that the funding over the past 20 years has remained the same.
“When you think about it, the money spent by the private sector and the public sector for Palm Beach County business development has been phenomenal,” Boynton said.
ABOVE: The Palm Beach County Commission.