Shared from the 2016-09-18 Palm Beach Post eEdition

POST WATCHDOG PROPERTY TAXES

County budget would add jobs

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Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker said the need to beef up the county’s workforce is one reason her staff did not recommend commissioners reduce the county’s property tax rate. LANNIS WATERS / THE PALM BEACH POST

PUBLIC HEARING MONDAY

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What: Final public hearing, vote on 2016-17 budget

When: 6 p.m. Monday

Where: Weisman Governmental Center, 301 N. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach * EMPLOYEES WHO REPORT TO COUNTY COMMISSION. ** INCLUDES CLERK & COMPTROLLER, COURT ADMINISTRATION, PROPERTY APPRAISER, SUPERVISOR OF ELECTIONS, TAX COLLECTOR. SOURCE: PALM BEACH COUNTY DATA, PALM BEACH POST ANALYSIS.

2016-17 BUDGET BASICS

PROPOSED REVENUE Property tax rate: $4.78 per $1,000 taxable property value, same as this year.

Debt service rate: $0.13 per $1,000 taxable value, down from $0.15 in 2016.

Combined rate: $4.91 per $1,000 taxable value, down from $4.93 in 2016.

Property tax revenue: $786.7 million, up $56.8 million from 2016.

PROPOSED SPENDING 181 new jobs: 60 for county government, 99 for sheriff, 22 for other constitutional officers.

$6.3 million for 3 percent cost-of-living pay increase for county government employees.

$27.9 million increase in PBSO spending, for $594.1 million total.

$34.1 million for repairs and replacement of county assets.

$8.8 million hike in reserves, to $99.5 million.

SOURCE: PALM BEACH COUNTY

Palm Beach County’s proposed $4.3 billion budget for 2017 includes money to fill 181 new jobs, which would be the largest number of new positions added to the county’s workforce in a decade.

But even if commissioners approve that budget as expected when they hold their final public hearing on it and the tax rate Monday evening, the county’s workforce will still be hundreds of employees short of where it stood in 2008, before the Great Recession sharply reduced property values and, in turn, property tax revenue to the county.

The number of county employees who report to the County Commission would be down by 635 since 2007, despite budget plans to boost their ranks by 60 in the 2016-17 budget. But that staffing number would be up 141 since it hit its low of 6,133 in 2015.

County Administrator Verdenia Baker said the need to beef up the county’s still-shrunken workforce is one reason her staff did not recommend that commissioners reduce the county’s property tax rate, which would stand at about $4.91 per $1,000 in taxable property value.

At that rate, which includes debt services on bonds but does not include municipal taxes or those levied by other entities such as the school district, the owner of a $250,000 house with a homestead exemption would pay $991.50 in property taxes, about $6 more than they paid this year.

With property values now rising, the county gets additional revenue even if it holds the tax rate steady, something the county is poised to do for the sixth straight year.

Baker said the county needs every penny it can get, especially if it hopes to have a workforce that can meet the needs of a growing county.

“Demand is continuing to grow for services,” she said. “We’ve learned to be as efficient as possible, but, at some point, I need to add some of these people back.”

That’s not how Fred Scheibl of the Palm Beach County Taxpayer Action Board, a tax watchdog group, sees it.

Scheibl wants commissioners to reduce or “roll back” property tax rates so the county collects no more in actual taxes than it did the year before. He disputed the notion that the smaller workforce threatens its ability to provide adequate service levels.

“I haven’t noticed a lot of complaints about county services,” he said. “A lot of those positions they say were cut were just positions. It wasn’t people. It was just positions.”

Baker said some of the positions were left vacant, but she noted that others weren’t filled when people left or retired, which does affect the county’s ability to provide acceptable levels of service.

Most of the new positions that would be funded in the 2017 budget — 99 of them, to be exact — would be in the Palm Beach County Sheriff ’s Office.

Indeed, while most other areas of the county’s workforce — including employees reporting to the county commission and to other constitutional officers — are down significantly from 2007, the Sheriff’s Office would be up by 516 employees.

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has said his department has needed to grow with the county. A popular constitutional officer elected county-wide, Bradshaw’s budgets have largely been unchallenged by commissioners.

Objecting to Bradshaw’s decision not to enforce a county ordinance reducing penalties for possession of a small amount of marijuana, out-going Commissioner Priscilla Taylor did suggest that the budget for the Sheriff ’s Office be cut by an amount equal to the cost of housing those jailed for pot possession. That suggestion, however, went nowhere, and Bradshaw’s 2017 budget request was incorporated into the proposed budget Baker presented to commissioners earlier this year.

New county positions that would be paid for with property taxes are spread over a variety of departments. Community Services would get two new employees. Facilities Development and Operations would get three new employees, and Engineering and Public Works would get four.

Parks and Recreation would see the largest boost, with six new employees.

Some of the new employees would work in departments funded wholly or in part through fees or other tax revenue.

For example, Fire Rescue, which is supported by its own property tax rate, would get 12 new employees. The Building Division of the county’s Planning, Zoning and Building Department and Water Utilities, which are both supported by fees, would get 10 new employees each.

Baker said she’d like to include more staffing in other areas, including performance management, human resources, community services and economic development. She said she won’t rush to ask commissioners to approve funding for new positions.

“I will not be adding any positions until I can justify it and support it,” she said.

C om m i ss i o n e r H a l Valeche, a Republican who faces a Nov. 8 election challenge from Democrat Tony Bennett, said he is pleased with the county’s level of staffing.

“My view is that we did a lot of cutting during the recession years,” he said. “I do think we’re getting back to the right level. We don’t need to match the level of (population) growth, but you do want to make sure you can provide an appropriate level of service to people and businesses.” wwashington@pbpost.com

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