PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - Palm Beach County property owners won't see taxes go up for the first time in three years under a new $4 billion budget approved Monday.
In addition to dodging another tax rate hike, county commissioners also avoided unpopular past budget proposals such as raising parking fees, closing pools and nature centers and laying off beach lifeguards.
Improving property tax revenues along with cost savings and some modest cutbacks took the credit for the county's brightened budget outlook. Commissioners even agreed to look into giving employee raises next year.
"Everything is kind of status quo," Commission Chairwoman Shelley Vana said. "We haven't had to do terrible cuts and we haven't had to raise the [tax] rate."
Avoiding another tax rate increase may have helped county commissioners avoid budget controversy, but that doesn't mean they should start spending, according to Fred Scheibl, of the Tea Party spinoff Palm Beach County Taxpayer Action Board.
"Resist the impulse," Scheibl told commissioners.
Past cutbacks to maintenance of parks and roads remain; leaving high grass and bumpy driving an ongoing sign of attempts at county austerity.
Also this budget eliminates 55 county positions. More than 600 county jobs have been phased out since 2008, mostly through attrition.
Aside from cutbacks, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office's $478 million budget goes up again.
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw's budget accounts for more than half of the county's taxpayer-backed operating expenses. Long-term law enforcement costs will likely have to be addressed to avoid future tax rate increases, according to county administration.
The county's new budget kicks in Oct. 1.
It holds the line on the main property tax rate the fuels county operating costs. That remains $4.78 per $1,000 of taxable property value.
At that rate, a home valued at $230,000 and eligible for a $50,000 homestead exemption pays about $861 in county property taxes — not including taxes for schools, libraries, cities and other services.
While the rate remains the same, whether a property owner's actual tax bill stays the same or goes up or down depends on whether the property value changed.
The Commission's goal this year was to at least hold the line on property tax rates, after three years in a row of property tax rate increases to head off potential budget shortfalls.
The commissioners last year approved a less than 1 percent property tax rate increase, which followed the commission raising property tax rates 9 percent the year before and nearly 15 percent the previous year.
The increases came along with spending cuts aimed at avoiding budget shortfalls blamed on a drop in property tax revenue amid the struggling economy and costs coming due for past county debts.
Palm Beach County's financial outlook brightened this year when for the first time since 2006 taxable property values actually went up a little.
Just a .24 percent estimated bump was welcome relief for a county where taxable property values had been plummeting, including a 12 percent drop two years ago.
Property tax revenues climbing again along with some costs, including the sheriff's budget proposal not being as high as expected allowed for the county to opt for modest spending cuts and avoid another tax rate hike.
County officials are hoping the property value turnaround continues.
"Things there seem to have bottomed out … They are starting to improve," county Finance and Budget Director Liz Bloeser said.
There haven't been across the board salary increases in four years for the 6,300 employees who work for commission-controlled departments.
While commissioners agreed to at least consider giving raises, that would be a tough sell if it means more tax rate increases, according to Commissioner Burt Aaronson.
"You are going to have these chambers full when budget time comes," Aaronson said about potential public backlash to raises.
The Sheriff's Office budget goes up just 1-1/2 percent, but that comes after years of increased county law enforcement costs.
During the past 10 years, the taxpayer-backed portion of the sheriff's budget grew about 70 percent, compared to about 7 percent increases for county departments that oversee everything from parks to roads.
Handling law enforcement for growing population, while also taking over the policing duties of more local cities, accounts for the increase, according to Bradshaw.
And with calls for service increasing, Bradshaw said he will likely need to hire more deputies in the years to come, which will mean needing more money.
Hope for an improved economy helps the budget outlook, but the county does need to try to "contain" public safety costs, Commissioner Paulette Burdick said.
The county's budget proposal does add nearly $400,000 for more road maintenance, but that doesn't come close to catching up with past years' budget cuts.
The county once spent about $6 million a year on road and bridge maintenance, but that was cut to about $400,000
in recent years to help avoid budget shortfalls.
Spending cuts need to continue, even if property tax values keep improving, said Commissioner Steven Abrams, who advocates outsourcing more county work to try to save taxpayers money.
"We are hopeful," Abrams said. "[We] continue to look for efficiencies in how we do business. That should never end."
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