Sheriff's costs pose future budget hurdles in Palm Beach County

Palm Beach County's budget belt tightening apparently doesn't get the same squeeze when there's a holster attached.

As other county agencies pinch pennies, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw's proposed budget would increase to about $478 million — the biggest chunk of the county's operating expenses.

While that's just about a 1.5 percent bump, it adds to a trend of Sheriff's Office spending rising while other branches of county government have been forced to cut back due to a drop in property tax revenues amid a struggling economy.

During the past decade, the taxpayer-backed portion of the Sheriff's Office budget has grown about 70 percent; now nearly doubling the amount spent on county departments responsible for everything from parks to roads.

That's the price of providing public safety in a county with 1.3 million people, where yearly calls for help keep growing, according to Bradshaw. And after taking over policing duties for more local cities through the years, Bradshaw says his budget is likely to keep getting bigger.

"I hear it every year," Bradshaw said about how his budget outpaces other branches of county government. "You have got to look at what's more important. Do we need more parks … or do we need public safety?"

The County Commission on Monday takes the final vote on a $4 billion county budget that for the first time in three years doesn't call for a property tax rate increase.

Avoiding a return to tax rate increases or deep county service cuts will be difficult without addressing the Sheriff's Office's increasing costs, according to Palm Beach County Administrator Robert Weisman.

"If there is going to be fiscal conservancy regarding future taxation and costs for county government, the sheriff is going to be a significant factor," Weisman told county commissioners earlier this month.

Weisman has been issuing a similar warning in recent years, as the county used spending cuts and tax rate hikes to compensate for budget shortfalls blamed on the struggling economy and past debts.

But after losing past spending showdowns with the sheriff, trimming Bradshaw's budget has been a political fight that county commissioners this year weren't willing to try.

"This is how we wanted to handle things," Commission Chairwoman Shelley Vana said about not pushing for the sheriff to cut deeper this year. "Let's just work together."

The proposed county budget that kicks in Oct. 1 calls for maintaining the current property tax rate of $4.78 per $1,000 of taxable 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.

Plummeting home values during the Great Recession combined with the lingering costs of past county debts left the county in recent years facing threats of budget shortfalls that led to property tax rate hikes and spending cuts.

The County Commission 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 county has also eliminated more than 600 positions since 2008, slashed funding for road repairs, put construction plans on hold and cut back on maintenance of parks and road medians.

Improved economic conditions this year have allowed the county to avoid pursuing unpopular past cost-cutting proposals such as raising Palm Tran bus fares, eliminating beach lifeguards, and cutting the Sheriff's Office budget.

The county's budget proposal does include eliminating 35 positions, half of which could result in layoffs. The budget proposal also includes using reserve funds to cover about $10 million in costs.

In 2010, Bradshaw cut expenses by doing away with deputies for parks patrols, ending the popular Drug Farm jail drug treatment program and closing Eagle Academy, a military-style school for troubled teens.

Last year, Bradshaw said he was "done" cutting. County commissioners last year backed down from a request that the Sheriff's Office trim its budget by $5 million after the potential cuts prompted public backlash.

Bradshaw contends that he has been taking steps to cut costs.

A new Sheriff's Office clinic has helped lower healthcare costs, according to Bradshaw. Providing more in-house medical services for inmates and using more reserve officers to transport inmates has cut down on personnel costs, he said.

The Sheriff's Office also agreed to return $10 million in excess fees to county coffers that can be used for other expenses.

But with the Sheriff's Office getting more than 1 million calls for service a year, Bradshaw said he will eventually

need more money to add to his nearly 4,000 employees.

"That's fighting gangs, closing pill mills down … people's safety," Bradshaw said. "That takes people to do that."

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