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Palm Beach County commissioners reject demands to rein in their spending

Author johnbsims3
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#1 | Posted: 28 Feb 2007 07:43 
http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/southflorid a/sfl-pcounty28feb28,0,4709781.story?coll=sfla-hom e-headlines

Palm Beach County commissioners reject demands to rein in their spending

By Josh Hafenbrack
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

February 28, 2007

Turning back a wave of residents clamoring for slimmed-down county spending, Palm Beach County commissioners Tuesday rejected a recommendation that they hold the line on the budget and slammed their own advisory committee for making the suggestion.

Residents told commissioners that because county spending has spiraled in recent years, property taxes are forcing people from their homes and stifling the real estate market.

Commissioners were defensive, quarreling with speakers and blaming state legislators for passing down unfunded mandates. Commissioners unloaded on the Budget Advisory Committee chaired by Commissioner Warren Newell, threatening to replace board members they appointed just months ago unless the committee changes its focus.

Of the 16 percent increase in county property taxes this year, resident Virginia Brooks said: "That's nearly triple the combination of population growth and inflation, and almost double the growth in personal income. I think the solution might be, just like any good household would do, a belt tightening."

Commissioners rejected the budget committee's recommendation to keep 2008 spending to this year's $4.3 billion level.

The commission formed the advisory committee less than three months ago in response to a growing outcry over increases in county spending. On Tuesday, commissioners said the committee should focus on specific programs and county expenses, rather than making broad suggestions. Commissioners each appointed one person to the seven-member budget committee, save for Newell.

"Just telling us, `Go cut,' I think we need to be more specific," Commissioner Karen Marcus said. "If they don't want to do that, we need to put new members on there."

Commission Chairman Addie Greene took it a step further.

"Why do we need this committee?" she asked. "It's my personal opinion it's a waste of time."

About a dozen residents spoke on the spending issue, all hammering home the same theme: County spending is out of control, leading to crippling property tax bills for anyone without a longtime homestead exemption.

Many more showed up, but not everyone spoke because commissioners broke the property tax session into two parts. The issue came up before 10:30 a.m., but commissioners moved on to another agenda item less than an hour later and didn't take up the budget recommendation again until after 3 p.m.

One woman wore a T-shirt that said, "Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny," referring to seasonal residents who have borne the brunt of increased government spending.

Others complained that commissioners were being bullies for lecturing speakers on why county spending has gone up.

"I resent some of the arrogance that comes across sometimes," said James Grice, 51, of Wellington.

"We'll try and work on that," Commissioner Jeff Koons responded.

David Wood noted that when 500 residents packed a legislative hearing on property taxes this month at Palm Beach Community College, no commissioners showed up. "Hundreds of citizens were there who had questions for all of you, and none of you were there," he said.

Christina Pearce, a real estate agent, zeroed in on the county reserves, noting the $2.3 billion the county has in its investment portfolio. That money includes not only the budget reserves, but also money to pay for future parks, projects and roads.

"I think I speak for everybody when I say that seems to be a lot of money," she said. "I know it might be designated for this project or that. But what we're saying is, there has to be some money that can be used to offset property taxes."

Property taxes are the Legislature's top concern for the session starting next week. Among the proposals is a plan to roll back county spending to the pre-real estate boom levels of 2001 and replace homestead property taxes with a 2.5 percent increase in sales taxes.

"It looks like the state is finally going to make you guys prioritize your spending," said resident John Early, who ticked off county cost-saving measures from a hiring freeze to 10 percent department budget cuts. "From what I'm reading, you're going to really have to cut back a lot."

Representing a consortium of condo communities in Boynton Beach, snowbird Dory Kilburn said her taxes shot up 70 percent in one year and many of her neighbors are being forced from their homes by taxes.

"When you raises taxes in Palm Beach, we pay," she said. "We're asking you not just to freeze the budget, but ... try to find some ways to save money, because our communities are not going to survive if you keep raising the taxes."

In their discussion, commissioners focused on the Budget Advisory Committee, lamenting that the board didn't identify specific areas the county should cut.

"Commissioner Marcus, I think you're right on track," Commissioner Burt Aaronson said when Marcus threatened to find new board members. "The fact is, I don't think they've fulfilled their mission."

Newell also criticized the committee he chairs, despite having supported its budget recommendation at the committee hearing. He said a lot of politics has infiltrated the group, later explaining it is influenced by the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, which has battled the commission over its spending. That group's executive director, Mike Jones, said the commission was shortsighted to reject the idea of holding the line on county spending.

"I think it's a lot more generous than the Legislature might do," he said.

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Palm Beach County commissioners reject demands to rein in their spending
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