Palm Beach County is contemplating additional spending — as much as $1 million this year and another $2 million in 2018 — to combat the heroin and opioid crisis that has devastated families and put added strains on first responders and hospitals here and across the country.
The idea of spending the additional money was presented by county staff members Tuesday as they gave commissioners a preliminary overview of what is shaping up to be a challenging 2017-2018 budget process, one that sees the county’s wish list of new spending outstripping expected revenue by $44 million.
About $32 million of that new spending would go to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, which wants 100 new deputies over the next three years, including 30 in the 2017-2018 budget year.
Other wish list items include: $6.5 million for a 3 percent raise for county employees; $15 million for capital improvement projects; $9 million to reacquire a share of land in the Agricultural Reserve; and a $6 million addition to the county’s reserves, which are closely monitored by credit rating agencies whose assessments of the county’s financial strength go a long way in determining its borrowing costs.
The county’s Office of Inspector General is seeking $404,000 for four new staff members. County voters approved an increase in the sales tax in November, and Inspector General John Carey said the wave of projects its proceeds will pay for underscores the need for his office.
The inspector general’s office provides services to all the county’s cities as well as the county government, but 15 cities have been successful in their legal efforts to resist paying for the office.
New PBSO spending would account for the bulk of new expenditures, just as it made up nearly half of all property tax money the county spent in 2016-2017.
Law enforcement spending is chewing up an increasingly large piece of the county budget, but commissioners, mindful of being portrayed as soft on crime, typically give the sheriff whatever he wants.
County Administrator Verdenia Baker, like her predecessor, Robert Weisman, said law enforcement spending will have to be tackled now or in the future.
“That’s an issue that we’re going to have to address,” she said.
That’s also how commissioners feel about the topic of heroin and opioid abuse, judging from comments they made Tuesday.
The $1 million in proposed spending for the current budget year would have to be pulled from reserves and would be approved in chunks as specific funding needs arise, Deputy County Administrator Jon Van Arnam said. An additional $2 million would be part of the 2017-2018 budget, which won’t get final approval until Sept. 18 after the property tax rate is set in July and an initial public hearing on the budget is held on Sept. 5.
Commissioners didn’t bat an eye at the idea of additional spending to combat the heroin/opioid crisis, which has been the focus of extensive coverage in The Palm Beach Post.
“I think this is a drop in the bucket given the scale of the problem,” Commissioner Hal Valeche said.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who has called on the governor to declare a state of emergency to address the problem, agreed.
“Anyone who fails to see this as the public health crisis that it is is walking around with their eyes closed,” she said.
The additional opioid money would go to agencies helping people fight addiction as well as for additional staffing for the county’s medical examiner’s office, which has been overwhelmed.
While commissioners seemed open to the idea of additional spending to combat the opioid crisis, several noted that coming up with a balanced budget while also spending money to address new priorities will be a challenge.
They were cool to the idea of spending $9 million to reacquire a 61 percent stake in 571 acres the county sold to the South Florida Water Management District in 2006.
SFWMD had planned to build a reservoir on the land, which is located in the Agricultural Reserve west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach. But the district has scrapped those plans and now wants to recoup the money it paid the county for the land.
The county originally purchased the 571 acres with public money from a bond issue to acquire land for preservation and agriculture. Environmentalists and preservationists have been furious about the prospect of the land being sold and eventually developed, but commissioners fear the district could sue the county in an effort to force a sale of the property. That scenario also opens up the possibility of the land being developed.
Buying out the district emerged as a sort of middle ground, but, with other expensive priorities to meet, some commissioners were holding out hope Tuesday for an alternative like having an environmental or conservation group obtain and hold an easement giving it some control over whether the land is developed.
The budget squeeze is tight now, but Baker said she’s hoping it loosens as the county gets updated figures on property values. If property values increase by a greater rate than the county’s early estimates, that would increase property tax revenue without the county having to raise the tax rate.
“Almost every year, we start out in a hole and then we come back with a balanced budget,” she said.
Upcoming budget meetings
June 13: Palm Beach County Cmmission budget meeting
July 11: Commissioners set property tax rate
Sept. 5: First public hearing on the budget
Sept. 18: Final public hearing and vote on the budget