Cultural projects, business incentives cut from sales tax plan

Palm Beach County commissioners stripped funding for cultural projects from its sales tax plan Tuesday, pushing back by as much as two months a final decision on whether the plan will be put before voters this fall.

Commissioners voted 5-2 to move forward with a sales tax plan that does not include a $121 million pot for cultural projects or a $40 million one for economic development incentives. Both had been part of a previous county plan to raise the 6-cent sales tax by a penny on the dollar, which would generate $2.7 billion for repairs to roads, bridges, schools and county buildings.

All the county’s cities and the Palm Beach County School District, which would share the proceeds of the tax hike with the county, had already voted in favor of the previous plan. Now, they’ll have to vote again before the issue can come back to the County Commission, a process County Administrator Verdenia Baker said could take four to eight weeks.

The School Board is expected to debate the new plan when it meets Wednesday.

Tuesday’s vote could prompt the School Board to reexamine its partnership with the county. School Board Vice Chairman Frank Barbieri said he would press for the board to split from the county proposal and seek its own sales tax increase.

If the rest of the board were to agree, the move would raise the prospect of rival sales-tax referendums on November’s ballot.

“Let’s go it alone,” Barbieri told The Palm Beach Post. “I don’t have confidence in the county commissioners at this point. I’m going to push the board tomorrow to split off.”

With cultural projects and economic incentive money stripped from the plan, the school district would now get 50 percent of the tax proceeds, up from 48 percent. The county would get 30 percent, up from 27.5 percent, and cities would get 20 percent, up from 18.5 percent.

Still, Barbieri said, the county’s repeated changes shook his confidence that the county would stick with the new plan.

“Every time they discuss it, they discuss new changes,” he said. “What’s to say they won’t change it again?”

Superintendent Robert Avossa said the county’s vote was “an unexpected turn” and that he would await direction from board members Wednesday on how to proceed.

“The thing that’s very important to me is timing,” he said, “and we need to start buttoning up our strategy.”

School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw said he “wasn’t totally surprised” by the commission’s vote, given the controversy surrounding the proposal to include subsidies for private organizations.

But he said he wasn’t yet sure how the School Board should now proceed.

“We want to just make sure that we’re in a position that we can get our needs met, so that’s what the board is going to have to discuss,” he said.

Like the School Board, cities are also having to take up the issue again. As with the old plan, elected officials representing a majority of city residents must give their approval for the new plan to move forward.

West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said she is still digesting news of Tuesday’s changes.

“I am not yet prepared to make a comment,” she said. “We have to better understand what the decision of the County Commission was and how it affects us.”

Wellington Vice Mayor John McGovern said the county’s decision won’t change his vote to send the issue to a referendum. He’s still not taking a position on the tax itself but said the removal of the economic development incentives will give the voters a better idea of where exactly the money is going.

“When this comes back to the Wellington Village Council, I will vote for it again because I think this is a rare opportunity for the voters themselves to decide if they’re going to be taxed,” he said.

Money for cultural projects had been added to the sales tax plan at the suggestion of the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, a non-profit group that distributes public tax money to cultural institutions. But the council’s heavy involvement in the sales tax plan and what some saw as a lack of transparency in the process it used to recommend projects for funding drew strong opposition and threatened support for the entire sales tax plan.

In voting against directing money to cultural projects, county commissioners rejected the Cultural Council’s argument that paying for cultural projects with sales tax money would increase chances that the plan would be approved by voters in November.

Indeed, many commissioners came to believe just the opposite after a series of stories from The Post raised questions about the process the council used to recommend specific projects for funding. For example, the council initially planned to recommend that a Pahokee theater owned by a felon receive $1.4 million for renovation.

“When I read some of the articles in the newspaper, I can write the direct mail pieces in my head,” Commissioner Steven Abrams said.

Cultural Council President Rena Blades said cultural institutions must now reassess their expansion plans.

“We continue to be committed to the education and tourism services our organizations provide,” Blades said. “Our cultural groups will now have to reevaluate their infrastructure plans moving forward. We wish the schools and county success and will support their future efforts.”

Baker acknowledged opposition to the Cultural Council’s suggestions on Friday, when she issued new guidelines that would have all cultural institutions, not just those chosen by the Cultural Council, compete for money from the sales tax increase. That change, however, didn’t go far enough for some commissioners.

Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who represents the economically stressed Glades region, said directing sales tax money to cultural institutions is a bad idea when some residents lack basic necessities.

McKinlay made the motion to move forward with a sales tax plan that included no funding for cultural projects or economic development incentives. Only commissioners Hal Valeche and Shelley Vana opposed the change.

Valeche said a bond sale is a better way to raise money for repairs, and Vana wanted a sales tax plan that includes funding for cultural projects and economic development incentives.

After the vote, McKinlay issued a letter explaining her position.

“When you represent an area where people are fighting to keep a roof over their head or put food on the table, it is hard to justify giving scarce tax dollars to museums,” McKinlay wrote.

Staff writers Andrew Marra, Jennifer Sorentrue, Matt Morgan and Tony Doris contributed to this story.

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