Mayor: State of county good but housing scarcity, opioids of concern

Palm Beach County’s economy is thriving, but the continuing scarcity of affordable housing and the spiraling opioid crisis are major concerns, County Mayor Paulette Burdick said Wednesday morning in her “State of the County” address.

“Things are good in Palm Beach County,” Burdick said, “but we have some emerging issues.”

Burdick noted that the county has been able to keep property tax rates steady for several years in a row. She praised fiscal management that has allowed the county to maintain a AAA credit rating, a rarity for large government entities in the United States.

“Business in Palm Beach County is good, and we want to keep it that way,” Burdick told about 220 community officials and members of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches during remarks at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, which itself served to illustrate her message of fiscal health.

With the completion of an adjoining hotel, “the convention center is operating in the black for the very first time,” Burdick noted.

Throughout her remarks, Burdick returned to the problems presented by the opioid crisis and the scarcity of affordable housing in the county.

In discussing the opioid epidemic, Burdick praised The Palm Beach Post for its coverage of the issue, which has won numerous journalism awards.

“That newspaper has done more to bring awareness not just to Palm Beach County but to the state of Florida as a whole,” she said.

She also told audience members that the county pulled $1 million from reserves and dedicated another $2 million in its 2018 budget to help combat the opioid epidemic.

Regarding the lack of affordable housing, the county mayor was among those who greeted Florida Gov. Rick Scott when he stopped in Riviera Beach Monday and she used the visit to urge Scott to press legislators not to use state housing funds for purposes other than housing.

More than 500 people attended a housing summit in May at the convention center to come up with solutions to the affordable housing problem.

County officials have described that problem as a crisis, saying it complicates their efforts to hire out-of-town staffers and makes it difficult for those who are already here.

“This is not just a Palm Beach County issue,” Burdick said. “This is an issue across the state. This is an urban issue and a rural issue.”

Burdick also touched on other themes, including the state government’s encroachment on “home rule.” She and other local government officials statewide are concerned about willingness of state lawmakers to pass legislation superseding or limiting the authority of local governments in areas like finance and regulation.

“The Legislature over the past several years has taken on the belief that good decisions are made in Tallahassee,” Burdick said.

One of those decisions could be expensive for the county, Burdick said.

Lawmakers approved a plan to have voters decide if they want another $25,000 homestead exemption from property taxes.

There is already an exemption for the first $25,000 of a home’s value and another exemption covering the value between $50,000 to $75,000. The new exemption would cover the value of a home between $100,000 to $125,000, meaning $75,000 of a homestead’s value would be exempted from property taxes imposed by non-school governments. The homestead exemption affecting property taxes for schools, which are set by school boards and the Legislature, would continue to be only $25,000.

If 60 percent of the state’s voters approve the $25,000 increase in the exemption in November 2018, it would cost the county $25 million in lost property tax revenue, Burdick said. It would cost the county’s fire rescue services $9 million, and it would cost cities in Palm Beach County another $17 million each year.

County and municipal leaders have decried the proposed homestead exemption as a drain on local resources that will force them — not state lawmakers — to approve unpopular tax increases or service reductions.

“While billed as a tax cut by Tallahassee, this is a tax shift,” Burdick said. “What sounds like a nice deal is not always what it is portrayed to be.”

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