Your turn is coming up to speak out on Palm Beach County’s tax rate

When Palm Beach County commissioners meet Tuesday evening for their first public hearing, and preliminary vote, on their 2015-2016 budget, they’ll deal with a proposed tax rate that’s unchanged from last year. But your taxes still will go up.

That’s because taxable property values in the county and all of its cities rose by nearly 10 percent over the past year, exceeding the $150 billion mark for the first time since 2008.

On July 21, commissioners voted unanimously to tentatively set the tax rate for next year’s budget at the same level as this year: $4.78 for every $1,000 in taxable property value.

Property owners also will pay about 15 cents per $1,000 taxable property value for debt service on the money the county has borrowed, bringing the total proposed rate to $4.93. That’s slightly lower than the 2014-2015 rate of $4.97. The county was able to refinance some debt at lower interest rates.

For someone with a homestead exemption — those whose primary home is in the county — keeping the rate the same would mean a tiny increase in the county government’s property taxes, less than a dollar for a home assessed at $250,000. That doesn’t include taxes that property owners must also pay to other taxing authorities including towns, the school district and the South Florida Water Management District.

Homestead owners’ taxes are kept lower because Florida’s Save our Homes law limits annual increases in the assessed value of homesteaded homes, and this year it’s at only 0.8 percent.

But those who own second homes or rental property and commercial property could see their property values, and thus their tax bills, jump by as much as 10 percent.

If the base tax rate is unchanged, it would generate $729.9 million in property tax revenue; that’s $62.6 million, or about 9.4 percent, more than in 2014-2015.

That doesn’t include money the county gets from other sources: $224.6 million from shares of sales taxes, franchise fees and other state revenues; and $66.8 million from share of state gasoline taxes. The total taxes the county collects add up to more than $1 billion.

Commissioners have said they’d like to lower the tax rate, but not this year, opting instead to replenish reserves and tackle millions of dollars worth of what administrators say are backlogged needs such as repairs for roads and parks.

“I’m a tax cutter. I’m viscerally against raising tax rates,” Commissioner Hal Valeche said. “I just think our needs here in terms of keeping the place gorgeous and attractive to people, that’s a necessity. It’s an investment and it will pay back.”

But the Palm Beach County Taxpayer Action Board and the Business Political Action Committee of Palm Beach County have asked commissioners to reduce the property tax rate, saying the rise in property values and the accompanying increase in tax revenue to the county make such a reduction possible.

Since the downturn, “we’ve cut over $100 million in just costs, and almost 700 positions,” new County Administrator Verdenia Baker said Friday. With things improving, she said, “People are starting to demand more services.” She did say the county could consider a tax cut in the next few years.

But Baker, who’s been mostly silent on the idea of a bond issue or a local sales tax add-on — either a half cent or perhaps even a full cent — for roads and parks, said Friday she does favor one of those. She said a referendum likely would go on the ballot in the fall of 2016.

County Property Appraiser Gary Nikolits, a Republican who will retire in 2016, last month also called the county government the worst offender of all taxing entities in the county because it’s proposing the multi-million-dollar tax increase, has raised taxes $185 million over the past three years, and this year took total taxes across the $1 billion mark for the first time.

He gave the county his third annual “just plain ugly” award for its tax rates.

Baker, who took charge only last week, bristled at Nikolits’ action and defended the county’s proposed budget.

Baker said Nikolits didn’t include some figures “which if recognized, would have equated to an $80 million not $87 million increase.”

She said the budget also includes a $24 million increase for the Sheriff’s Office, which she mostly cannot control, plus another $5 million for reserves, which she said “is money saved, not spent.” And, she said, “the $185 million he cites as a three-year increase is really a four-year increase and includes one-time revenue used to support on-going operating costs.”

A hearing and final vote on the budget, and tax rate, is set for Sept. 21.

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