As county works on current budget, they’re already worried about 2020’s

Property tax rates would remain flat for an eighth straight year, employees would get a 3 percent raise and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office would get an additional $26 million if Palm Beach County commissioners approve the proposed 2019 budget they discussed in a workshop Tuesday night.

But even as commissioners move through what is expected to be a smooth process this year, they are already quaking in their boots about the 2020 budget, when a combination of factors could lead to a shortfall of nearly $70 million.

“None of this is easy,” Commissioner Paulette Burdick said. “When I think of this budget, I’m thinking about the 2020 budget.”

While the proposed 2019 budget keeps tax rates flat, the county is expected to get $49.2 million more in revenue than it did last year because property values have continued to rise.

That additional money allowed County Administrator Verdenia Baker to put together a proposed budget that includes 81 new positions.

Forty of those positions would be paid for through taxes imposed for fire rescue, library services, airports, water utilities, the building division and the Tourist Development Council. Most of the other property tax-backed positions would be in Engineering and Facilities Development and Operations.

Commissioners will set the county’s property tax rate when they meet on July 10. They will then hold public hearings on Sept. 4 and Sept. 17, when the final budget will be approved.

The new budget goes into effect on Oct. 1. Property taxes would be $4.78 for every $1,000 in taxable property value, excluding debt and taxes levied by cities, the school board and other special districts.

There are some outstanding issues with the proposed budget.

Inspector General John Carey, who has been unsuccessful in getting funding for more staff, has asked commissioners to consider allowing his office to absorb the county’s Internal Auditor Office.

Auditor Joseph Bergeron spoke in opposition to that plan Tuesday night.

“I think the inspector general has come up with a creative solution for his office,” Bergeron said. “I just don’t think that his solution is in the best interest of the Board of County Commissioners. Neither one of our offices really has enough resources to do the job we’re required to do.”

Commissioners seemed open to providing Carey’s office with more resources, perhaps by asking Baker to adjust the proposed budget to include two to four new positions for it.

In addition to the inspector general/internal auditor discussion, commissioners are also considering funding for the guardian ad Litem program and to pay for a courts position. Those requests had broad support among commissioners, but they seemed inclined to hold off on providing county money for a pair of criminal re-entry programs that have been paid for in the past with federal money.

Baker has suggested that commissioners wait to see if the federal government will continue funding those programs before using county money for them.

The 2019 budget challenges pale in comparison to what looms on the horizon in 2020.

Budget challenges ahead for 2020

State law requires counties to balance their budgets. It requires a super majority vote to raise property taxes, and state law imposes on counties a maximum tax rate.

That maximum rate, inversely tied to property values, wasn’t much of a concern for the county in the past. But, after several years of strong growth in property values, the county’s current tax rate is next year expected to exceed the rate commissioners could impose without a super majority vote — five of the commission’s seven members.

If commissioners go to the new lower rate to avoid a super majority vote, the projected shortfall would be $69.7 million, according to county budget documents. If commissioners take a super majority vote to stay at current property tax levels, the shortfall would be $64.2 million.

County staffers factored into those shortfalls the expected passage by voters this fall of an additional homestead exemption, which is estimated to cost the county $27.5 million in lost revenue in 2020.

County Mayor Melissa McKinlay expressed frustration at having to contemplate paying for state-supported programs like the guardian ad Litem program with resources limited by state laws.

“Isn’t it frustrating how they limit our revenues but we have to fill their positions?” she asked her colleagues.

Burdick said she and her colleagues should speak out against the additional homestead exemption, which will be on the ballot this fall.

“All of us need to talk about who will benefit and who will not benefit,” she said. “There’s a small group of people out there who will benefit, but the vast majority will not.”

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