Palm Beach County proposes raising property taxes as much as 15 percent
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By Andy Reid
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
August 8, 2009
County still would be better off than others, officials say
Broward and Palm Beach counties are taking different paths to deal with similar budget crunches blamed on the struggling economy.
While both plan spending cuts, Palm Beach County also proposes raising property tax rates as much as 15 percent to limit layoffs and save valued government services.
Broward County, on the other hand, is considering forgoing a potential tax rate increase in favor of requiring deeper spending cuts by the Sheriff's Office.
Even with a proposed tax rate hike, Palm Beach County officials contend they give taxpayers a better deal than Broward and other Florida counties of a similar size.
The part of tax bills set by the County Commission to cover operating expenses for everything from parks to permitting would still remain lower than the current rates in nearby Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
That "operating" tax rate would also be lower than in Hillsborough County and Orange County, which have populations similar in size to Palm Beach County.
Palm Beach County's proposed property tax rate boost is intended to make up for the revenue lost from declining property values.
"We have been very responsible," Palm Beach County Administrator Robert Weisman said. "When you compare us to other counties, I think we are doing pretty well."
But instead of raising property tax rates during a time of declining property values, Palm Beach County should cut deeper, said Hal Valeche, an anti-tax advocate and former Palm Beach Gardens councilman.
"For the county to want to keep its tax revenue the same as last year is a bit dismissive of (the) hard economic times many, many county residents are going through," Valeche said.
Increasing tax rates this year to keep revenue levels the same fails to address long-term budget problems, said Robert Weissert, spokesman for the watchdog group Florida Tax Watch.
"They have to find ways to do more with less," Weissert said. "That's really what good managers do."
This year, property values took a historic nose dive. Palm Beach County's property values dropped about 13 percent. Broward values declined about 11 percent.
If given final approval in September, Palm Beach County's property tax rate would go from about $3.78 per $1,000 of taxable value to $4.34. For a home valued about $230,000 and eligible for a $50,000 homestead exemption, that would equate to about $800 in county property taxes next year.
This would translate to about $100 more than this year and doesn't include taxes for cities, schools and other government agencies. The taxes levied by the commission equate to about 25 percent of the typical property tax bill.
Palm Beach County's proposed boost to a $4.34 tax rate compares to about $4.88 already in place for Broward and $4.83 in Miami-Dade counties. Hillsborough County's current tax rate for operating expenses is $5.74 and $4.43 in Orange County.
Palm Beach County looks to Broward County when it wants to consider a budget comparison. For Weisman, the tax rates show "we are more efficient."
But tax rates don't tell the whole story, Broward County Budget Director Kayla Olsen said.
Palm Beach County still benefits from higher property values than other counties, which means it can go with a lower tax rate and receive similar or even greater tax revenue.
To overcome the projected drop in tax revenue, Broward County has proposed cutting department costs by 10 percent, eliminating 500 positions, closing libraries on Sundays and closing regional parks two days a week, instead of one.
Going further to avoid a tax increase, a Broward County proposal calls for the commission to cut another $46 million from Sheriff Al Lamberti's budget. While the commission approves the sheriff's budget, Lamberti could appeal to Gov. Charlie Crist and the state cabinet to force the county to restore that $46 million.
In Palm Beach County, deep cuts to parks, libraries and law enforcement spending have been "unacceptable" to the County Commission, Weisman said.
The county has called for departments to cut costs about 10 percent and the county plans to eliminate 200 or more positions in addition to other spending cuts.
Even with the proposed tax rate increase and spending cuts, the budget situation worsens the following year when the county projects a potential shortfall of more than $100 million.