Fire Rescue Sales Tax Debate
Since the debate there have been several developments:
- The proposal is no longer being considered for the August ballot – it will be taken up in a June BCC meeting for consideration on the November ballot to give the cities more time to evaluate.
- The county Office of Financial Management and Budget (OFMB) has analysed the oppostition claims at the request of Commissioner Santamaria and found them to be accurate.
For up to the minute status on the sales tax proposal, go to nonewsalestax.org
This afternoon at the South County Civic Center the Voter’s Coalition of Palm Beach County hosted a public meeting on the topic of the proposed 1% additional county sales tax to provide an independent funding source for Fire/Rescue operations.
Chaired by Voter’s Coalition President Bob Newmark and assisted by Honorary Chairman Harold Ostrow, the meeting started with an opportunity for candidates present to have 2 minutes of remarks. There were a LOT of candidates – so many in fact that the entire first hour was taken up by their presentations. Candidates for County Judge positions, County Commission and School Board seats, Florida House and Senate, and US Congress were present, including some familiar faces to 9-12 including Joe Budd (CD19), and Karl Dickey (BCC district 4).
The pro-tax side was represented by Fire/Rescue Battalion Chief (and union official) Ron Beesley, who made the case that critical services are threatened by the pressure on ad-valorem tax revenue caused by the real estate downturn. Sales taxes he said, are payed by tourists (who use the services) and not just by homeowners. The intention is for the tax to be offset by an equivalent decrease in the ad-valorem taxes currently allocated to Fire/Rescue in the county and cities.
The anti-tax side was argued by Christina Pearce and Nat Roberts representing the business community (Nat is the incoming Chairman of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County). Their argument (careful to say they oppose the tax, not the Firefighters) focuses on the abundant negatives of the proposal, including that the tax is permanent and has no limit or caps (unlike the .5% tax for school construction which sunsets this year), has incentives for increased spending, will result in 9 months of double taxation, funds an essential service with an unpredictable source of funds, and that there is no assurance in the statute or the proposal that property taxes will, in fact, be reduced.
The State Legislature gave counties the ability to fund Fire/Rescue through the sales tax (SB1000 and HB365 which passed last year), by means of a ballot referendum. To get it on the ballot requires the approval of 7 of the 12 municipalites with independent fire districts, and approval of the County Commission which will take up the issue n meetings on 5/18 and 6/8.
A key moment in the debate occurred when Nat Roberts pointed out that Fire/Rescue spending increased over 80% in the 6 years (2004-10) that call volume only went up 19-25%, much of that to salary and benefit increases. Chief Beesley countered that with the fact that much of the increased spending was cash for capital construction of new fire stations – undertaken because “the revenue was available in the boom”. One was left to ponder the question as to what would restrain their spending when or if they were to get a “booming” source of revenue – like a sales tax during an economic recovery. Seemed pretty damning.
All in all, it was an interesting exchange attended by well over 100 members and guests, including from 9-12: Shannon Armstrong, Dennis Lipp, Doreen Baxter, Michelle Kirk, Joy Stone, Fred and Iris Scheibl. Below are some pictures from the event provided by Joy.