The Taxpayer Lost, 4-3

In Washington DC, an ideological battle of the century is taking place between the forces of wealth redistribution ($2 Trillion in new taxes?) and conventional economics (you don’t raise taxes with 9.2% unemployment). There is little likelihood of compromise, because each is influenced by a mindset that cannot accept the others worldview.

So too in Palm Beach County there is a deep divide between those who see no problem in raising tax rates “a little bit more”, and those that think we have crossed a line with 25% increases over the last two years. On Monday, the County Commission voted 4-3 to set the maximum millage for 2012 to 4.8751, a 2.6% increase. The actual tax rate will be set in September at this rate or lower, but they could have acted now to prevent a hike.

On one side are those that are beneficiaries of other people’s money – the myriad of residents who benefit from county programs financed by property taxes, and their champions on the county commission. Raising tax rates comes natural to them.

These would include Burt Aaronson, whose constituents in district 5 “like their services”, and are always willing to “pay a little more” in taxes to keep them coming. How much tax does a $60K condo owner pay anyway? Commissioner Aaronson wanted to restore some cuts to the financially assisted agencies (FAA) that he thought were $60,000. When it was pointed out that the amount was really $600,000, it did not seem to make any difference. Easy come, easy go.

Another champion is Jess (“don’t talk about millage!”) Santamaria. Commissioner Santamaria is very worried about the county employees being ravaged by inflation that is almost 3%. On top of that, they are being asked to contribute 3% to their pensions. “That’s like paying 6% more for everything!”. Does the commissioner think that only employees of the county are affected by inflation and pay for their retirement? Someone should mention to the Commissioner that FRS reform would not be reversed by raising the millage, nor would a rollback rate give county employees a raise.

Another is Priscilla Taylor. Commissioner Taylor has more real-world experience than most of them, having run a business and been in the legislature and on the Port Commission. Normally she brings a refreshing analysis to an issue, but in this month’s discussion on tax rates, she seemingly phoned it in – acting as if raising the rates to rollback (“pennies a day”) is an obvious choice since the cuts “do not amount to anything anyway”. After all, 50% of the respondents to her “online poll” think raising tax rates is just fine with them.

Then there are the three commissioners who voted to keep the maximum millage at 4.75 and not raise our tax rates.

Steven Abrams is usually the wise voice of reason on the board, and the closest thing we have to a fiscal conservative. He voted against the tax hikes of the last two years, and has the ability to see beyond the hoards of petitioners with their outstretched hands and consider the effect on the local economy. Commissioner Abrams can usually be relied upon to do the right thing.

Paulette Burdick is a participant in her first budget season as a commissioner and has been operating in a very responsible way. She has taken the Sheriff to task over the excesses in his budget and faced down his CFO George Forman on the point that the Sheriff must do his fair share. She has gone farther than the other commissioners in raising that issue. Although members of different parties, she and Commissioner Abrams seem to agree that now is not the time to raise tax rates.

Karen Marcus, not usually seen as a tax cutter (she voted for the increases of the last two years), this time voted against the rate hike. Representing the only district that leans right (41% Republican), she may be picking up on some of the uptick in tea party interest in local issues among the north county residents. As Chairman this year, it was her direction to staff to bring in a flat millage budget in the first place.

Which brings us to the “swing vote”, Shelley Vana.

Commissioner Vana likes to have it both ways. She wants to find “efficiencies” and think outside of the box on budget choices. She doesn’t want to see a lot of cuts (in the past she has said she totally opposes layoffs or any discussion of outsourcing), but she wishes we could find a way to spend less. Then she voted for the higher rollback tax rate, suggesting that it was “just a starting point” until we can find some additional savings before the September hearings. How perfectly reasonable and wise! We will try! We will study! Maybe we can do it!

This is what is known in some circles as “thinking with your heart”. This is the behavior of a politician, not a leader. A leader who really believed that a 3% rate hike was avoidable, would set the bar at 4.75 and set out to make it come true by forcing some of those “efficiencies” she is always talking about. Instead we get dithering and pretty words.

It should be noted that Shelley Vana is the only commissioner who is currently up for re-election in 2012*. Do the voters in district 3 know what their commissioner is doing?

There are now about 8 weeks before the next budget meeting on September 13. Get involved – let your commissioner know how you feel about another tax rate increase, and plan to attend that meeting. Those who benefit from the county programs will be there in numbers. Show the commissioners there is another view in the community.

(*Note: There will also be elections in districts 1 and 5, but the incumbents are currently precluded from running by the term limits law. Since there is a likelihood that this law, passed by 70% of the voters will be challenged in court, Karen Marcus and/or Burt Aaronson could be running also.)

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