Despite hearing dozens of citizens’ pleas not to raise taxes, the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners on Sept. 21 voted 5-2 for an FY 2010 budget of $4,101,758,250 — an increase from this year’s $3,999,428,421 budget.

Those voting in favor of the budget were Chairman Jeff Koons and Vice Chairman Burt Aaronson as well as commissioners Karen Marcus, Jess Santamaria and Priscilla Taylor. Commissioners Shelley Vana and Steven Abrams opposed.

The overall 2.59 percent budget increase includes funding boosts from FY 2009 of $11.91 million for the sheriff’s department — which takes up the bulk of the budget — and $1.52 million for the judicial department. Property taxes will also increase from $3.78 to $4.34 per $1,000.

Funds for capital projects were cut by $7.35 million, while nondepartmental operations decreased by $4.64 million from FY 2009.

Before adopting the budget, the commissioners heard comments from citizens. State law requires the board to hold two public hearings before approving a budget; the commissioners’ Sept. 8 meeting was the first chance for the public to comment.

The vast majority of citizens who spoke at the Sept. 21 meeting opposed the budget, particularly the funding increase for the sheriff’s department, which has received boosts every year since 2002. Most who addressed the board identified themselves as Realtors, small-business owners, retirees and young professionals. Residents shared personal stories of their financial struggles after losing their jobs, being forced to accept lower-paying jobs or seeing their property values decline while their taxes increase. Several testified that they plan to leave Palm Beach County because they cannot afford to stay.

South Florida Tea Party Chairman Everett Wilkinson was among those who spoke.

“I don’t understand — you’re job is supposed to balance the budget and keep the tax rate at a level that will help the economy,” he told the board. “We’re at a point in our economy, in our nation but more importantly our county — whom you represent — that you have an obligation to make sure that tax is not burdensome. It’s maybe only a couple hundred dollars, but that’s … money that’s supposed to go back into the economy, not go into the government.”

He added that the commissioners “do have an option: You don’t have to pass this. We can sit down — doesn’t matter how much time it takes — and we can have a reasonable budget.”

Wilkinson offered five proposals to help trim the budget:

  • Reduce the budget to FY 2001 funding levels, and reexamine programs that have been added since then. “Let’s just cut everything that’s not mandated,” he said.
  • Find ways to recover at least part of the $123 it costs a day to house a prisoner in Palm Beach County.
  • Tap into unused staffing funds carried over each year, as discussed during the board’s June 8 meeting.
  • Compare Palm Beach County’s miscellaneous expenses, such as parks and recreation funds, to those in other counties and states to look for alternative cost-saving techniques.
  • Obtain a private sector analysis of the pension fund. “Why don’t we look at revamping that and possibly looking at making a defined contribution program?” Wilkinson asked.

“I’m not here just to protest the tax. I’m here as a taxpayer, as an American,” Wilkinson said. “This isn’t a Republican thing, a Democrat thing, a libertarian thing — this is about America, and we need to build a better future. And we can do that by having a reasonable budget and looking at a tax rate that will promote the economy and promote this county.”

Each commissioner addressed the meeting attendees before voting. Marcus said nearly all services will receive cuts next year, while Santamaria suggested increasing the sales tax to help offset the estimated $110 million FY 2011 revenue deficit.

Wilkinson warned of “serious financial difficulties” in Palm Beach County for future generations if the commissioners don’t begin to decrease government spending.

“That’s what I want you to do: Balance the budget. Do your job,” he said.