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COUNTY'S SPENDING CALLED OUT OF CONTROL

BY NIRVI SHAH
09/20/2003
by NIRVI SHAH on 9/20/03.

A local tax-watchdog group claims county spending is out of control, outpacing population growth and providing services that are luxuries, not government responsibilities. The county's total budget has grown 65 percent since 1997 - from $1.8 billion to the $3.1 billion budget commissioners are expected to approve Monday. Meanwhile, the county's population has grown about 21 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

"Good governments shouldn't grow more than the population because they're providing services to that population," said Boca Raton resident John Hallman, South Florida director for Citizens for a Sound Economy.

County Administrator Bob Weisman, who met with members of the group this week, agreed the population has grown more slowly than the budget, but he said the group should consider inflation. Combined with population growth, inflation would have pushed the county budget up at least 40 percent over the last six years.

The budget also grew because of voter-approved taxes, county finance chief Richard Roberts said. In the past four years, voters have approved $255 million in taxes for more parks, libraries and cultural projects and to buy environmentally sensitive land.

The citizens' group argues that more people live in cities than in the unincorporated area - 54 percent vs. 46 percent - so county taxpayers' burden should be shrinking. The percentage has been the same for six years.

However, the county pays for agencies, such as the elections office, that serve all county residents. Further, the state sets the budgets for the property appraiser and tax collector, so the county cannot control their spending.

While the commission touts no tax increase in years - and actually cut the tax rate a nickel last year - property values are climbing, increasing taxpayers' bills. That means more revenue for the county, including $41 million more to spend this year over last.

Group member John Earley, of Loxahatchee, suggests every county department cut its budget by 10 percent so tax bills would be cut by half.

"Ten percent, that's not even remotely achievable," Weisman said, pointing out that only 20 percent of the budget comes from property taxes. That kind of cut would mean chopping $25 million from the sheriff's budget, which accounts for a third of county spending.

"How are you going to do that and maintain the jails and the road patrols?" he said.

Commissioners vote on the budget at 7 p.m. Monday at the governmental center, 301 N. Olive Ave. in West Palm Beach. The Citizens for a Sound Economy said they will be there.

Staff Writer William M. Hartnett contributed to this story.

nirvi_shah@pbpost.com