Which is greater, a penny or $2.7 billion? If you live in Palm Beach County they’re exactly the same. Our County Commissioners and School Board Trustees have decided that raising our Sales Tax to extract $2.7 billion from our pockets is much easier if you call it a “penny” tax and not a $2.7 BILLION, 17% Sales Tax hike. Indeed, the words “Seventeen Percent” appear nowhere; not on the ballot, not on the disinformation literature and not in their “penny” presentation. In official Palm Beach County Transparency is dead. Which leads to the question: What do they have to hide?
Technically the referendum item proposes to raise our Sales Tax from six to seven percent, a 17% hike with a $2.7 billion take over ten years. The County half ($1.3 billion) is for “Infrastructure,” (again). They promise us paved roads, new park lights, mowed ballfields and an upgraded prison. For $1.3 billion? Well, it works like this. To raise our Sales Tax they have to share the proceeds with the cities, none of which asked for this 17% tax increase. The County will keep about $800 million and the cities will get around $500 million. Cities representing a majority of the county’s incorporated population agreed to take the tax money. They’re preparing their “urgent” lists as we speak. Other cities, like Boca Raton and Palm Beach Gardens, did not ask for the money, don’t want it, have no lists and have no desire to inflict higher taxes on their citizens. Too bad. They have no choice but to submit their requests and complete those less than urgent projects.
Reliable sources tell me that the County has about $400 million of reasonably “urgent” projects, like that old prison. With our Triple AAA Bond Rating and today’s low Municipal Bond rates we could fund those projects for under 2.5%; a no-brainer. For $60 million a year we could pay off the interest and principal in ten years. No Sales Tax increase. Period. Why is the $60 million an important number? Because our property values are up 8% this year and rather than lower the millage rate and leave our taxes level our Commissioners have promised to “take the whole increase” and make us pay an additional $60 million in property taxes annually forever. In other words, for that $60 million they could bond the $400 million, forget the Sales Tax hike and leave us in a better place.
If this referendum passes, what will we have ten years from now? Nothing you’ll remember, with the possible exception of the renovated jail. No Sawgrass Expressway extended into Palm Beach County. No Route 7 extended up to Northlake Boulevard. No new Intercoastal bridge. No traffic reduction. Just a lot of maintenance that you would get anyway; and, of course, new space for the new employees so we can get more tax increases in the future.
What about the other half of the 17% increase, the schools? What will their $1.3 billion be used for? This is even more complicated. Start with these facts: We have 190,000 students in our county school system. Of those, 19,000 (10%) are in Charter Schools; public schools that are community run having applied for and received a “Charter” from the School Board. Now hear this: Charter Schools are FREE! We pay zero, zilch, nada of our property taxes for these Charter School kids. In other words, we take property taxes from you for 190,000 students but spend it all on only 171,000 students, leaving nothing for the Charter School students. Who pays for them? The State. And what does this have to do with our 17% Sales Tax hike? Consider this: There are 10’s of thousands of mostly Minority Palm Beach County students who would like to escape the schools they’re in and find an appropriate Charter School that better meets their needs. Our School Board has passed legislation reducing the opportunities for a more rapid expansion of Charter Schools in our community; knowing that Charter Schools are free and regular schools cost about $15,000 per student per year. In other words, if we doubled our Charter School population (from 19,000 to 38,000, from 10% to 20%) our property taxes would go DOWN by $300 million in one year. The School Board wants the $1.3 billion to keep building and repairing the schools the students would like to leave, knowing that every student who goes from a regular school to a Charter School saves us $15,000 per year in property taxes.
The $1.3 billion in School Board projects reflects the aging of the capital stock. But in a 21st century quality school system the oldest schools would be sold off or converted to Charter Schools, leaving the State with the upgrading tab. So why, you ask, isn’t the School board doing this conversion? Because just as our County Commission has a Transparency problem our School board has a Diversity problem; six School Board members (the 7th is under indictment) but one common set of strategies. Why? They all have the same donors and our School Board is unalterably homogeneous. There is no limit to how much of our money they will spend to appease their campaign contributors. If we could get the School Board to focus on the wants and needs of their customers (students and their families) we would get: lower taxes, newer schools, more innovation, and, believe it or not, less crime (because Charter School alumni are virtually crime free). Instead the School Board wants our Minority community to pay this regressive tax which will be used to keep their kids from getting the education they want. Indeed, for Minority youths in Palm Beach County this Sales Tax increase is a financial Berlin Wall keeping them in the schools they would like to leave behind.
It’s time for a wake up call for our Transparency challenged County Commissioners and our Diversity challenged School Board Trustees. Vote NO on the $2.7 billion, 17% Sales Tax increase.
WE CAN DO BETTER.