On the Ballot: Plans mixed for sales tax money

Towns could improve drainage, roads, parks

By Stacey Singer,
Dan Moffett and Jane Smith

    When Palm Beach County voters go to the polls Nov. 8, they will be asked to consider something beyond the hard-fought presidential election. They also will be asked to consider something much closer to home: whether to increase the sales tax rate here from 6 cents to 7 cents per dollar for the next 10 years.
    Adding a temporary, local-effort penny to the sales tax would generate an estimated $2.7 billion in new revenues over the decade. That money would be targeted locally to improving school buildings; infrastructure such as roads, bridges and drainage, and amenities such as parks and fire stations, according to Todd Bonlarron, assistant county administrator.
    Palm Beach County is one of the few areas in the state not currently taking advantage of the local option penny tax, according to the Florida Department of Revenue. County commissioners and School Board members say it’s needed now to recover from many years of delayed maintenance brought on by the state’s budget cuts and property value shrinkage during the economic downturn.
    “Cities, counties, the state of Florida — we went through a recession recently that was pretty difficult. Everyone was forced to tighten their belts,” Bonlarron said. “Capital budgets were reduced pretty significantly, contributing to the ongoing issues that we are having with upkeep and maintenance.”
    The newfound tax revenue, if voters approve, would go into three buckets — Palm Beach County schools would receive half; county government would receive 30 percent, and individual municipalities would share the remaining 20 percent.
    The county has set up a website to explain the proposal at www.onecountyonepenny.org/. An interactive map on the site enables voters to zero in on specific neighborhoods to see the targeted projects.
    In the coastal communities, those projects include:
    • Improving swales and drainage along roads in Gulf Stream that are prone to flood during heavy rains.
    • Helping pay for concrete groins along the wave-battered coastline in South Palm Beach, where erosion is threatening the ground beneath some condominiums.
    • Replacement of the public safety radio system in Boynton Beach, along with the Kids Kingdom playground at the popular East Ocean Avenue park.
    • Replacing sewer and water lines along Marine Way in Delray Beach, as well as making improvements to Pompey Park, Hilltopper Stadium, the Teen Center Skate Park, the Tennis Center and Old School Square.
    • Work on the parking lot at South Inlet Park in Boca Raton.
    Cities’ share of the new tax revenue will depend on a formula based mainly on population, Bonlarron said. As a result, the county’s biggest cities will receive considerably more than small towns.
    Boca Raton could receive about $6 million a year for 10 years, Boynton Beach around $4 million, Delray Beach would receive around $3 million, Lantana would receive around $500,000, Ocean Ridge would receive about $105,000, South Palm Beach would receive about $82,000 and Briny Breezes would receive about $25,000 per fiscal year, beginning in 2017.
    Many of the maintenance and infrastructure projects must be done whether voters OK the penny tax or not, several officials said. Without the extra revenue, the projects could be delayed, or the municipalities will have to borrow money, typically financed by property taxes at greater local taxpayer expense, Bonlarron said.
    “I think when people start hearing that this is a funding source that isn’t just hitting property owners and renters, but even our visitors are going to contribute, they are like, ‘OK, I understand that. I get that,’ ” he said.
    Not all communities are enthusiastically counting their potential windfall. Skeptical that the referendum will pass, Highland Beach officials say they are not budgeting for the penny sales tax.
    Boca Raton officials said they have not discussed what they might do with the potential influx of money.
    And in South Palm Beach, Vice Mayor Joseph Flagello doubted voters would be in a mood to increase their own taxes.
    “I can almost guarantee you it’s not going to pass. We shouldn’t count on spending that extra money because it’s not going to be there,” he said.
    Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein favors the penny tax. He said having that additional source of revenue would help the city better weather fluctuations in the economy. Property values have seesawed during the boom-bust-boom cycles of recent years, he noted.
    “The sales tax will help soften the edge of negative economic cycles,” he said.
    The increase would bring the county’s sales tax rate up to the state average. Bonlarron said a citizens oversight board would  be appointed by the schools and the county to oversee spending of the sales tax money. Something similar may be assembled jointly by the cities as well, he said.
    “There will be multiple committees,” Bonlarron said, “just to make sure that we are spending the money on what we said we would spend the money on.”

    Mary Thurwachter and Rich Pollack contributed to this report.

Towns consider where to apply tax funds

The general election is Nov. 8, with early voting beginning Oct. 24. On the ballot will be a referendum asking voters to raise Palm Beach County’s sales tax by 1 cent, to 7 cents per dollar, for a 10-year term. Half the revenue raised would go to the school district. The county would receive 30 percent and cities and towns would share the remaining 20 percent, distributed according to a formula based mainly on population. Here are details on what several communities expect to do with the new revenue, if the measure passes:

Boca Raton: $6 million

    The penny sales tax would raise city revenues by about $6 million per year. The county plans to do minor line-striping work in the parking lot at South Inlet Park, but the city has not discussed what to do with its share of the money, according to city spokeswoman Chrissy Gibson. In general, the money is to be set aside for “infrastructure needs,” according to the county.

Boynton Beach: $4 million
The penny sales tax, if approved, would raise city revenues by about $4 million per year. The money could help speed up completion of many pending repairs and capital projects, Mayor Steven Grant said. That list includes replacing a citywide public safety radio system at a cost of $2.5 million; replacing the boardwalk at Mangrove Park for $1.6 million; replacing generators and switchgear at City Hall for $750,000; replacing the play area at the Kids Kingdom for $300,000; adding playground equipment at the Congress Avenue Barrier Free Park for $200,000, and improving streets for $600,000.

Briny Breezes: $25,000
The Town Council recently passed new ordinances governing golf cart use and truck traffic. The additional sales tax money could help pay for signage and new crosswalks to improve safety.

Delray Beach: More than $3 million

Mayor Cary Glickstein said the extra tax revenue would help the city improve roads, fire stations, parks and other city facilities, and generally enable it to more smoothly weather the economic ups and downs that have whipsawed property values. Pending projects that would benefit from the extra sales tax revenue include $3 million to replace sewer and water lines on flood-prone Marine Way; $1 million for repairs on Seacrest Boulevard and Northeast Eighth Street; $640,000 for upgrades at Hilltopper Park; $470,000 for improvements at Pompey Park; $425,000 for upgrades to the Tennis Center; $410,000 for upgrades to the Teen Center Skate Park, and more.

Gulf Stream: $60,000

The town has several low-lying areas where water collects on streets after rains. Money would go toward rebuilding swales and improving drainage.

Highland Beach: $250,000

Town officials have said they don’t think the referendum will pass and have not made any plans for the money

Lantana: $500,000-$600,000

Mayor Dave Stewart noted that since the money must be used for infrastructure, the town would use it for water lines and road improvements.

Manalapan: $25,000

The money  would likely help rebuild swales on Point Manalapan or help finish the Audubon Causeway bridge project.

Ocean Ridge: $107,000

Town commissioners are considering repaving all streets in the town over the next four to five years and adding traffic-calming devices, so the money would likely go there.

South Palm Beach: $82,300

While the money couldn’t be used to replace beach sand, it could be used to help pay for installation of concrete groins to help reduce beach erosion, said town attorney Brad Biggs. It also could be used to upgrade lighting along A1A.

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