A Night in the Gardens

We DO mean night – as it was 11:15pm when we left the Palm Beach Gardens City Council chamber and there were items yet to be discussed on the agenda,with a hard stop at 11:30 pm.

Our call to action  covered two 2012 budget related items and one regarding the Inspector General.  Although separated on the agenda, the council decided to take up Ordinance 13, 2011 and Resolution 33, 2011 in sequence.

Ordinance 13, 2011 was a proposal to raise the Local Communications Services Tax from it’s current 1.5% on all telephone, cellphone, cable and internet services, residential and commercial, to 5.22%.  The rationale was 3-fold:

1) use this ‘new’ source of revenue in lieu of increasing the millage or taking out of reserves
2) improve the city’s bond rating from AA+ to AAA – as they have been advised a more diversified revenue stream would be advisable.
3) All the other cities do it – so Palm Beach Gardens should too!

Public comment was predominately against raising this tax;  about 7 folks – all ‘regulars’ (including Mel Grossman, Fred Scheibl and Iris Scheibl) made it clear that we weren’t impressed by the ‘all the other cities do it’ argument!  Only one spoke on behalf of the tax and he was on the Budget Advisory Committee that came up with the solution in the first place.

Vice Mayor Bert Premuroso spoke first and surprised the council by saying that he changed his mind, based on resident comment, and was now against raising the tax at all and wanted to hold millage flat and take the balance from reserves.  Council members had expected him to be for the tax and the implication was that he had originally been an advocate for it.  The other 4 were strongly for the tax increase.  After lengthy debate, the ‘compromise’ was to raise the tax to 3.5%  (a 133% increase instead of 248%), hold millage flat and take the remainder from reserves.  That was going to mean an extra $800,000 on top of the $1.2 million targetted for capital expenditures or $2 million out of $20 million+ in reserves.  The council vote was unanimous in favor of the new proposal.  NOTE: while millage rates go up and down – what they voted for was a permanent increase in your communications bills. You still have a chance to overturn this on 2nd reading!  We will have another call to action prior to the 2nd reading on August 11th.

Resolution 33, 2011: Discussion was brief since the debate had occurred on the prior item.  The resolution was passed 5:0 and the first budget hearing was scheduled for September 8th, 2011.

Ordinance 14, 2011 was to insert definitions of Waste, Fraud, Abuse, Mismanagement and Misconduct into city ordinances.  As was described in the call to action – to those involved in the development of the county Inspector General Ordinance – this was the subject of very complex and detailed and arduous debate for the 5 month life of the IG Ordinance Drafting Committee.  By now it was after 11pm and very few people remained in the room. 

Speaking strongly against the insertion of the definitions were Iris Scheibl, Fred Scheibl, Kevin Easton and Joe Doucette of the Office of the Inspector General.  Sheryl Steckler, IG, was in the audience and the Council knew it. Both Iris and Fred referenced the Palm Beach Post editorial in that morning’s paper entitled  Cities Committing a Fraud.  Andrew Marra, Editor, got the issue exactly in his editorial.  Ms. Steckler had also sent a letter to the City Council earlier in the day.  While superficially – one can say ‘what is the matter with definitions?’ – those definitions can indeed limit either the Inspector General’s ability to investigate or can hinder the need for any action by those receiving her reports.  The reaction to the comment by the Council and staff was enlightening.  The Council chose to take the ‘innocent’ stance – definitions can only improve things.  City Attorney Lohman was incensed at the public comment and the Inspector General’s letter and called her a liar.  City Manager Ferris was spitting mad at the editorial and bashed the Palm Beach Post (which others have been wont to do on occasion ;-)).  He said that he’d been managing for over 30 years and that these definitions would help him in implementing improvements and educating the employees.  Which begs the question – what did he use for the last 30 years?  The council vote 5:0 for passage on first reading.

So – did the public win or lose Tuesday evening.  I’d say – we lost.  We get the government we deserve.  Think about it and next time – ACT!

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