PALM BEACH COUNTY, FL – Palm Beach County’s firefighters union dropped its push for a sales tax increase Thursday, bowing to pressure from county officials after months of jockeying over rival plans to pitch a sales tax hike to voters.
The firefighters’ withdrawal simplifies what had been a high-stakes race to the ballot. County, school district and museum leaders are debating their own sales tax campaign, and they viewed the firefighters’ plan as a threat to their bid to raise extra money for fixes to schools, roads and other projects.
The firefighters union acknowledged as much in a letter Thursday to county government leaders. The dueling proposals, union leaders said, had “contributed to unnecessary confusion, controversy and an unintended sense that firefighters are somehow obstructing efforts to improve roads, parks, schools or museums.”
Thursday’s announcement clears the way for the public schools and county government to pursue an unrivaled sales tax campaign. County commissioners are scheduled to consider the question on March 22.
The union said that it intends to resurrect its plan in the future. Its proposal involves raising the county’s 6-cent sales tax by a penny to pay for fire-rescue services, then cutting property taxes by a corresponding amount.
The union, the Professional Firefighters/Paramedics of Palm Beach County, said the proposal would not cost taxpayers any extra money, but it was nagged by uncertainty about how it would function. Florida has permitted the switch since 2009, but so far no county has attempted it.
Questions abounded about what would happen if the sales tax raised more money than fire-rescue agencies needed. Would firefighters get to hoard the extra money? Or could county commissioners direct it to other needs?
A decision to get clarification from the state Attorney General’s Office delayed any action by county commissioners, who would have had to approve placing it on the ballot.
With firefighters eyeing the August ballot, county officials had worried that their plans to ask for a separate sales tax increase in November would be doomed.
If voters had approved both sales tax requests, the county tax would have gone to 8 cents on the dollar, the highest in the state.
But Tara Cardoso, a union spokeswoman, said that the campaign had been in the works for years and was never intended to rival the push by the county, schools and local cultural organizations, who are debating asking voters for a separate 1-penny sales tax worth an estimate $2.7 billion over a decade.
“We didn’t anticipate everyone trying to do something similar at the exact same time,” Cardoso said.
Palm Beach County Mayor Mary Lou Berger said she was pleased that the union had dropped its push, saying the decision would be “good for residents.”
“They wanted to go in August, and I always had a fear that that could jeopardize our chances and put us in a difficult position,” Berger said. “Now we can really concentrate purely on the infrastructure, the roads.”
Berger said the decision wouldn’t prevent the firefighters from pursuing a sales tax increase in later years.
“It doesn’t mean that they can’t come back in the future and that they wouldn’t be supported in the future,” Berger said.
The chances of the firefighter tax passing would be better if the sales tax is not increased to 7 cents.
With money to spend on elections, the firefighters union carries political power and its support or opposition can determine the fate of candidates — and referendums. Union officials did not say in their letter if they would support the county’s tax increase, oppose it or remain on the sidelines.
They did say, that by pulling out, they hoped “a more thorough and complete discussion on the remaining proposals can be undertaken and the commission will be in a better position to act in the best interests of the community.”
Fred Scheibl of the watchdog group Palm Beach County Taxpayer Action Board said he wasn’t surprised the firefighters had dropped their push, given all the unanswered questions.
“I think the writing was on the wall,” Scheibl said. “It never got to the point of the merits of the thing.”
From The Palm Beach Post