The Flagler County Tea Party’s representatives monitor meetings and work with our county and municipalities on a myriad of issues, including annual budgets.
During this year’s budget process, the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners did not provide specific guidelines for budget preparation to the county administrator. The board knew at the outset of the budget process that a $5.4 million revenue gap existed but did not strongly challenge organizational leaders to close that gap.
As a result, only $1.5 million in expenses were eliminated. This left a remaining gap of nearly $4 million to be closed by a 12.5% increase in the county tax rate. How did this happen?
At the beginning of the budget process, County Administrator Craig Coffey asked each responsible organization head to develop budget proposals:
• The constitutional officers were requested to present “a level or below-level budget proposal” and were not asked to provide any options for deeper cuts. This set the stage for only a minimal attempt to eliminate expected revenue shortfalls at the current tax rate.
• All county departments were also requested to hold their budget requests at the same or lower funding levels. They were also asked to provide options for up to 10% cuts if they could be made with minimal impact to services.
During the initial budget workshop, Coffey requested the following:
• The board should direct him to develop a budget based on only a $500,000 to $1 million expense reduction. The board gave no specific direction, thus giving Coffey wide latitude in developing the budget.
• The board should provide approval for across-the-board employee salary increases to offset the state-mandated 3% employee retirement contribution, thereby nullifying the state’s commitment to improve its fiscal economy.
The tea party was able to influence the salary increase issue, and a majority of the board members did not support Coffey’s requested raises. As a result, taxpayers will save a total of $1.3 million through 2013.
During its review process, the tea party found that a full package of “10% reductions” did really not exist and, in some cases, these potential reduction packages were rejected, and far smaller reductions were substituted.
Seeing that the expense reductions were minimal, the tea party requested permission to explore more expense reductions with each of the department heads. Coffey denied this request.
The tea party then developed an alternative budget that reduced departmental expenditures by an additional $1.24 million. The board chair directed the county administrator to review the tea party recommendations. Coffey subsequently declined to accept any of the recommendations in the alternative budget proposal. As a result, $1.5 million in expense reductions left a remaining revenue gap of nearly $4 million to be closed by the large millage rate increase.
In summary, the tea party believes the board failed taxpayers by not setting specific target reductions and not asking the constitutional officers to work harder to help offset the $5.4 million revenue shortfall. These omissions set the stage for a great many of our county taxpayers being impacted by the resulting millage rate increase.
The tea party is pleased that it did make a significant impact on the budget. As a result, we plan to step up our effort in the next budget cycle. We have offered to expand our citizen outreach program and develop taxpayer input for the board to consider when they face the tough challenges fiscal year 2013 will bring.
In exchange, we requested earlier citizen access to the budget process in order to influence assumptions and guidelines that will shape the budget response. The board members reacted favorably to this proposal, and we hope to be able to work even more closely with the board and staff during the next budget cycle.
David MacDonald is the Flagler County Tea Party representative to meetings of the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners.