Bud­get ques­tions need to be ad­dressed

Palm Beach Daily News - - OPINION - By SU­SAN WATTS

On Wed­nes­day night, the Town Coun­cil voted to raise prop­erty taxes by 3 per­cent in fis­cal year 2017-18 due to what Town Coun­cil mem­ber Bob­bie Lind­say called the town’s sys­temic cul­tural prob­lem spring­ing from a nearly $100 mil­lion un­der­funded li­a­bil­ity in our em­ployee pen­sion fund over the next 30 years.

She noted that the town is in a fi­nan­cial “pickle” be­cause we have a con­trac­tual obli­ga­tion to pro­tect em­ploy­ees’ re­tire­ment pay. But to do that, we must put mil­lions of dol­lars in ad­di­tional con­tri­bu­tions into the Em­ployee Re­tire­ment Fund each year in or­der to avoid that fund run­ning dry in the fu­ture.

The prob­lem, both Ms. Lind­say and Coun­cil Mem­ber Julie Araskog noted, is that the town has de­cided to finance these ad­di­tional pay­ments through tax­a­tion, not through pay cuts, hir­ing freezes or elim­i­na­tion of nonessen­tial projects.

In the past, these mea­sures were taken to bring spend­ing down and keep the bud­get un­der con­trol. Now the ad­min­is­tra­tive mind­set seems to be, do not tam­per with any­thing re­lated to our em­ploy­ees’ salaries, merit pay or cost-of-liv­ing in­creases.

And re­sist elim­i­nat­ing projects that we do not need nor can af­ford. While we value the ex­cel­lent cal­iber and work of our town em­ploy­ees — as re­cently demon­strated in the su­perb re­ac­tion and co­or­di­na­tion dur­ing Hurricane Irma — in or­der to con­tinue pro­vid­ing their re­tire­ment ben­e­fits in the fu­ture, there have to be fi­nan­cial re­straints now. We are not alone in this dilemma. Com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try are grap­pling with this sit­u­a­tion. Pen­sion plans are drain­ing cof­fers na­tion­wide as peo­ple are liv­ing longer and, as in Palm Beach, re­tir­ing ear­lier.

At the end of the evening, and af­ter much dis­cus­sion, Ms. Lind­say and Ms. Araskog were the sole votes against the $80.5 mil­lion 2017-18 bud­get, which passed; a bud­get that has risen about $4 mil­lion a year for the past five years while our pop­u­la­tion has re­mained rel­a­tively sta­ble. Their vote un­der­scores the no­tion that the pub­lic is not re­spon­si­ble for past project cost over­runs, ac­tu­ar­ial re­vi­sions and a $23 mil­lion loss in the Re­tire­ment Fund port­fo­lio sev­eral years ago. I agree.

Be­cause mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments are cre­ated and run for the cit­i­zenry, I hope next fis­cal year’s bud­get will re­flect a more care­ful look at how money is be­ing spent and where cuts can be made. How many peo­ple do we re­ally need to run our small town? How gen­er­ous can we af­ford to be with salary and raises? How much can we af­ford to spend on Wish List projects? And how do we en­sure ful­fill­ing our prior obli­ga­tions to em­ploy­ees go­ing for­ward? Once these ques­tions are suc­cess­fully an­swered, we can take the pickle off our fi­nan­cial plate.

The prob­lem is that the town has de­cided to finance these ad­di­tional

pay­ments through tax­a­tion.

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