Past Tea Party Bluster, Commissioners Eulogize Budget Season and Put Wailers On Notice
FlaglerLive | September 24, 2010
Local governments’ budget hearings, where the elected adopt their coming year’s budget in two legally required meetings, are usually dull and brief. Administrators robotically recite the required language. Barring the occasional surprise, when a tax rate is lowered (not this year) or money is found to pay for an extra item or two (not this year), the elected thank their administration, vote, and adjourn.
Not this year.
Budget hearings have been noisy and occasionally messy as tea party throngs have parachuted down on local governments from Bunnell to Palm Coast to the County Commission—scores of people at a time, most of them old and retired, almost all of them white and better off than the majority of working or unemployed people in the county, and almost all of them alien to government chambers they now filled, lecturing elected officials in meeting after meeting about what to do and how to do it.
Brew-haha: More Fury Than Substance
The encounters were bracing—if shallow and fleeting—displays of protest democracy in action: demands were seldom more concrete than generalized and rote complaints about high taxes, bloated government and, ironically for open forums designed to let people speak their mind, government officials deaf to citizens’ voices. It’s a matter of engagement: while the tea party movement claims to be engaged in the political process, it tends to be a one-way discussion that favors sloganeering over understanding. Government budgets are as complex and diverse as the constituents they serve. Complexity (not to mention diversity) is suspect to tea party brews.
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The result is an accommodation of necessity. Elected officials can’t afford not to listen more than politely to the tea party streams and claim, as they have on every local government board, to welcome the outpouring of criticism and scrutiny. But it hasn’t gone much further than that, mainly because the tea party’s complainers themselves projected more pretense than substance.
Few to none of the parachutists had been at the innumerable budget workshops that had preceded the hearings (except in Palm Coast, where the administration felt no more than two rapid-fire workshops were necessary). Few to none could point specifically to programs or workers who could be cut, though most claimed more should be cut. And few to none could translate the tea party’s nationally catchy phrases of victimology and complaints into language relevant to local issues, local programs, local tax rates: Palm Coast, which held its tax rate steady, drew one of the loudest outpouring of choreographed anger at its first budget hearing. Tea partiers’ feebler attempt to find holes in the school board’s budget fell even flatter once they began to understand that state-imposed constraints did more to fashion the local budget than any board could.
Tea partiers converged on the Bunnell City Commission not over any issue in the budget particularly, but over a decision by the commissioners, going back almost a year and a half, to double their pay. At the county commission’s first budget hearing, the blue and red-shirted tea partyers’ comments were more scattershot.
Second budget hearings have been quieter, much less attended by the red and the blue. Last night at the County Commission, just one person spoke from the public before the final vote on next year’s budget, which the commission approved, 4-1, with Commissioner Milissa Holland in dissent. But the quieter chamber gave commissioners a chance to reflect on their seemingly endless budget season, nine budget workshops and a dozen additional meetings in between.
The reflections weren’t without their occasional digs at the criticism they’d received, including, with surprising clarity, from Commission Chairman George Hanns, who took a direct shot at the comfortably-retired set: “The bottom line is,” Hanns said, “government today has to provide services, and there’s many of us in the community who are less fortunate than others, and they need services, and we must provide those services. So some people may be very comfortable in their retirement, and so on. There are others that are struggling and working paycheck to paycheck, if they’re so lucky to even have a paycheck. So it’s a responsibility to government to take care of the people and provide the services.”
The one person who spoke was Paul Kelly. “From my point of view, and I hope a lot of other people that are dipping their tea bags into the tea with me,” Kelly said, “look at it not as a chance to come up and get in your face, all right, because that’s not what I’m about, but I think you really need to reach out more and include us. I got a little bit of a vibe when I came in here the first time, that it was a little bit of a defensiveness. I notice that in the city and in other areas that I’ve been is, that government officials and appointees and elected officials are sort of like a little bit taken aback that the people are standing up now and making demands. We’re not making demands. We’re offering help and assistance in any way we can. I will for one, and my wife also, will be at your meetings, budget meetings, wherever we can get involved, not because we know everything. We don’t. Believe me, budgeting was always a heartache for me. But we do want to get involved. It’s our money. It’s your money. It’s our community. It’s your community, and we want to be part of it, and we don’t want to be excluded. And I don’t think we will be here. That’s the vibe I’m getting now.”
Commissioners all along have reminded the same people who’ve complained about being “excluded” that every meeting, every workshop and every budget document is open and accessible to the public, a public that rarely shows up except at the end of the process, as it did this year, to complain about being “excluded.”
Commissioner Barbara Revels made the point again. “The biggest item that surprises me is the transparency of the budget, in that if any citizen wants to find out anything about a division of the budget, it’s online, it’s in a book, and there’s somebody that will explain it to you,” Revels said. “So it’s very hard not to find out exactly what you want to know about where the money goes.”
About That Citizens’ Budget Committee
In the first budget hearing members of the public raised the notion of a citizens’ budget committee again. Such a committee was in place when Commissioner Milissa Holland chaired the commission. Commissioners were lukewarm to the idea, however, given the scant attendance at their budget workshops and the risk of doubling their staff’s workload with demands from a citizen’s committee. Commissioners Alan Peterson and Holland put tea party and other potential activists on notice that involvement is more than parachuting complaints or firing off demands.
“I think there is a way, not necessarily with a budget committee, but I think there is a way to perhaps better educate the public who wishes to become more involved,” Peterson said, “and as we talk about this as a commission in the upcoming year, hopefully we will be able to do something that, in addition to what we’ve done in the past, that will be able to answer some questions, and for the members of the public that are interested and wish to take the time and the effort to become involved in understanding the county budget and the county services, I think there is a way, and we can discuss it in more detail in the upcoming year.”
Revels turned her sum-up of the budget season into a cautionary tale about herself. “One of the reasons that I ran for public office was the outrage of my tax bill,” Revels said. “I have worked very, very hard as a small business person, and have had to make payroll for business for 30-plus years, and my only retirement was going to be what I’ve been able to gain or physically create with my hands, and I see those properties that I was going to retire with disappear under the weight of taxes and insurance—after I get them paid off. So I had this grand plan, I’m going to do something about these runaway taxes on my property, and of course what a time to hit office when the whole economy falls apart. But I was sure that I could be more effective in whittling down our budget, and have just been frustrated in the fact that, as Miss Holland has said, we can do very little in many areas and our staff and our employees and our constitutional officers have all just given and given and given, and we’re working with so few, so many less people today in providing in many cases many more services.
“So we’ve talked about a budget committee, restoring a budget committee that was instituted under Commissioner Holland’s chairmanship, and it worked fairly well, there were some savings found from that, and some members of the public have talked about doing that again. However, there’s not much left for—if it will generate understanding of the community of our budgets, then that’s wonderful, and maybe there will be a light bulb idea that will come off of a better way to fund something, and hopefully we’ll talk about doing that again and hopefully you would be involved and others that are here. I’m frustrated that I couldn’t do more, is all I wanted to say, and hope that we could keep working on it.”
Holland alone dissented from the budget. She took advantage of the chamber’s quieter mood to explain her position—and get into some of the budgeting complexities that go beyond easy attacks at one or two meetings, with little accountability thereafter.
Holland’s final comments are worth reproducing in full, as they not only sum-up the budget season from her perspective, but lay out what the commission and its critics might consider with the coming budget year: “We can all reflect [on] this budget, look at systemically how there needs to be some changes not only locally but statewide,” Holland said.
“I continue to go back to Save Our Homes”—that’s the law that limits to 3 percent how much taxable, homesteaded property valuations may increase each year; the law has created vast disparities between homesteaded and non-homesteaded properties, including commercial properties, which end up carrying a disproportionate share of the tax burden—“as an issue that’s clearly not working in the state of Florida. Many years ago, when it was created, perhaps there was some good thought behind it, but it was the unintended consequences that came out of that of what we’re seeing today, and when we’re basing a lot of our services here in Flagler County solely upon the residents to provide those services, it makes it difficult when construction and development completely ceases. It takes away our ability to continue to provide those levels of services at the same standards we’ve been providing them for years.
“So I think in the upcoming year, I’m looking forward to having a lot more conversation on how we look for ways to diversify our economy, finding ways on how we continue to work with our government partners in an effort to reduce duplication of services where there are duplications of services, and I think we all need to come together and work together in this time of extreme circumstances. We’ve all read the newspapers, we all know what’s going on with Sea Ray and other companies that continue to have layoffs. And our residents don’t have the luxury of increasing their revenue. I feel very strongly that the discussions we had in our workshops, we made it very clear—and I understand that commissioner Peterson stated that he didn’t necessarily like level funding, and I certainly respect his position—but I think coming into this budget year we all need to be on the same page, working with the constitutional officers, giving them clear direction on what our thoughts are so it’s equitable for all constitutional officers walking into this process, and we can have those discussions early on. And perhaps if they want to come in with increases and request amendments, then those discussions should happen at the beginning of the budget process and I look forward to setting it up next year. So once again I’d like to add that although I firmly believe that we really, really looked at every cent of this budget, my opposition still stands in regards to certain segments of the budget that I have mentioned previously.”