How things work

Today, class, we are going to learn how the Florida Legislature tries to fool state taxpayers—and usually succeeds.

We are talking about money for public schools. This election year, state legislators are bragging that they increased spending for education. Indeed, spending statewide on public schools will increase $574 million this year as the state budget rises to a record $77 billion. How about those legislators and their commitment to kids?

Problem is, local taxpayers are mostly financing those campaign ads. To understand why, you need to understand how the Legislature pays for education.

If you grew up in the Northeast or the Midwest, you and/or your children went to a public school in a town or city district. Property taxes from within Short Hills or Winnetka stayed within Short Hills and Winnetka.

In Florida, it’s much different. Counties, not towns or cities, make up school district. Since 1973, money for public schools has been determined by the Florida Education Finance Program, known to those inside the system simply as the FEFP. Only a few people really understand the FEFP, which is slightly more complex than airline pricing or the National Football League salary cap. Try dropping the term “sparsity supplement” at your next cookout.

Essentially, though, it’s like this:

To ensure that all children get roughly the same chance at a good education, the state shifts money from large, property-rich counties like Palm Beach—known as “donor counties” —to rural, property-poor counties like Glades, on the west side of Lake Okeechobee. To make that happen, the Legislature each year sets a property tax for each county called the Required Local Effort. The county school board and superintendent have no say in that tax rate. The local school board then sets a separate tax rate to finance the rest of the budget.

Soon, property owners in Palm Beach County will be getting summer tax notices, in advance of budget hearings for local governments. Most people skip right to the total amount of tax they will pay. But look closely at the section for Public Schools, and you will see two lines: “By State Law” and “By Local Board.” The “By State Law” is that Required Local Effort, and this year it will be higher than last year’s rate of 5.28. Multiply that millage rate by every $1,000 of assessed value to find out how much you pay to each agency.

Note that the “By State Law” number is more than twice that of “By Local Board.” It’s been that way for years—certainly for the last decade. It is the sneakiest part of your tax bill, because it involves the largest portion: education. Between 2007 and 2011, as property values sank, Required Local Effort went up about 16 percent in Palm Beach County. Anyone who noticed likely blamed the school board. In fact, the “By Local Board” rate barely budged.

“Politicians have a tendency of misleading the voters,” said Gary Nikolits, who has been Palm Beach County’s property appraiser since 1992. “And the taxpayers are not engaged.”

Understand that the Legislature doesn’t have to be sneaky about getting more money to education. The state budget gets billions from the sales tax, which is supposed to be the main source of money for state services. And with the economy improving, Florida had a surplus for this year. That surplus could have gone to schools.

This year, though, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature had other priorities for that extra money. The governor promised a tax cut of $500 million, and delivered it mostly in the form of lower vehicle registration fees. The Legislature had raised the fees in 2009 to help balance the budget. Cutting taxes meant taking money that could have gone toward education honestly. This being an election year, the governor and Legislature chose the dishonest way.

Poor Palm Beach  

When Nikolits says “taxpayers are not engaged,” he is correct. The same thing goes, though, for some elected officials, who really ought to know better.

A few years ago, during the recession, a member of the Palm Beach Town Council went to the county budget hearing. The council member griped, as many islanders do, that Palm Beachers pay lots of taxes to the county and school district without getting many services in return.

So the council member had some idea for how the county could cut its budget. “Why,” he asked the county commission, “do you need four airports?” In addition to Palm Beach International Airport, the county has airports in Lantana and Belle Glade and west of Palm Beach Gardens. A separate, independent authority runs Boca Raton Airport.

More indulgently than was deserved, the county administrator explained to the Palm Beacher that airline fees, not property taxes, finance the airports. Undeterred, the council member pressed on. Libraries, he said. Nobody uses them anymore. Everyone buys e-books.

More indulgently than was deserved, the administrator and the commissioners explained that traffic at the county library system  had never been higher. Those with less money needed the free Internet access. Even parents who could buy lots of e-books checked out free books for their children and brought the kids to story hour. Community groups used the meeting space.

The council member then sat down. To my knowledge, he’s never been back to a county budget hearing.

All Aboard: Pros and Cons

I have worked in South Florida media for 40 years. During that time, rarely has an idea generated more gushing praise and harsher skepticism than All Aboard Florida.

To supporters, the private train service between South Florida and Orlando is a “game-changer” that will energize downtowns in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, bring new tourists and spur the economy. To critics, All Aboard Florida is a snow job, a private company presenting a kind public face that masks corporate greed.

To get a better view, let’s look at what’s potentially good and bad about All Aboard Florida:

Good: The stations could become hubs for housing and retail development in the three cities, especially if All Aboard Florida leads to commuter rail along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. They run through downtowns, where cities like Boca Raton want more residents. Being able to avoid a commute by car could be a big selling point.

Bad: All Aboard Florida could bring not just more passenger trains—16 a day, each way, according to the company’s current plans—but many more freight trains. They don’t zip through crossings; they crawl. That would not be a downtown selling point.

Good: The passenger service could entice some Orlando visitors to add time in South Florida to their vacation. It could make this region even more inviting to South American tourists because they could add Orlando to their schedule.

Bad: All Aboard Florida sets the South Florida-Orlando ticket price so high that the market rejects the service. All that intended economic benefit never comes, and federal taxpayers have to eat the loan given to All Aboard Florida.

Good: Money is available for “quiet zones” at all crossings, making All Aboard Florida’s new service easy on the ears of those who live near the tracks. Also, that added freight traffic is diverted to the CSX tracks farther west, making it less of a problem.

Bad: The quiet zone money doesn’t come, and all the extra bridge raisings to accommodate All Aboard Florida make life miserable for residents and business owners in northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, where opposition to All Aboard Florida is strongest.

For Boca Raton and Delray Beach, the biggest potential benefit is downtown-to-downtown commuter service, which is far from certain. The biggest potential problem is more downtown freight trains. But the proposal affects different areas in different ways. And for all the talk of All Aboard Florida being a “game-changer,” sentiment at this date probably is running more against the company than for it. It doesn’t help that All Aboard Florida keeps shifting its plans, most recently talking about more stations, even as it touts fast service. Add enough stations, and you have a local, not an express. If All Aboard Florida has a good case, the company must start making it.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.