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City Should Be Weighing Pension Reform. West Palm Beach fire fee is unfair, ducks voters priorities
July 27, 2013
Palm Beach Post

Letter From:  Gary R. Nikolits
Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, July 27, 2013

Once upon a time, nearly all county and municipal officials made an honest effort to provide taxpayers with quality government services at the lowest possible costs. Today, it appears that most elected representatives still want to deliver quality services; some just don’t have as much interest in controlling the costs.

A case in point is the West Palm Beach City Commission’s move to pay for the increased cost of fire pensions through a fee. Pension plans are part of a benefit package for workers, and as such are normally funded from the general budget, not from some absurd fee. If a pension plan is underfunded, and the government can’t afford it, the plan should be reformed to make it sustainable.

Fees circumvent the process of funding local government through the fair practice of paying taxes based on the value of one’s property. They hide the true costs of local government.

Over the past two decades, voters have approved property tax breaks: Save Our Homes, doubling the homestead exemption, exemptions for low-income seniors, widows and widowers, blind persons and combat-disabled veterans. The use of fees allows local governments to negate the benefits of the Save Our Homes amendment and tax savings from homestead exemptions and other voter-approved exemptions. The people voters thought they were protecting from higher taxes are now unfairly being targeted by city commissioners to pay for an unsustainable pension plan.

Fees are regressive — taxation that costs poor people a higher percentage of their income. Apparently, West Palm Beach officials don’t like the fact that voters gave tax breaks to these special classes of taxpayers, so they’ve found a way around it. Shamelessly, the commission must feel it is easier to increase the tax burden on those who can least afford to be burdened rather than to address meaningful pension reform.

It’s time for the Legislature to outlaw the practice of local governments using fees to pad their budgets.

West Palm Beach

Editor’s note: Gary R. Nikolits is property appraiser of Palm Beach County.

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