Monday, September 19, 2016

The Budget Shell Game In the Twilight Zone at County Center

Did the taxpayers of Hillsborough County once again get the wool pulled over our eyes?

We posted here about Commissioner Higginbotham's transportation funding plan that passed on September 8th. It drastically reduced the amount of money going to fund our neglected roads and transportation needs over the next 10 years from what Commissioner Murman's proposal would have funded.

What occurred:
As part of Higginbotham's transportation funding plan, $35 million would go to transportation in FY2017. 

How is the county funding the new $35 million of transportation funding? 
With $14.1 million of reprioritized DEBT and only $10.6 million from new revenues.

And while the county is funding transportation with new debt, they are syphoning off $10 million of our new revenues to fund an untested $30 million impact fee buyback scheme that benefits developers.

And we've gone through ANOTHER budget cycle where the commissioners have refused to appropriate the $23 million BP oil spill settlement money that has no restrictions on its use. It should be going to our greatest funding gap and need - transportation!

And County Center thinks we're supposed to break out into a happy dance?

How did it occur?

First, Higginbotham would not have proposed $35 million go to transportation in FY2017 if he had not already discussed his plan with County Administrator Mike Merrill. The specifics for how the $35 million would be funded was not disclosed when the plan was discussed at the September 8th BOCC meeting or at the budget public hearing that same evening. 

Higginbotham's plan initially included mobility fees as a funding source. Luckily, Commissioners Beckner and Murman stopped that funding shell game by removing mobility fees from the plan before it was approved September 8. 

The funding was disclosed at the eleventh hour last FY2017 budget public hearing held on September 15th. Again, poor Governance, there was no time to react when the budget had to be approved that evening for the new fiscal year beginning October 1. 
Source of funding for $35 million of
transportation spend in FY2017
What a Surprise! 

Almost half (over 40%) of the FY2017 $35 million transportation funding is re-appropriated DEBT from the FY2016 budget.

Where did this reprioritized debt come from?

The FY2016 budget earmarked $46.5 million of debt financed projects, including $16.8 million for redevelopment projects. (Note the parks and service center debt financed projects are capital expenditures for which we asked for the operating expenses and were told by the county the operating expenses are TBD - bad budgetary practice - but a post for another day)

Always skeptical of such nebulous development projects, we attempted to get information about them from County Center.  No one at County Center nor any county commissioner could provide any details about these projects. Because there were none. This earmarked debt was for "ghost" redevelopment projects that did not exist so the county never borrowed any of the $16.8 million in FY2016. 

We don't know why county commissioners approve debt for projects they know nothing about or that do not exist. However, the already approved earmarks can be used as a holding place to fund something else.


At the September 15 budget public hearing the county disclosed they how they complied with the new transportation funding policy. The county re-appropriated $14.1 million of the $16.8 million of DEBT financing earmarked in FY2016 for those redevelopment "ghost" projects to transportation. Since only  $10.6 million of new revenues for FY2017 is going to transportation, more new debt is funding transportation than new revenues

We were told Higginbotham's plan was an enhancement to Murman's proposal?

Hmmm….Reprioritizing debt is considered an enhancement?

Again the choreography done behind the green curtain was perfectly orchestrated.

The debt maneuver was already planned because Higginbotham's proposal includes new financing as a new revenue source and the plan stated:
If the policy is adopted effective for the FY 17 budget, first year policy compliance could be maintained by requiring that $12 million of the currently appropriated Redevelopment Program be designated for transportation uses in Redevelopment Pilot Project Areas.
Actually $14.1 million, not $12 million was re-appropriated from the redevelopment ghost projects to transportation. 

But who would've known or fully understood Higginbotham's plan thrown out at the eleventh hour? The public was notified of the proposal via the agenda sent out by the county on a Friday afternoon before the long Labor Day weekend. We all know about data dumps on Friday afternoons, especially before holiday weekends - most folks are focusing on the holiday weekend. 

While the commissioners removed the $30 million of impact fee buybacks from the transportation budget, that money is still appropriated in a non-departmental bucket. 

Lo and Behold $10 million of the $30 million impact fee buybacks scheme - that benefits developers - is funded with new revenues. Only $10.6 million of new revenues in FY2017 is going to our #1 issue with the biggest funding gap - transportation - that benefits us all. Can't make this stuff up…..
Chart presented at September 15 budget public hearing
When our roads and transportation needs have been neglected for years, spending $30 million in FY2017 for impact fee buybacks is outrageous and irresponsible.

The county will fund an impact fee buyback scheme with new revenue growth at the same time the county is funding our #1 issue transportation with new debt. 

How more backwards and upside down can things get with our county budget? 

The commissioners should demand a monthly update on the status of the impact fee buyback program. If it's not successful within 6 months, start re-appropriating those funds to transportation projects. 

There has to be some enforced accountability instead of lack thereof.

The irony of all this is amazing. 

The commissioners agreed in June to appoint a citizens committee to review and vet Murman's transportation funding proposal. It was apparent they wanted another "set of eyes" looking at the plan. But the committee was never established and the effort vanished into thin air. 

Instead, Murman's proposal was only reviewed by County staff who have an entrenched bias to maintain status quo and maintain their control over the entire budget. At the August 10th transportation workshop, Staff presented faulty revenue numbers low-balling the 10 year revenue stream estimates and half truths ridiculously predicting doom and gloom about Murman's plan. It was all very theatrical.

Subsequently, we get thrown the curve ball of Higginbotham's plan at the eleventh hour when no one had sufficient time to fully review or vet it. 

So much for the county commissioners really wanting another "set of eyes" but the county bureaucracy looking at any transportation funding plan.

To recap, the direction the commissioners gave County staff was to pursue using new growth revenues within our existing growing budget to fund our roads and transportation need. The chart below was presented as part of the FY2017 budget planning.

That is not what we got. 

What we got is a budget shell game.

What we have is a convoluted budget mess with no limits to where growth revenues in our ballooning budget can be spent - bigger bureaucracy, new baseball stadium, pork projects, special interest handouts, more parks, etc.

We are being led right back to the bloated budget era we were in prior to the recession. 

The trust issue with County Center continues to looms large and over two-thirds of those polled in 2015 said the county must do a better job of spending money it already has. 

We have been requesting for years that the county reprioritize our ballooning budget to start appropriately funding our roads and transportation. 

But has County Center turned into the Twilight Zone?

Only in the Twilight Zone of County Center would requests for reprioritizing our budget equate to reprioritizing debt that was previously appropriated for "ghost" projects.

Only in the Twilight Zone of County Center would anyone think taxpayers should do a happy dance when the county uses more debt than growth revenues to fund transportation in FY2017.

Only in the Twilight Zone of County Center is spending $30 million of taxpayer money in FY2017 on some untested impact fee buyback scheme a higher priority than funding our roads and transportation needs that have been neglected for years.

Is it time for those operating in a different dimension in the Twilight Zone at County Center to encounter a reality check?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Transportation: Taxpayer Victory But Lots of Room In Budget To Do Better

It was a long day at County Center last Thursday. There was a regular Hillsborough County commission meeting during the day and the first county budget public hearing regarding FY2017 budget in the evening.

We want to thank Commissioner Murman for leading the effort to fund transportation within our existing budget. Without Murman championing her plan for a dedicated and committed transportation funding source using our growth revenues, we would still have no transportation funding. Murman's leadership, together with strong support from Commissioner White got us to where we are today.

Finally, the county is using our existing budget to fund our roads and transportation needs. We've been requesting they do that for years as our revenues have been going up and up and up.

While Murman's proposal got substantially changed, the end result is a victory for the taxpayers of Hillsborough County.

Let's recap what happened.

At the June 9th sales tax hike public hearing, the commissioners agreed to pursue Murman's transportation funding proposal to dedicate and commit at least a third of our new growth revenues to transportation. They had also agreed to appoint a citizens committee to review Murman's proposal and that effort somehow vanished into thin air.

We previously posted here that the commissioners discussed Murman's proposed ordinance for a TIF like concept that would provide a dedicated funding source for transportation at the August 10th Transportation Workshop. Commissioner Higginbotham led the effort at that meeting for the Board's decision to bring Murman's proposal back to the Board in the form of a Board policy rather than an Ordinance. That was already a compromise that took some teeth out of Murman's proposal because a Board policy does not have the same discipline of enforcement that an Ordinance has.

Therefore, Murman asked for the Board policy language be brought to the next BOCC meeting scheduled a week away on August 17th. The Ordinance language had already been drafted by the County Attorney's office.

It was astounding to hear County Attorney Chip Fletcher say he could not reformat the Ordinance language into a Board policy format in time to bring it back to the commissioners at their very next BOCC meeting on the 17th.

It is beyond belief that Fletcher's County Attorney's office could not reformat Ordinance language already drafted into Board policy format in a week. The size of staff at the County Attorney's office is huge. They are so big that they farm out their resources and county legal services to other organizations - a post for another day.

Therefore, Murman's transportation funding proposal as a Board policy would have to be addressed at the following BOCC meeting not scheduled until after the Labor Day Weekend on September 8, 2016. September 8th coincidentally was the same day as the first evening budget public hearing was scheduled.

Either the public hearing should have been delayed or the BOCC meeting conducted the day before on Wednesday which is its normal meeting day. Making big budget decisions hours before a budget public hearing is again poor Governance by the County, especially when it could have been handled differently.

Once we heard Fletcher make his statement forcing the delay, we knew the fix was in. Unelected bureaucrat County Administrator Mike Merrill, who has no policy making authority, clearly displayed his annoyance of Murman's proposal at the August 10th meeting. It was clear he opposed Murman's plan.

How dare the county commissioners, who are elected to make policy and provide oversight for the county budget, take control of any part of the budget away from our unelected County Mayor???

What we anticipated played out and it was perfectly orchestrated behind the green curtain.

The choreography, which probably began after the June sales tax hike public hearing, concluded with Higginbotham's plan suddenly thrown out just prior to the Labor Day weekend. The public, of course, was already focused on the long holiday weekend.

How was the public notified? The county distributed the agenda we received on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day at 1:48pm that included the following item:
1:45 PM    F-1    Consider enhancements to the transportation funding plan proposed by Commissioner Murman to provide greater financial certainty of the availability of future
transportation funding. (Commissioner Higginbotham)

We were able to get a copy of the plan on Tuesday, after Labor Day, from Commissioner Higginbotham's office. The plan can be found by clicking on the F-1 blue hyperlink on the online agenda (if you have your browser preferences setup appropriately) or the plan can be found here.

There was barely time for anyone to digest Higginbotham's plan. Why was this change done at the eleventh hour and the same day as the first budget public hearing?

Higginbotham's proposal substantially changed Murman's proposal and we will address the changes in another post. It greatly reduces the amount of our growing existing budget that will go to transportation over the next 10 years and does not provide a dedicated funding source. It does not address limiting the size and scope of county government to continue growing and growing AGAIN as our revenues climb. This is the predicament the county put themselves in prior to the recession.

Transportation is the #1 issue in our county. The county spent over 3 years and $1.35 million of our county tax dollars telling us that. It is unfortunate that this Board once again refuses to commit a dedicated funding source from our revenue growth for transportation.

Higginbotham's plan will increase transportation spending in FY2017 by $35 million. But what are the taxpayers getting for that?

At the public hearing the same evening, we found out. $30 million of our entire FY2017 transportation spending is going to developers for impact fee buyback credits NOT transportation projects. On page 28 of the Recommended FY2017 budget is the Budget Overview and the very top item is the impact fee buyback.
$30 million of FY2017 transportation funding going
to developers NOT transportation projects
This is outrageous. Who can defend that impact fee buyback credits should be included as part of our transportation spending? Especially when the county has neglected our roads for years.

The county should not be spending our tax dollars on an impact fee credit buyback program to begin with. If there is a truly a market for impact fee credits, than let the free marketplace handle it - not our tax dollars.

Sensing there is a public backlash to this buyback program benefiting developers, the commissioners asked county staff at the August 10th Transportation Workshop to go back and find another way to fund these buyback credits.

That request vanished into thin air too.

Merrill builds a huge amount of slack into our county budget each year. He could have found the funds necessary somewhere else if this program is so important but he did not. We're left assuming that the slack slush fund must be available for other things - pork projects, subsidies and handouts when needed - instead of funding a primary responsibility of county government, our roads and transportation.

Taxpayers did get a Victory last week and we would not be where we are now without Commissioner Murman leading the way, but there is tons of room for improvements.

And the first improvement must be to remove the $30 million going to impact fee buyback credits from the FY2017 transportation budget.  That $30 million must fund much needed "real" transportation projects.

This is a no brainer if the commissioners are truly serious about funding transportation NOW.