School Superintendent Robert Avossa called for increasing the sales tax at the West Boca Community Council meeting on Tuesday. He drew one of the biggest crowds we’ve seen to one of these events. It was standing room only and we were told 120 people came out, though that number was inflated a bit by the number of school district employees present.
Avossa was introduced by West Boca school board member Frank Barbieri, who invited us to the event and spoke with us at some length.
The idea of increasing sales tax at the county level hit the news about a week ago, covered best by the Palm Beach Post a week ago and also yesterday. Avossa described it as a half-a-penny tax, but in reality the proposal being worked on is to increase the sales tax rate from 6% to 7% in Palm Beach County. If you spend $10,000 a year it’s another $100 out of your pocket, or $200 on a $20,000 car. Half of the increase would go to the school district and the other half would go to other governments in the county, but mainly to the county commission.
According to Avossa this would generate an additional $900 million in revenue over the next 10 years. He spoke generally about where the money would go, including infrastructure improvements and technology in the schools. In particular he mentioned the idea of providing a tablet device to every kid with their school materials on it so they wouldn’t have to carry around heavy backpacks. However, there is no detailed plan yet for the money. We asked him directly after the event was over and he hopes to have a plan released sometime in March.
Avossa stayed around and talked to a variety of people, including this reporter. He had a delightful moment with a boy from Eagles Landing Middle School and also chatted with several adults.
After Avossa, we heard from Mary Lou Berger, who serves as both the county commissioner for West Boca and as mayor of the county. She also spoke in favor of the sales tax increase. Her numbers were a bit different, saying it would generate roughly $750 million over 10 years rather than the $900 million Avossa said.
Asked why voters should trust that the money would be spent as they say it would, both Avossa and Berger seemed offended and insisted that there would be processes in place to ensure it. Berger said there is a detailed plan on the county website but we haven’t found it yet. There is a discussion of spending plans in the Sun-Sentinel.
Update: Thanks to a reader we can point to this page on the county website, though we don’t think it provides clear answers. We did ask Avossa, Berger and others for comments on this article but have not heard from them as of this writing.
One big contrast between the two is what happens if voters do not approve the increase. Berger said the county would just raise property tax rates instead, and that would not require voter approval. Avossa does not have the power to do that for the school district and he did not have much of an answer as to how the district would handle such a defeat.
We did not get a chance to ask Berger whether sales tax is a better way to raise revenue than property tax. Economic theory would suggest that sales tax falls harder on the poor and lower middle class than sales taxes, especially because the poor tend not to own real estate. One might think a liberal Democrat would prefer property tax but again we didn’t have a chance to discuss that with her.
The audience was very receptive to all the speakers and seemed supportive of the sales tax increase. We were told that polling data indicates the county voters would vote for an increase. It also seems like good timing. The vote would be at the same time as the presidential election in November, which usually means a strong Democratic voter turnout.
Update: The school district responded and suggested reading the following pdf, which is what Avossa presented at the meeting:
They also suggested watching the video of the school board discussion from February 3rd. It’s at this link for recorded school board meetings, labelled February 3, Special Meeting 3.
Avossa’s strategic plan for the district is below: