Sales Tax Increase? Avossa and Berger Speak

Superintendent Robert Avossa of the Palm Beach County School District; all images copyright Warren Redlich, free to use by crediting West Boca News.
Superintendent Robert Avossa of the Palm Beach County School District; all images copyright Warren Redlich, free to use by crediting West Boca News.

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.
Mary Lou Berger
Mary Lou Berger

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:
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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.
Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 5.02.09 PM
Avossa’s strategic plan for the district is below:
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Panhandling, Development, and the Aronberg Shuffle

The West Boca Community Council held its regular meeting at the Boca Lago clubhouse on Tuesday evening. A larger than usual crowd of residents heard from county officials.
President Sheri Scarborough, who is also chair of the Palm Beach County Zoning Commission, updated the audience on several changes in the works.
First, construction has started on the Rooms To Go expansion on the north side of Glades Road between 441 and Lyons. We stopped by today to see it for ourselves.

We asked inside and learned that the current 26,000 square foot space will be expanded by another 20,000 square feet. The project should take about a year. It has already been quite a while. We reported on the plans back in 2013.
Also coming is a 43-home development by GL Homes south of Eagles Landing Middle School. You can see the location on the image below (courtesy of the county appraiser’s website). South County Regional Park is on the right, and the property in question is on the lower left.

An old map of the plan, dating back to 2006 or before, is below (full pdf at bottom of this article). It’s called the Collier PUD (Planned Unit Development).

Ms. Scarborough also noted that the lights are close to ready on 441 just south of Glades Road, between Sports Authority and the Westwinds Plaza (Publix and Home Depot).
After the meeting was over we asked her about the proposed 300-townhome development on the northeast corner of Clint Moore and 441. She did not have any particular news about the proposal. The first hurdle that has to be overcome is that the property is in the “agricultural reserve.” Unlike most ag-reserve properties, however, Scarborough noted that it is surrounded by non-agricultural development (The Oaks community, the Stonebridge community, and The Reserve shopping center). There’s a process they have to go through to get reclassified out of the ag-reserve but it seems likely to West Boca News that they’ll eventually get there.
County Commissioner Mary Lou Berger spoke next.

Ms. Berger spoke in depth about the panhandling issue and what the County Commission is doing about it. She was an engaging speaker, answering many questions from the audience.
First, she explained that something is in the works. The County Attorney’s office is drafting an ordinance which is expected to go before the County Commission in April. Once it’s reviewed at that meeting it should go before the Commission again in May and if all goes well it will be approved then.
Ms. Berger was emphatic that the ordinance is not limited to vagrants and panhandlers. It is a general ordinance that will affect anyone who tries to solicit or engage in similar activities in the medians of intersections. This is an important distinction and it’s very good that she is talking about like this. If it’s done the wrong way it will be held unconstitutional.
The audience asked whether it will extend to the corners and sidewalks, but that was not clear. She said the County Attorney is working on that language.
Next up was State Attorney Dave Aronberg, the prosecutor for Palm Beach County.

Mr. Aronberg was the headline speaker in the council’s notice for this event, which said he would speak about panhandling. He did not talk about that much, but focused more generally on what he called “quality of life” crimes. The most common crime that his office deals with is “DUS” or Driving Under Suspension. It’s sometimes called DWLS (Driving While License Suspended) and can refer also to revoked licenses or other license problems.
While Mr. Aronberg was mostly a pleasant speaker, his responses to questions presented a stark contrast with Ms. Berger, who answered questions directly.
Aronberg’s focus on suspended drivers opened the door to questions about a prominent case that happened not long ago on 441 in front of West Boca Medical Center. A driver hit three kids and then left the scene. A few weeks later the alleged driver, Brett Knowles of Boca Isles North, posted a picture on his Facebook page of the Geico gecko bragging about saving money on car insurance by leaving the scene of an accident.

West Boca News followed this case closely. Readers notified us in September that 441 had been closed and we went to the accident scene. speaking with family members of victims, contacting the Sheriff, and also Aronberg’s office. In October we reported that charges had not been filed yet, though we made no reference to the State Attorney in that article.
We researched the driver’s history in our courts and found quite a bit. Relevant to the issue of suspended drivers, Knowles was convicted of DUS (or DWLS) at least three times before this incident. There was a fourth case in Broward but we don’t know the results of that one. Knowles has had dozens of other cases including traffic tickets and drug charges.
In December, after getting a copy of the crash report from the Sheriff, we reported that Aronberg was stalling on the case. We noticed that Knowles had been ticketed again in October of 2014 for driving while suspended – while this investigation was pending – and that Aronberg’s office dropped the charge.
Shortly after that article charges from the incident were finally brought against Knowles.
In November and December we e-mailed inquiries to Aronberg’s office for a statement on the accident case and for the records from the dropped case. His office did not respond to either request. The refusal to provide records on the dropped case is a flagrant violation of the Florida Public Records Law (sometimes called the Sunshine Law).
With that background in mind, this reporter asked Aronberg about how his office handles repeat offenders on the Driving Under Suspension law. In particular the law (Section 322.34) allows repeat offenders to be charged with higher level offenses. A second offense can be charged as a first-degree misdemeanor with up to one year in jail. A third offense can be charged as a felony with up to a 5-year prison sentence.
Mr. Aronberg’s office, along with Broward, has repeatedly let Mr. Knowles off easy on these charges.
After he didn’t answer the question the first time this reporter asked him again about his office policy on whether and when his office charges repeat offenders with the higher level offenses provided by the law. Aronberg claimed that they do but provided no specifics. Our readers may have noticed that we frequently report on the criminal history of those arrested. We never see repeat offenders charged with the higher level offenses. This is not just a Palm Beach problem. Knowles’ fourth case was in Broward and was charged at the lowest level as well.
Rather than address the issue Aronberg then decided to attack this reporter. Along with his political consultant in the back of the room they accused me of being rude to their office and engaging in politics.
As a response to that bogus claim, my e-mails to his office are below:
November 21:

Ms. Cruz and/or Mr./Ms. Harris,
I write to inquire about the State Attorney’s position on the case of Brett Knowles. PBSO advises that the case has been forwarded to the Palm Beach County State Attorney.
Please let us know the status of this case.
Warren Redlich
West Boca News

Reply from Ms. Cruz (same day):

Good afternoon.
This case pertains to an active criminal investigation and is exempt from disclosure pursuant to Florida Statute 119.07(2)(c)1.

My reply (again, same day):

I’m not asking for records. I’m asking if the SA has any statement to make on the case. My question relates both to the pending investigation as well as Mr. Knowles past history.
And by the way I don’t see how there’s an active investigation. PBSO finished their investigation. It’s in the SA’s hands now per PBSO. So who’s investigating?
No need to reply until next week.

There was no reply from Aronberg’s office.
December 3rd:

Ms. Cruz (and Mr. Edmonson?):
I just noticed that Mr. Knowles had a subsequent DWLS case in Palm Beach County: 50-2014-CT-023520-AXXX-SB, citation # A3B50ZE.
Court records show that case was resolved with a nolle prosse.
Please e-mail or fax (518-708-8752) me all records in the SA’s possession regarding this case. Also, please let me know if the SA has any statement it wishes to make regarding the decision to nolle prosse the case.
Regarding my previous inquiries you asserted that there was an active investigation. I don’t think you can make that argument with regard to a case that has been nolle prossed.
Warren Redlich

If the Sheriff’s investigation is accurate, three kids were hit by Mr. Knowles while he was driving on a suspended license. Had prosecutors held Knowles accountable according to the law, the accident wouldn’t have happened. Call me rude all you want. Aronberg’s blasé attitude toward repeat offenders makes us all unsafe. His disregard for the Public Records law is offensive for someone in the position of enforcing the law.