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Vero Beach budget workshops get off to a slow start

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of July 12, 2012)
Photo: Inside City Hall, Council members and officials struggled unsuccessfully to find cuts in next year’s $20 million budget. Outside, city workers dug a small hole.

In the first three hours of Vero Beach budget workshops, not one dime of additional concrete cuts were proposed as the city council considered $3.67 million of the city’s $20 million general fund budget.

The city council asked lots of questions and even complained a bit about staffing levels in the first few departments up for consideration, but no one got out the red pen and made progress to craft a budget that would not raise the city property tax.

“All they did was sit up there and justify what they’ve got,” said Councilwoman Tracy Carroll of the department heads.

Mayor Pilar Turner had said she would engage top staffers in an exercise in zero-based budgeting at the workshops, but that did not occur.

When would the cutting begin, if not at the five solid days of workshops set aside for that purpose?

“If we need to, we’ll have a special call meeting before the budget comes back to us,” Turner said.

Carroll said she may point out some specific areas to cut during the final session Friday before the maximum tax rate is set.

Instead of the traditional format with the council seated at the dais and staffers presenting their budgets-to-be at a table facing the council, everyone sat around a large oval table as equals. It was obvious the council members did not intend to impose their will – on behalf of the taxpayers – on the staff.

“I suggested it,” Turner said of the seating configuration. “So we would all be in the spirit of cooperation.”

Only four members of the public showed up to keep an eye on the budget proceedings.

Former Councilman Brian Heady was there, as was former Councilman Charlie Wilson.

Taxpayers’ Association board member Paul Teresi was the only person in the room who seemed to have gone through the budget with a fine-tooth comb and actually found some line items to investigate.

The water-sewer utility, he found, also has line items for “meal allowance” of a few hundred dollars here and there.  “Why would they be getting meal allowances?” Teresi said outside the chambers.

Teresi also found several departments that had a department director and then, right under the director in the organizational chart, a department manager, and right under the manager, a supervisor.

“You can just cut out this extra layer,” he said. “Why do they need a manager then a supervisor right under him?”

If the budget is approved as it stands, the tax rate will increase to offset the reduction in property values in order to bring in the same amount in property taxes as the current year.

The most telling moment of the first day of budget talks actually happened during the lunch break.

As the handful of meeting attendees exited City Hall to walk to the parking lot, four maintenance workers began digging a hole in a tiny plot of dirt right in front of City Hall. Four large men in an area so small that they were working elbow to elbow.

Heady shook his head as he walked by.

“No, they’re not overstaffed,” he said. “Four guys? They have no clue about the appearances of these things.”

When asked to defend, as a former city official and a city resident, why so much staff would be needed to dig up such a small area, Heady said, “There is no defending that.”