Last summer, Brevard County commissioners agreed to bust their voter-approved budget-increase cap so Sheriff Wayne Ivey could get $1.7 million extra for what he said were “critical” needs like more deputies and raises.
And now, Clerk of Court Scott Ellis wants to block commissioners from absorbing that increase into the 2020 base budget when looking at other possible increases.
In his role as the county’s comptroller, Ellis on Dec. 13 filed suit asking Circuit Judge James Earp to declare whether the commission can add the sheriff’s increase into its base budget – or whether it must roll back to the 2019 proposed budget when considering the 2020 budget. “In the County Charter, it says such an increase is good for one budget only,” Ellis said recently. “It’s not something they can just add to future budgets.”
However, he pointed to a Feb. 28, 2017, email from former County Attorney Scott Knox to former County Manager Stockton Whitten.
The commission had voted the prior year to bust the Charter’s budget-increase cap.
And Knox said there was “notably, nothing in that section (of the Charter) that requires” commissioners to roll back to the pre-increase tax rate when calculating a new one.
County Attorney Eden Bentley declined to comment on the active lawsuit or predecessor Knox’s advice.
Meanwhile, neither Ivey nor any legal counsel working for him could be reached for comment from their side – such as whether the agency plans to seek a another “critical needs” increase for 2020.
The issue has its roots in 2008, when county voters approved a referendum limiting the commission from increasing the tax rate higher than 3 percent or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is lower. But voters also gave commissioners an out: They could go beyond what they now call the “charter cap” if four of the five commissioners, a “supermajority,” agrees such an increase is required for “critical needs.”
And that’s what happened July 23. The CPI was 2.44 percent. That increase would have meant a tax rate of $1.06 per $1,000 of taxable property value for the Law Enforcement Municipal Taxing Unit, the primary fund for the Sheriff’s Office.
But Ivey’s request to add $1.7 million, to make a $136.4 million budget for his agency’s taxing unit, called for a tax rate of $1.11 – a 4.7 percent increase, beyond the charter cap.
So commissioners voted 4-1 to declare Ivey’s needs as “critical.”
The lone dissenter was Commissioner John Tobia. A Palm Bay resident, Tobia’s district also includes the county’s barrier island, from Melbourne Beach south to Sebastian Inlet. Tobia voted against busting the charter cap to give Ivey what he needed. He said the other commissioners should have tightened their belts in the preceding year to have enough left for Ivey’s needs.
Judge Earp hasn’t set a hearing on Ellis’ lawsuit.
But Ellis said it needs to be before June, so it will govern county budgetmakers’ work before commissioners vote on the 2020 spending plan.
Meanwhile, Tobia is taking an alternate route if Earp rules for the County Commission. Tobia plans to have a referendum drafted for the 2020 general election that would, if approved, prevent absorbing one year’s “critical needs” increase into the next year’s base budget.