Rising costs, changing scopes put Palm Beach County in pinch if penny sales tax ends early

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Palm Beach County Commissioners increased a spending plan for penny sales tax projects for roads, bridges and more due to rising costs and changing scopes.
Palm Beach County Commissioners increased a spending plan for penny sales tax projects for roads, bridges and more due to rising costs and changing scopes.

The voter-approved penny sales tax to support road, bridge and other public projects is being collected faster than Palm Beach County officials anticipated.

It’s good news for taxpayers, who could see early relief from the 10-year, $2.7 billion tax. But, as cost of materials have risen and project scopes have changed, this could spell trouble for the county’s ability to complete a list of projects promised to voters.

Should the tax run through the end of 2026, as approved by voters, the county anticipates it will receive $262 million in excess revenue, set aside in reserves, on top of the $810 million expected to be collected for county projects.

With this in mind, the county's engineering, facilities and parks departments requested another $204 million to complete certain projects on a pre-approved list that topped $719 million.

But if $2.7 billion is collected before Sept. 1, 2025, the tax would end a year early, meaning the county would lose out on millions in excess revenue, amounting to a $38.4 million shortfall, said Sherry Brown, the county’s budget director.

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“The revenues are coming in so much stronger than what I would have expected, even for the current year,” Brown told county commissioners during a November workshop on the topic. “I know we’re really close to ending it early.”

The amount raised in fiscal year 2021 was 10.6% higher than in 2019, much higher than the expected 3% year-over-year growth. The county anticipates that the sales tax to end early if collection increases just 4% year-over-year.

On Tuesday, commissioners approved a plan to increase the budgets of dozens of projects, while putting $51.9 million from excess revenue to cover part of the increase.

What are the Palm Beach County projects the tax is being used for?

Some projects, like road resurfacing, will cost more because the price of asphalt has risen, said County Engineer David Ricks. His department is asking for another $45 million for bridge modification and replacement projects, $8 million of which is for the Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard bridge over the FEC train tracks because “the scope was just off,” Ricks said.

The budgets of other projects, such as the Lake Lytal and Aqua Crest pools, are more than doubling because of unforeseen issues.

“Initially, we thought those would be renovation projects. But as the structural engineers went in and took a look, and in swimming pools in particular, when you look below the deck and behind the walls, you often find that things aren’t as they appear on the surface,” said Jennifer Cirillo, assistant parks director, explaining the need to replace the facilities.

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The news didn’t come lightly to at least one county commissioner.

“It makes me very uncomfortable that there are so many items that the budget, the forecasting was wrong,” Commissioner Maria Marino said. “Some of these numbers are just astounding.”

County Administrator Verdenia Baker explained that some of the increases were unavoidable because of permitting changes or meeting best resiliency practices, like going from septic to sewer at Juno Park, growing that project’s budget from $50,000 to $778,000.

The county will look at grants and other revenue streams to avoid dropping projects or spending other taxpayer money.

One saving grace could be the infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden in November.

“If infrastructure dollars come in, and we’re able to supplant those infrastructure dollars with the existing sales tax dollars, that is going to be my No. 1 priority,” Baker said.

Hannah Morse is a reporter covering Palm Beach County. She can be reached at hmorse@pbpost.com or 561-820-4833. Follow her on Twitter at @mannahhorse.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Palm Beach County plans to spend $204 million more on penny tax projects