Their nearest neighbors’ painful lessons to the contrary, Broward County commissioners have agreed to give themselves “discretionary” funds to pay for projects in their districts. It may sound very civic-minded and public-spirited, this idea of commissioners doling out money to underwrite worthwhile projects for their constituents.
In truth, these slush funds are just another means of buying votes at county taxpayers’ expense.
The Miami-Dade and Palm Beach county commissions have been forced to relinquish their precious slush funds amid angry outcries of an incensed public. In Miami-Dade, commissioners for years gave themselves huge discretionary funds — beyond their regular office expense accounts — to curry favor with voters by paying for pet projects. But recent budget shortfalls, coupled with public anger at commissioners’ blatant use of the funds to buy voters’ support, forced commissioners to give up their slushy honey pots. Still, to show just how uncontrite they are, Miami-Dade commissioners made sure that they can still dip into an $814,000 annual office fund for district projects.
In Palm Beach County, a series of political scandals starting in 2006 prompted a grand jury to recommend that county commissioners’ slush funds be abolished. Now, Palm Beach commissioners must return any leftover office money to the county’s general revenue coffers.
That’s how it was done by Broward County commissioners, too, until the 7-1 vote this month to approve $12,000 to fund several projects in District 8 Commissioner Barbara Sharief’s Southwest Broward turf. This was a precedent, a bad one, and commissioners knew it even as they gave their approval. They tried to make amends for what they readily admitted could be the start of a very slippery slope by promising to write tough rules to govern the doling out of county tax money to cities, nonprofits and the like. Only Commissioner Lois Wexler voted against the discretionary funding, while Commissioner Dale Holness was absent. This bad decision cries out for a second look.
For now, the cities receiving slush-fund dollars must report to the county how they spend it. Thanks to the commissioners’ largesse, Miramar, Hallandale Beach and West Park must eventually give an exact accounting to the county for Ms. Sharief’s $12,000 gift. Commissioners promise other guiding rules. We’ll believe that when we see them in writing.
Meantime, the Broward commissioners have about $608,000 left in their office funds, which must cover their public office costs as well as salaries through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. These office funds pay the commissioners’ $92,097 annual salaries along with those of staffers. There are two pay periods and a few office expenses yet to pay. Still, by voting to fund district projects with whatever remains after the expenses are covered, commissioners are likely to have a tidy sum to spread around their constituencies.
Not only that, beginning on Oct. 1, each commissioner will receive $341,530 to cover the next fiscal year’s office and salary costs, adding up to a hefty chunk of county taxes. Given how much was left over in this year’s office funds, it’s a sure bet that Broward County commissioners have bought themselves easy access to taxpayers’ money to help secure their own political futures. That, after all, is the primary purpose of every elected official’s slush fund.
Before this “discretionary” spending goes any further, the Broward County Commission would be wise to reverse that 7-1 vote and apply the brakes, lest they find themselves on that very familiar slippery slope.