BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Brevard County commissioners on Tuesday night approved a $1.33 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The county's budget plan and accompanying tax rate cuts will mean lower property tax bills for most homeowners with a homestead exemption, according to County Manager Frank Abbate.
But much of the discussion at Tuesday night's final budget hearing focused on one tax rate that is increasing — the rate for the Law Enforcement Municipal Service Taxing Unit, or MSTU, that goes toward the Brevard County Sheriff's Office budget.
The increase in property tax revenue generated by that tax component exceeds charter cap provision approved by Brevard County voters in 2008.
As a result, Sheriff Wayne Ivey in July sought and received County Commission approval, by a 4-1 vote, for a declaration of "critical need," enabling the MSTU tax rate to exceed the charter cap. That can be done with a "supermajority" vote of at least four of the five commissioners.
County Commissioner John Tobia voted against the declaration of critical need in July. And, on Tuesday, Tobia voted against the overall county budget and final tax rates, contending that the county should have found the money the sheriff needed by cutting other components of the budget, so the charter cap did not have to be busted.
Tobia cited several examples of county budget components that could be targeted for cuts, including the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast, community redevelopment agencies and nonprofit community-based organizations.
In his critical needs request, Ivey told county commissioners that he needs the increase to his budget to address such things as relatively low starting pay for his deputies, as well as outdated vehicles and equipment like Tasers. He also cited such things as a shortage of deputies, the cost of fighting the opioid crisis and the increased expense to help protect local schools in the wake of the Parkland shootings last year.
After the meeting, Ivey told FLORIDA TODAY in a written statement that he and other members of the Brevard County Sheriff's Office "remain unwavering in our commitment to protect our citizens and community. It is our belief that 'it takes a community to protect a community,' as we all work together to keep Brevard County a safe place to call home."
County Commission Chair Kristine Isnardi said she voted for the sheriff's budget because she believes it was a "solid" spending plan, "and not because Wayne's my friend and not because of his politics."
Other commissioners also defended the sheriff's budget.
Commissioner Rita Pritchett said the sheriff's budget is "frugal," noting that he has one of the lowest budgets per resident served of any in the sheriff's offices state.
Additionally, during Tuesday's meeting, Isnardi criticized FLORIDA TODAY for the extent of its coverage of the issue of the sheriff's critical needs budget, saying it was "pretty obscene."
"How about writing stories that are fair?" Isnardi asked, contending the stories focused on a potential lack of transparency in the sheriff's budget, which she disputes.
Tobia addressed the issue of the BCSO not providing a line-item budget to the extent that is provided by county departments overseen by the county manager and County Commission. Tobia said it is up to the County Commission to insist that the sheriff provide such detailed budget information, if that's what commissioners want.
Pritchett said she wondered why there was so much of a focus on the sheriff's budget, when there are other elected county constitutional officers whose departments are seeing bigger percentage increases in their budgets.
Viera resident Robert Burns, one of four public speakers at Tuesday night's meeting, responded that Ivey "was the only one who requested the (charter) cap be busted."
Another speaker, Barbara Gorin of Viera, said that, while she doesn't have an issue with Ivey, she wants the budget details to be more "aboveboard."
"I think the citizens need to be considered," Gorin said.
County Commission Vice Chair Bryan Lober said he has no qualms about the increase in the sheriff's budget, contenting that a top priority of county government is public safety.
He said the same charter cap provision voters approved in 2008 also provides for the mechanism of exceeding the cap with a supermajority vote of commissioners.
Pritchett said, if the County Commission rejected the sheriff's budget, the sheriff could appeal to the governor and the Florida Cabinet, under provisions of state law, and likely would win his appeal.