Local News

As state revenue grows, local officials hope for unfunded mandate relief

SEBRING - On Feb. 1, 2013, the Highlands County Tax Collector's Office fully took over all of the driver license duties the state previously undertook, when Tax Collector Eric Zwayer started offering them at the Sebring office along with his other branch locations.

Eventually, the state wants all the 67 local tax collectors to offer all the driver license and identification card services no later than June 30, 2015, but has not fully funded the transition.

The Highlands County Tax Collector's Office ended up with a deficit of $178,668 for running the driver license program, during the 2012-13 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2013, because of increases to the Florida Retirement System obligations.

It also incurred a shortfall of $50,057 for other DMV transactions, such as doing title work and registrations, Zwayer said.

Public officials like Zwayer know only too well the challenges of working with what is referred to as underfunded and unfunded state mandates, services Tallahassee wants local governments to provide without fully funding them or funding them at all from its own coffers.

Very often the fees these entities collect pay for the cost of getting the job done but sometimes the revenue collected is not enough.

What then happens is local entities sometimes have to dip into their own funds to pay for these required expenditures or cut expenses in other areas.

"It certainly does hamstring the county as the county has to suffer a little bit because of budget cuts made at the state level," said County Commissioner Don Elwell.

Some of these unfunded mandates took place because the recession of the last few years forced the state government to make budget cuts.

"As the economy improves and the state projects a $1 billion surplus this coming fiscal year, Elwell hopes some of this revenue will trickle locally and pay for all of the state mandates, roughly $8 million for the Board of County Commissioners, without the state imposing new mandates.

Zwayer said there are bills in the Florida Legislature, which if passed, would redirect some of the money that goes into the Highway Safety Trust Fund to fully fund the driver license transition.

These obligations make "us have to do things differently," Zwayer said. "Change some of the process."

At the Highlands County Clerk of Courts, the state now requires protected information such as Social Security, credit, debit and bank account numbers to be redacted.

"This mandate forced the purchase of special software that searches scanned images and blocks out the protected information from public viewing," said Jerome Kaszubowski, senior director of business services. It cost the clerk of courts $55,550; however, they had enough trust fund revenue to cover the required expenditure, Kaszubowski added.

Another was electronic filing, along with court-related reporting requirements. The cost to process reports is unknown, he said.

"However, between this requirement, ePortal management, redaction processing, and account management for the ePortal, attorney web site, and the Comprehensive Case management system, a new position was created without additional funding," he added.

The clerk of courts' court services division has a state budget appropriation that is funded from the court fees collected. The county funds the clerk's financial and administrative division through the normal budget appropriation process.

"Generally, the clerk's office has been able to manage the decreasing revenue streams from both of our major funding sources," Kaszubowski said.

At the Highlands County Elections Office, local tax dollars pay for most of the election's office's operations and obligations, said Supervisor of Elections Penny Ogg.

A few new mandates that carry both big and small costs came down the pipeline: early voting days have been added and changes to the Florida Retirement System contributions added a "huge increase," she said.

For the most part, Ogg said they make it work without big challenges. It helps when they have the time and flexibility to budget money for the new costs, although some changes come down in the middle of the year.

"We have to figure out a way to make it work," she said.

One of the legislative priorities of the Florida League of Cities, an association of the state's municipal governments, is opposing unfunded mandates at "any level of government."

The Florida League of Cities calls itself the "champion" of home rule in Florida. Florida's constitution empowers citizens with the right of local self-government, or home rule," the group states.

"Unfunded mandates are the antithesis of government transparency. Mandates conceal the connection between the taxes city residents pay and the services they receive. Unfunded mandates cause local city leaders to be held accountable for decisions made by others who live far away and who are not accountable for the fiscal impact on local taxpayers," they say.

According to the league, the Florida Constitution prohibits unfunded mandates from state government except under certain conditions. This provision, they add, was added to the Constitution in 1990 after Floridians became "fed up with being forced to pay for state programs with local tax dollars."

"Yet in spite of the clear preference of Florida's residents, unfunded mandates have continued with increasing frequency," the league adds.

Despite the revenue crunch and the obligations - funded and/or non funded - the county's five constitutional officers have returned excess money back to the county.