Property-tax talk tense between Crist, Frankel

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Thomas R. Collins
Published May 22, 2007

WEST PALM BEACH Gov. Charlie Crist made an impromptu stop at City Hall to talk to Mayor Lois Frankel about property tax reform today, putting the two sides of the tense debate on colorful display.

Crist was the guest speaker at a meeting of the Forum Club at the Kravis Center this morning. Frankel was there and asked staff members for a chance to meet with him after the event.

Crist's response: Why don't I come to your place?

When he saw Frankel's office upon arriving, he said in mock amazement, "You can see The Breakers from here."

Then for 15 minutes, the two politicians - Frankel the liberal and Crist the conservative, both of whom served together in the legislature - sat in a little meeting room and traded jabs about property taxes.

Frankel said the hit to services in the city would be drastic if the legislature slashes property taxes during a special session next month. She said police officers dedicated to combating gangs and new fire stations would have to be cut.

If those departments weren't touched, other departments might have to cut 40 percent from their budgets.

"Like your new building," Crist said, referring to a new $154 million city hall and library complex Frankel had just told him about. Frankel said that's being paid for with a bond issue and wouldn't be affected by the cuts.

"We would probably have to close every park," Frankel declared.

Crist wasn't buying that, either.

"I thought you said 40 percent, not 100 percent!" he responded.

He then asked how many dog parks were in the city. The answer was seven. Crist suggested selling the land, but City Administrator Ed Mitchell said that was unlikely because the parks were about "the size of this room."

Then Public Works Director John Alford listed cuts to his budget, including less frequent waste pick-up.

"There'll be garbage in the streets? That's a new one. I haven't heard that one yet," Crist said.

Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell, a Crist supporter who also attended, suggested the city hire the non-profit group Florida TaxWatch to help with the city's budget cuts. Crist said the group's head, Dominic Calabro, "does great work." Frankel had described the group to a fellow Democrat, Commissioner Bill Moss, as too "right wing."

Frankel might have known where the discussion with Crist was headed.

Talking to a record Forum Club crowd that gave him a standing ovation, Crist dismissed the idea that local governments would have to fire police officers and firefighters to make ends meet.

"Not one law enforcement officer will be fired and shame on the local governments who put that fear in you," said Crist. "... Who are these people who do that?"

Instead, he said local governments will have to "live within their means and, "you prioritize. This is not complicated stuff. You may have one less dog park, and that's OK."

In the end, Frankel suggested "not to do anything radical" and give local governments a menu of options to choose from in order to cut taxes. Crist said there would be options.

But Frankel might not like the options. After his visit, Crist remained more convinced than ever that local governments waste money, saying they're spending money "like drunken sailors and as Ronald Reagan said, that's an insult to the Navy."

As his entourage left City Hall, a member of his press office picked up copies of a newsletter, left outside the mayor's office, that the city had printed up on glossy, full-color paper.

She approached a city hall staffer and queried: "You don't know how much this costs, do you?"