Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ellis Blames FLORIDA TODAY For School Budget Woes

VIERA, Florida -- After FLORIDA TODAY's Opinions Editor Matt Reed wrote an article titled Show us proof of school repair needs on February 18, Brevard County Clerk of Court Scott Ellis and Reed engaged in dueling comments on Facebook as to who is at fault for the Brevard County Public School District's present financial woes.

Ellis said that he had warned government officials and complained of FLORIDA TODAY's editorial stance which pushed for heavy borrowing and spending by the School Board in 2005.  Reed then defended FLORIDA TODAY against Ellis' comments.

"Scott Ellis, you're obviously passionate about the debt and making sure people know you (not Richard DiPatri) were right about foreseeing a property market crash," Reed wrote on Facebook.  "But the debt and its size is ONE contributing factor, and not necessarily the dominant one, district financial data show. Based on falling property values alone -- and I have quoted several expert appraisers saying Ford pushed them improperly low -- BPS would be making its COPS payments and eeking out some repairs without closing schools or squeezing teachers. Cutting the tax rate from 2 mills to 1.5 mills and eliminating state PECO funds for construction and repairs absolutely compounded the problem. FLORIDA TODAY didn't make any of those problems happen, much as it has become part of your personal mythology." (Emphasis Added).

"Ford did not push them too low at all, he pushed them too late," Ellis replied.  "By waiting too long to correct values local government actually had a few years of unearned windfall. Talk to those who recall their tax bills of 2006-2009 and how their assessments were far out of line with what their property would actually sell for. Which experts claim the assessments in 2010 were too low - a year when median home prices had fallen below $100,000?   If there were no COP payments, and the windfall was spent as it came in, there would be no discussion today of another sales tax.

"You seek to relieve the Florida Today of any responsibility," Ells continued.  "Quite wrong. Every step of the way the Florida Today egged on the School Board to borrow money like there was no tomorrow. I can't access your archives, but you can, look at the Today editorials, guest editorials, and articles from 2005 and 2006. No myth, just fact.  No demographic study was done and impossible financial assumptions were created to blow out a $700 million debt plan. The Florida Today called these assumptions 'conservative'. When challenged your paper never replied with an analysis but trotted out the company line from some School Board Finance employee.  Your newspaper has pushed the tax, borrow, and spend line for decades, and when the strategy blows up you rush to escape the culpability of your actions."  (Emphasis Added).

About a week later, Reed again took to his Facebook page with comments that appear to mock Ellis:

"I'm going to make a bold and unnerving prediction, for the record, right here, today: A recession is coming in a few years. Property values in today's rebounding, fast-developing areas of Florida will flatten if not deflate. I predict -- based on my unique and powerful insight -- that this recession will happen in the next seven years or so. I have extrapolated, based on exclusive data in Florida Today archives, that some people who rushed into housing-related jobs will lose them or go broke and then blame politicians, especially those in whichever party they don't like.

I boldly predict that Space Coast governments and the school district will enjoy some growth in revenue between now and then. But during this recession -- which WILL happen, I swear, and you read it here first -- local boards and commissions will have to make some budget cuts. They will hate doing that, and I predict those cuts will alarm people served by certain programs. In turn, those residents will accuse their local boards of using "scare tactics" to trick them into raising tax rates. Other people will say governments should have socked away all the increased revenue during the good times -- not built schools or fire stations for new neighborhoods or given raises to teachers and sheriff's deputies -- because the good times are always a big lie..."


So who was right?  Did FLORIDA TODAY lead Brevard County down a garden path of borrowing and spending despite warnings that the housing market was collapsing which resulted in the financial ruin of Brevard Public Schools as Ellis contends?  Or, is this just Ellis' "personal mythology" that Reed argues?  Brevard Times researched the issue.  This is what we discovered.

On August 1, 2005, FLORIDA TODAY published an editorial titled "Smart School Budget" which claimed that:

"the tentative $873 million spending plan...will have little effect on property owners' tax bills...the budget allows the district to begin its 7-year plan to construct new schools and upgrade existing ones, crucial work given the county's growth rate and the deteriorating condition of many older schools..."

Published in FLORIDA TODAY August 1, 2005

During the same time period that FLORIDA TODAY was pushing for the large school budget, the newspaper did publish articles indicating the housing market was in a downturn, including:

1) Associated Press article titled, "Prepare for a drop in Home Prices" dated August 7, 2005;
2) FLORIDA TODAY articled titled "Housing permits decline" on October 5, 2005 regarding Brevard County permits in August 2005; and
3) FLORIDA TODAY article on August 17, 2005 which quoted an economist as saying that "Another factor that should cool down the market is the growing disparity between property values and wages."

Published in FLORIDA TODAY August 7, 2005

Published in FLORIDA TODAY August 17, 2005