Palm Beach County Commissioner Maria Marino is the ‘Anti-Politician’

Maria Marino was at a golf tournament in 2014 when the Palm Beach Gardens City Council mentioned that voters were about to vote for strict term limits and wondered who would run. Marino raised her hand.

Marino did not take the typical path into politics. The 40-year small business owner, real estate broker and professional golfer got into public office by raising her hand six years ago. “The reason the Council asked who would run had to do with the ballot language. It was two three-year terms, then go away and never come back. If you were on the Council and you served six years, you’re gone, which meant the entire Council would be gone in two years.

I raised my hand and said, ‘I’ll run.'”

Marino’s thought was, “Why don’t I do something for my city of Palm Beach Gardens? I had run a children’s foundation (Jupiter Children’s Foundation) and sat on the Board of multiple charities. I was the Broker/Owner of Marino Realty Group. But once I became a County Commissioner, I gave the IG my resume and asked what I could no longer do. They tore it up, which was kind of fun because it meant I didn’t have to fundraise anymore.”

She effuses praise for her current role as District 1 County Commissioner and her staff. “I love what I’m doing, the constituent work and solving the issues we solve here. I have a tremendous staff that does an excellent job researching the information I request. Every day is different. One day, it could be helping somebody navigate the waters because they have the wrong permit to do restoration on the beach. It’s a lot of fun and most of the time, it’s not political, which is good, because, for half of the county, we are their first line of government.”

Before being elected to the County Commission, Maria served as the Mayor of Palm Beach Gardens, a municipality of 60 square miles. When she became District 1 County Commissioner, her jurisdiction increased to roughly 2,400 square miles. “It’s a much bigger jurisdiction, responsibility, and budget with 39 municipalities” she explains. “We went from a $200 million budget in the Gardens to a $6 billion budget here. Not all of that is ad valorem tax dollars. We have several enterprise funds. For example, the airport generates its own income and they pay their own bills. The same is true for the water utility department. Even though they’re included in our budget, taxpayer dollars do not pay for them. The budget is 1,300 pages: about one-thousand pages of line-item expenditures and three-hundred pages of line-item revenues. It takes a lot of time to go through it.”

The County Commission spent some 50-odd million of the budget to fill in their shortage from last year. “That was a one-time charge,” Maria says. “When we approved that in the budget, I told them, ‘I don’t want to hear that we’re short next year by $54 million. Let me know what we’re going to do to make sure that that doesn’t happen.'”

As the fiscal conservative on the County Commission, she asks budget questions daily. “When I took office, I said, ‘We have reserves in place for a reason. They’re in place for unforeseen circumstances. I took office in the middle of COVID, which was the first thing I mentioned. I did not want to see an increase in our millage rate because we didn’t know what would happen. That’s why we have reserves.”

Although the Commission did not raise the millage rate, people will feel a bit of an increase in their taxes due to the rise in home values, which can be challenging to explain. “Residents ask, ‘If you’re collecting more money, why should our taxes go up?’ Well, if we’re collecting more money, it means our expenses are going up, just like everybody else. We can’t expect staff to work for the same wage for ten years with the rise in the cost of living and other expenses. Normally, it’s offset by the increase in ad valorem taxes.” 

Currently, affordable housing is one of the most significant issues confronting certain areas in Palm Beach County. “In most municipalities, you’re not dealing with affordable housing unless you’re Riviera Beach or Lake Worth,” Maria explains. “While we have an affordable housing fund in Palm Beach Gardens, it’s not as urgent as it would be, for example, in downtown West Palm Beach, where we’re adding more people and businesses but we lack affordable housing for the support staff that every business needs. Is it the government’s responsibility to take care of that? Is it a public-private partnership? The formula hasn’t been worked out well. That’s one of the things that I have a tough time wrapping my head around. Right now, a discussion is coming forward about an affordable housing bond for $150 million.”  

In addition to affordable housing, a debate is taking place within the Commission about a $150 million bond referendum for the environment. “The Commission wants to do all these projects and buy all these properties,” Maria explains. “But a general obligation bond doesn’t cover operations and maintenance. You put the bond in place, and now you have to pay for it. Well, if you’re buying a piece of property, are there fees involved? If you’re buying land in a community, do you have to pay an assessment for the Solid Waste Authority? Whatever it is, you still have to pay fees. It can’t come out of the bond money, so it gets tacked to the general operations and maintenance budget. People don’t talk about operations and maintenance when they talk about bond issues. They’ll say, ‘A $150 million bond is only $15 a year for a $100,000 house.’ Well, it may be only $15 a year. But right now, with COVID, inflation, and the fact that it costs twice as much money to put gas in your car if you could relieve people of some tax burden, wouldn’t you want to try that?” 

As the lone voice among seven commissioners, she notes, “We got $290 million from the government. Sixty-four million has been allocated to environmental issues and another eleven million is going to a supplement to the environment. We also got money for affordable housing. None of this money has been put in place yet, so why borrow more? Some people could argue that now is the best time due to low-interest rates, giving us the ability to borrow money for a small amount. Whereas interest rates might be higher in five years. But we haven’t spent what we have now. Why add anything?”  

Once again, term limits are a hot topic, with a discussion underway about extending them. Maria recalls, “In Palm Beach Gardens when we tried to go from two three-year terms to three three-year terms, we got slaughtered. It was not a Republican versus Democrat issue, it was a ‘We got slaughtered’ issue. Voters overwhelmingly wanted to keep the terms limits we have. Yet now, several commissioners want to extend term limits from two four-year terms to three four-year terms. Moreover, several commissioners want to create another level of bureaucracy by adding an elected mayor that would be elected by the entire county. In the current system, the seven Palm Beach County Commissioners are voted in by our districts, ensuring representation from all over the county. What happens when you have a countywide mayor elected? Who do they represent? You hope they represent the whole county, but I don’t see why we need to add another layer of bureaucracy and another item to our budget. Anytime you say yes to a ballot amendment, you’re saying yes to an increase in taxes.” 

Consider that the budget is ever-evolving, especially now when an infrastructure project that might have cost $100 million last year costs about $150 million, plus or minus, this year. “Everything has gone up,” Maria says. “We can’t even get staff. With the Baby Boomers retiring, there aren’t enough people in the workforce to fill those empty slots. Palm Beach County, like any municipality, is doing more with less. We’ll hire and train people, then they’ll leave us for a job that pays not even a significant amount better, but just pays better. Or, if you put out a job posting, people will reply, but because they’re applying with you and other employers, in the two days it takes you to respond, they’ll have already accepted another job somewhere else. That’s a challenge for all of us.”

Transportation is another issue that interconnects with the others. “We want to bring big business here,” Maria says. “Kelly Smallridge from the Business Development Board does a great job with that. At the same time, you must house whoever is coming with that business, and they have to be able to get around. If there isn’t enough affordable housing and they’re working in Palm Beach County, but commuting from another county, with gas prices at an all-time high, what are we doing for transportation? What are we doing for road capacity? I now chair the Tri-Rail Board. We’re trying to get Tri-Rail to come up to the end of the county, which begets the question, ‘Who is going to pay for it?’ No matter where you go, it’s always, ‘Who’s going to pay for it?’ There could be a transportation surtax to pay for expanded rail and bus corridors.”  

Maria notes that the current infrastructure surtax is scheduled to sunset in 2026. Interestingly enough, over the last six months, local spending has doubled expectations. “We’re getting more surtax dollars because one percent was added on to our sales tax. Our sales tax was six percent, and it is now seven percent for a 10-year time frame, then there was a benchmark amount of money that you were supposed to make. And if you reach that benchmark amount before it’s supposed to sunset, it will sunset early. If spending remains the same as it is right now, we would sunset a year early. Is it going to continue like this? Who knows.”  

What is it like to serve as a Palm Beach County Commissioner when you’re a registered Republican whose goal is to bring everybody to the middle? “Most of the time, it isn’t partisan,” Marino reports. “Every once in a while, when it comes to whether we’re getting support dollars from the state or the federal government, it might get partisan, or if there’s a bill in Tallahassee that might affect us locally and the Democrats that on the dais is don’t like it, then, of course, they rag on the legislature and Ron DeSantis. My role is not to be partisan. My role is to bring everybody to the middle. And it’s funny because I am so Republican. I have been a Republican my whole life. But many people did not know. As Mayor of Palm Beach Gardens, many residents complimented the job I did. When I decided to run for County Commission, both sides of the aisle endorsed me because they knew that it wasn’t about politics for me and never has been. I’m your anti-politician. I gave everything up when I became a County Commissioner. I’m a real estate broker who is not selling real estate in this hot market. I’m not a Commissioner for the money. I just love what I do and I have surrounded myself with people who love what they do, too. That’s why our office is so easy for people to reach. Many compliment us on our accessibility. And that’s because we care.”

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Be sure to read: County Commission dumps extended-term limits, non-voting countywide mayor

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