Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read August 2021 — Verdenia Baker, county administrator for Palm Beach County, talked to Invest: about how Palm Beach County has persevered throughout the pandemic and where it’s focusing its efforts moving forward. “We work closely with our cities and with the development community to make sure we are leveraging our dollars in developing affordable housing,” she told Invest:.
What have been the biggest takeaways from the pandemic era?
I think one of the lessons we took away, which I like to call a silver lining, is identifying other ways to conduct business, such as Zoom calls. We did discover many gaps we were not familiar with, such as a lack of access to broadband. The county has had broadband projects underway for the last fifteen, or so years, but it has been a bit of a slow process. We are going to recommend to our board to allocate additional funding to continue working on expanding internet access to every part of our community. We also have formed a partnership with nonprofits making certain they have the tools necessary for our children who attend programs at their locations. They need to complete their homework with excellent connectivity.
We have witnessed and welcomed the emergence of more entrepreneurs. People left those “traditional” work environments, found their niche and are not coming back to “traditional” office jobs. Of course, we strongly recommend and encourage individuals who become entrepreneurs to sign up and become certified small businesses so we may work with them as a governmental partner. Our Office of Equal Business Opportunity will continue to provide training and assistance on-demand, especially since we are seeing an increase in small, minority and women-owned businesses.
How is creating a more equitable society a priority for Palm Beach County?
The Board of County Commissioners have strategic priorities to make certain Palm Beach County is equitable. For the past five years, the board has set priorities for our budget, and economic development is one of the priorities. They passed an ordinance reinstituting the small, minority, women-owned businesses ordinance, which allows us to set goals and give preference to small, certified, minority, and women-owned businesses. Housing and homelessness are also some of the board’s major goals for the county. Everyone should have a safe and affordable place to live. We work closely with our cities and with the development community to make sure we are leveraging our dollars in developing affordable housing
What is the best way to keep Palm Beach County’s growth sustainable for the long term?
We have good mechanisms in place to reach our goal to continue to have a sustainable community through our partnerships between the business community, government and education. Not only will these relationships maintain our growth, but we are also able to come together and identify future needs as we continue to recruit businesses into the county. Those businesses then continue to grow and expand.
These businesses, as they expand in Palm Beach County, will boost the employee base. We are committed to linking our local curriculums in the education system, including vocational training, so when the time comes, we have a trained, ready and willing group of people to choose from, which we grew in Palm Beach County.
How is the budget allocation for this year coming along?
Our budget process started in November 2020, in a conservative manner. We already see a shortfall in various revenue streams from the prior year, such as the sales and gas taxes. We do know these shortfalls are pandemic related; however, demand for services is growing along with our population. We also need to make sure we are keeping pace with our infrastructure renewal and replacement. Programs such as repaving streets, maintaining water lines and addressing housing needs, all of which are priorities of our board. We live within the priority goals the board has identified for the year, which are economic development, housing and homelessness, environmental protection, infrastructure, substance use, behavioral health and public safety. We must be prepared to serve our citizens in the face of any emergency.
What business sectors is Palm Beach County focusing on growing?
It is a diverse business community here. While tourism, construction and agriculture are staples in Palm Beach County, we continue to diversify our industries. Now we have bio-life science, which our school system is benefiting from since it provides internships and training for teachers and students. We want growth in the bio-life science field, as well as our health industry since they go hand in hand. In addition, we have our aerospace and engineering sectors, which we are expanding, so our kids will have jobs at home. We are also looking to expand even more in the manufacturing sector. We are continuing to grow these new and or expanded industries while still nurturing our staple industries, including the equine industry.
What would you identify as the greatest challenges-turned-opportunities?
One of our challenges, or opportunities, will be making sure a sufficient supply of affordable workforce housing is consistently available. Housing is part of the infrastructure and it’s critical. Just like we need roads, parks and beaches, we need housing in a variety of types and costs to meet the needs of the county. People started figuring out they did not have to live in New York to do business; they could do it here from paradise. It is a double-edged sword since this has also caused a rise in housing costs, which salaries have not been able to keep up with sadly
Mobility is another big opportunity because we have one of the largest counties east of the Mississippi River; our population is even larger than 10 states in the U.S. Enhancing our transit system, our rail and continuing to build better streets and better sidewalks are imperative. Various modes of transportation need to become available for our stakeholders as well.
Education is also a major component. We cannot leave any segment of our community behind. Our kids should have opportunities by providing them with internships and exposing them to careers they otherwise might not have been exposed to in a traditional education system.
What is your outlook for Palm Beach County?
I look forward to us continuing our growth in a responsible manner. This means focusing to make sure no community is left behind. I see a very bright future for all of us. I think ensuring we rise to the opportunity of providing affordable workforce housing, improved mobility and continuing to better our education systems will provide all our businesses with the opportunity to hire locally and further enhance our economy. After all, we already have paradise where we are fortunate enough to live, work and play.
For more information, visit: https://discover.pbcgov.org/