Board of County Commissioners September 26: Time for fiscal reality check

From Ginny Sherlock, renowned local attorney, civic activist, and former Associated Press editor: The Martin County Commission is sorely in need of a fiscal reality check at Tuesday’s meeting, which features a final round of budget hearings that to date have consisted of unrestrained spending.  Despite the crushing defeat of the sales tax surcharge advocated by the Commission majority – at taxpayer expense – the Commission refuses to initiate cut-backs or cost-saving measures.
  • Ask Commissioners how much of our money they spent on flyers and flacks (public relations consultants) to promote the disastrous sales tax hike referendum.  Ask Commissioners how much they are spending on travel expenses and membership dues and other perks while our roads and bridges crumble.  Ask Commissioners why we are paying the Humane Society of the Treasure Coast more than three-quarters of a million dollars a year to shelter a fraction of the number of animals sheltered in other counties which pay a fraction of the cost Martin County taxpayers pay. 
  • Tuesday’s agenda contains a disturbing item seeking approval of a proposal designed solely to avoid a Comprehensive Plan policy that protects existing neighborhoods as well as a Consent Agenda packed  with code enforcement fine reductions that constitute a $1.7 million “giveaway” to County Code scofflaws.
  • Five items on the Consent Agenda – Items 4C1 through 4C5 – seek waiver or reduction of code enforcement fines totalling $1,745,100.00, with the County to accept just $25,793.31 in satisfaction of liens against affected properties.
  • While it has been the practice of the Commission to accept payment equal to approximately 10% of accrued fines to release code enforcement liens once compliance is achieved, there are several unusually generous proposals on Tuesday’s agenda.  
  • Agenda Item 4C5 asks the Commission to wipe out $32,975.00 in code enforcement liens, advising Commissioners that the property is worth only $40,000.00 and the “current owner” offered $2,500.00 to satisfy the liens.  But public records show that the person identified as the “current owner” in the staff report sold the property for $51,000.00 several months ago and is no longer the owner of the property.  
  • Agenda Item 4C4 recommends a reduction of $162,775.00 in accrued liens.  The new owner acquired the property (worth $18,000) in a tax deed sale for just $4,400.00 free of all County liens, with $2,095.91, which is the amount of of the purchase price in excess of the delinquent taxes, to be applied to the code enforcement fines.
  • Another tax deed sale conveys title to a new owner free of $1,346,800.00 in code enforcement liens in exchange for a payment to the County of $1,000 (Consent Agenda Item C41).  Two other lien reductions reduce payments to 10% of the total code enforcement liens to allow conveyance of title to new owners free of liens for properties valued at $615,940.00 and $551,480.00.
  • It’s one thing to routinely reduce code enforcement liens to 10% of the accrued amount, especially when the value of the property is considerably less than the amount of the fines, but quite another to make taxpayers who comply with County Codes pick up the tab for those who don’t by waiving or excessively reducing fines for new owners who profit from the County’s largesse.
  • Agenda Item 8C1 is a very troubling proposal to allow a developer to build an extension to SE Kingsley Street in Hobe Sound and have the new extension declared an existing open road for the sole purpose of avoiding compliance with the tiering requirement of the County’s Comprehensive Plan.  
  • The tiering requirement protects existing neighborhoods from incompatible new development by ensuring the same density for the first “tier” of the new development (property the same depth as adjacent parcels in the existing development) as that of the adjacent existing development.  This prevents multi-story, multi-family developments from abutting single-story, single-family neighborhoods, for instance.
  • Staff has interpreted the tiering policy to be inapplicable when developments are separated by an open road. 
  • Martin County’s open road requirements are confusing at best.  A building permit cannot be issued for residential property that does not front an open road.  Property owners generally apply for an open road determination (an open road is a road which meets County standards for width, surfacing, etc., whether publicly or privately maintained) in order to obtain a building permit. 
  • In this case, the applicant, Hobe Sound Townhouse II, LLC, has not disguised the purpose of the application to declare a 560-foot extension of SE Kingsley Street (which is an open road established on the Plat of Gomez Grant) to be an open road.  The applicant wants only to avoid compliance with the tiering policy of the Comp Plan.
  • This sleight-of-hand tactic to circumvent an established Comp Plan policy may set a dangerous precedent with respect to open road requirements as well as the critically important tiering policy which is designed to protect existing residential neighborhoods. 
  • The applicant in this case proposes to construct a roadway extension as part of its development project and then have the County determine the extension to be an “existing open road” for the sole purpose of avoiding the tiering policy.  Any Commissioner who approves this deceptive proposal will be throwing residential neighborhoods under the bus on a treacherous open road.

In other items on Tuesday’s agenda:

– Consent Agenda Item 4B7 seeks permission to destroy public records.  The County Clerk wants to dispose of audio recordings of various official meetings of the County Commission, Local Planning Agency and other boards and commissions between January 1, 2001, and December 31, 2014.  It is not clear whether residents will still be able to view audio/video of the proceedings.  It is also not clear why the request to dispose of these records is being made.  Hopefully, this item will be pulled from the Consent Agenda to determine exactly what records the Clerk proposes to permanently eliminate from public access.
– A proposed new lease with Liberator for two County buildings at Witham Field appears to be reasonable, with a combined rental rate of $5.00 a square foot as established by an appraisal.  
NOTE TO COMMISSION: The proposed sales tax hike was defeated by Martin County voters.  The sales tax rate for the lease should be 6.0% not 6.5% as set out in the proposed lease.
– Item 8C3 seeks approval for the County to acquire parts of SE Hilltop Terrace and Boat Ramp Avenue by including those areas on the Maintenance Map.  It is not clear why the County wants to acquire MORE property to be maintained by taxpayers despite an existing $400 million maintenance backlog for properties and projects currently owned by the County.
– Two private attorney-client sessions are scheduled to allow Commissioners to discuss litigation involving (1) All Aboard Florida at 11:00 a.m. and (2) the Lake Point rockpit project at 1:30 p.m.
– Public updates are scheduled regarding the All Aboard Florida litigation (Item 8B3) and acquisition of parcels in the Pal-Mar area (Item 8C2).
– Requests are sought for approval of a major final site plan for Florida Superior Sand Mine (Item 6A) in Palm City and several re-zoning applications (Items 6B, 6C and 6D).
Download or view agenda items at:
Please attend the BCC meeting at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday at the Administration Center, 2401 SE Monterey Road, Stuart, or let commissioners know how you feel about these and other issues by e-mailing sheard@martin.fl.usefieldin@martin.fl.ushjenkins@martin.fl.useciampi@martin.fl.us, and dsmith@martin.fl.us, with copies to the County Administrator and the County Attorney at tkryzda@martin.fl.us and swoods@martin.fl.us.

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