From Maggy Hurchalla: Brace yourselves for a rough budget year in Martin County

Maggy Hurchalla (Source: Facebook)

[ Maggy Hurchalla was a 20-year Martin County Commissioner, an active member of numerous Governor Commissions on the Everglades, water and planning, a lifelong advocate for wetlands preservation, a winner of national, state and local environmental and conservation awards regarding wetlands, land planning, water studies. She is a resident of Rocky Point.]

 

Balancing the Martin County budget this year will be a challenge because the county is still in a hole from wild spending during the housing bubble.


The Capital Improvement Plan — the county’s schedule of required projects and money to pay for those projects — is the heart of the current problem. It’s supposed to be a fiscal tool that keeps us out of the hole we are currently in.


The county has policies to keep the plan honest. Previous county commissions ignored those policies.


The Capital Improvement Plan is not a wish list. It has to balance. It needs to show real and predictable revenues that cover the cost of projects.


The list is supposed to put first things first.


First you take care of existing infrastructure. Ignoring maintenance means you get hit with financial emergencies and excessive repair and replacement costs.


A few years back the Martin County Commission issued bonds against future gas tax revenue to pay for roads for new development. That’s a 20-year commitment that has left the county roads full of potholes because there is no gas tax revenue to repair the existing system.


The initial response to the huge maintenance deficit and an unsustainable Capital Improvement Plan was to ask the public to approve a sales tax to catch up with the problem.


The public said “no.”


There were just too many people who thought you should stop digging the hole before you ask for help getting out of it.


That means adopting annual budgets that adequately deal with maintenance and are based on a realistic Capital Improvement Plan.


When you have a long wish list that a bunch of people have bought into, it’s hard to cut back. Creating a balanced plan means saying “no” to projects that are currently on the list. That creates controversy and makes people unhappy if their project is dropped from the list.


The poster child for the current controversy is the Community Redevelopment Areas.


Recently, the Commission started looking hard at the capital budget.


Members of the Neighborhood Advisory Committees have been told that CRA money is their money and the commissioners are going to steal it to make up for budget shortfalls.


The problem with that is money for CRAs is OUR money. It comes from the countywide general fund we all pay into. It is not like a special taxing district where residents pay extra to get extra services.


In the past 10 years, $25 million has been diverted from the General Fund to CRAs with little or no financial oversight. County staff is unable to supply records of where the money went and what each project cost.


Commissioner Doug Smith has urged his fellow commissioners to “get out of the way” and let CRAs continue to decide how to spend the money. Others have suggested that basic fiscal sanity demands accountability.


There have been good CRA projects.


There have also been unhappy examples of what happens when folks are given a pot of other people’s money without fiscal oversight.


Drive south on U.S. 1 to Indian St. Go east until you cross the railroad track and immediately turn right. There, $1.3 million was spent to pave a dirt road and provide sidewalks, expensive curb and gutter drainage and extensive landscaping. No businesses fronts on the road. Go look at it.


The point of all this is not to blame CRAs. They are only part of the current budget problem.


The point is that careful, prudent, conservative fiscal management requires oversight and accountability. It requires prioritizing needs for all residents, not just certain areas.


There is no easy answer. It’s going to take a lot of hard work to get the county’s fiscal house in order. It’s going to require saying “ no” to good projects because there are higher priorities.


Without those hard decisions, things will get worse instead of better.


Now is the time to patiently find the way out of fiscal chaos so we can have a financially sustainable budget plan.

 

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