‘Scrooge, Santa Claus, and Growth Management’

Over 4000 housing units in Martin County are vacant and for sale or for rent. That doesn’t include houses that are tangled in foreclosure and can’t be sold or rented until that’s cleared up.

Here is the text of former Commissioner Hurchalla’s presentation:

A fiscally conservative government should act like Scrooge. They should not give away your money like Santa Claus or like the nice fellow with the white mustache in the monopoly game – just because you passed  “GO”.

A fiscally conservative government should have rules, and they should follow them. They should not act like Donald Trump – claiming to be a great deal maker and then going bankrupt.

Our comprehensive Plan requires fiscal conservancy. It notes that the county has fiscal limitations and that the comp plan should be used to control growth pressures and protect local taxpayers.

Specifically the Comp Plan says in sec 1.5.E: “Fiscal conservancy should be a major public value underlying the continuing development review process to assure that funding for adequate public facilities is assured orior to approval of new development and that County policies facilitate efficent and cost effective porvision of services. The County shall formulate and carry out necessary fiscal management policies and practices, including impact fees, if needed, to assure such fiscal conservancy.”

By fiscally conservative we mean being careful with money. We call that being business-like because a businessman is acutely aware that the cost of inefficiency and waste comes out of his own pocket. Unfortunately, some folks have gotten confused. They insist that being pro-business is the same thing as being businesslike.

For government, pro-business should mean:

  • a level playing field where all are treated equally
  • predictability and the rule of law
  • keeping taxes low by not wasting money

In local politics, saying you are pro-business and being businesslike are not the same thing. If private businesses did favors for friends at their own expense, signed vague and unenforceable contracts, failed to monitor performance and generally gave away the store to any business they did business with, they would go bankrupt.

The whole idea of businesslike competition is being careful with money. The same thing should apply to running government in a businesslike way. It is certainly not about supporting special business interests at the expenses of local residents.

That’s not good for other businesses.

It’s not good for taxpayers.

It’s not good for the community’s long term economic health.

Martin County is a good place to live. We came here because of that.

If Martin County was ugly and unpopular, lobbying to break our comp plan would not be such a lucrative exercise. Look at the campaign contributions and population in other parts of the state and you will find that Martin County cost per capita of running for office are higher. Developers give more money here in relation to the number of voters than they do in Miami. That’s because it pays so well here to have your own commissioner arguing that he is voting for your project because he is pro-business and it will bring jobs.

Since 2000 the MC Commission majority has claimed to be pro-business.

While cynics see it as giving away the store to those who contribute to their campaigns, they tell us proudly that:

– They create more jobs

– They get free facilities and save taxpayers money by making deals with developers

– They lower taxes for homeowners by expanding the tax base

– They take a businesslike approach to running government and don’t waste money.

–   If the county approves more developments, growth will happen and the recession will be over.

None of those things are true.

Facts are a lot of fun. They are also very useful.

Arguing theory forever gets you nowhere. Looking at what works and what doesn’t work is the only intelligent way to make decisions.

FIRST POINT: Does a booming building decade and a pro-development commission bring jobs?

No. Not according to census figures.

Martin County’s non-agricultural jobs went down from 2000 to 2010.

In 2000 there were 49,660 non-agricultural jobs in the county. In 2010 there were only 48,460 jobs.

This happened while pro-development commissioners bragged that their pro-business approach was bringing jobs to Martin County. This happened when the pro-development commissioners gave away the store –with your tax dollars.

The Business Development Board was supposed to bring jobs.

The BDB received $325,000 a year from the county from 2000 to 2009.

That’s over $3 million dollars.

The number of jobs in Martin County did not increase.

So in 2009 the pro-development majority on the County Commission rewarded them by raising the county’s contribution from $325,000 a year to $600,000 with an automatic yearly increase. It’s now $650,000 a year. They gave the BDB a 20 year contract that can’t be cancelled without 2 years notice.

The county spent tens of thousands of dollars of staff time defending the BDB in court because they were breaking the law. The BDB spent $265,000 (of your money) on lawyers fees and costs to defend their right to not tell you what they were doing with your money. The county paid $75,000 for legal costs because they let the BDB ignore the law.

The court case was filed because the BDB insisted that they should have tax payers’ money but they should not have open meetings and obey the Sunshine Law.

Accountability is a basic requirement for a fiscally conservative government. Claiming that a government board that spends taxpayers money doesn’t have to be accountable because it is run by and for business people is an invitation to inefficiency and corruption.

The BDB failed to spend money wisely or in a businesslike way. 93% of their budget was for salary and overhead. They are holding onto a $300,000 CD – supposedly to build themselves a building. BDB employees have nice jobs, butthey have not helped Martin County residents get jobs.

In dealing with the BDB, the pro-business majority on the commission failed to be businesslike:

  • They threw money at the problem without accountability
  • They did not increase jobs
  • They did not wisely manage contracts
  • They allowed laws to be broken without consequences
  • They allowed taxpayer money to be wasted

SECOND POINT: By freeing commissioners from the Sunshine Law and the strict requirements of the comprehensive plan, is it possible to get a better deal for taxpayers?

Is having clever commissioners act like Donald Trump a good deal for taxpayers?

No.

No.

No.

It’s funny how some commissioners seem to swell up when they get elected. They see themselves as power brokers and deal makers.

They lose sight of the fact that we are a nation of laws.

Commissioners are easily tempted by developers who offer bribes to the public.

“Give us our development approval and we will give you:

–        10,000 jobs

–        A major university

–        A national company whose name we can’t mention

–        3 ballfields and a swimming pool

Development requirements must be legal and fair. They must be rationally related to the costs that the development brings to the community.

But enthusiastic wheeler dealers pretend that they are Gods allowed to decide what is best on a case by case basis.

They will tell you great things about developer “donations”:

“He wants to give it to us because I’m such a tough negotiator”

“I couldn’t support the development as proposed but if he gave us a major industry or a university I would change my mind.”

“You really don’t need to worry about impacts on the county because the Regional Planning Council will attach 75 conditions to the DRI approval.”

The gleeful enthusiasm of the political deal maker shows an ignorance that is frightening. Fiscally conservative businessmen don’t make deals on promises that can’t be enforced.

The fact is that the Planning Council can’t enforce the 75 conditions on the DRI; the developer does not have to produce the new jobs or the university after he gets his comprehensive plan change; the developer is only willing to make a deal if he makes more money that way. He never makes a deal where he loses money. He’s a business man.

Yet commissioners continue to insist that they are making more money for the county by making deals. There are some very basic fallacies with that belief:

1. Promises can’t be enforced.

  • Look at the 5 DRIs approved in SW Port St. Lucie. They are all in default and the City is busily changing the conditions of their approval to extend time frames, increase intensity, and lessen responsibility for impacts.
  • Look atSt.Lucie Partners. They promised that a land donation would be made to the County 180 days after approval. It’s overdue. They get an occasional letter from the county staff, but there are no consequences of their failure to keep their commitment.

Developers with very large projects that are scheduled to take place over 20 years generally get any changes they want to their approval conditions during those twenty years. They offer the moon. The County gets sixpence.

2. When the County gives a land use change under the comprehensive plan and changes the urban boundary, it’s over. You can’t reverse the land use because promises weren’t kept. You can revoke the site plan approval, though they rarely do so. And if you revoke the site plan approval and the PUD and the DRI the land use change remains. The developer or his successor can develop the high intensity use with no special conditions as long as he meets the minimum standards of the land development code.

Extractions and exactions are illegal. You can’t force a developer who has managed to get 500 acres of commercial land use surrounded by cow pastures to do anything special or make any donations – even though that amounts to five regional malls and will have horrendous impacts. He’s got the land use. He doesn’t have to keep any promises.

Better still for the developer is the new “case by case” land use. Harmony is asking for a land use to “Harmony DRI” The text change for the comp plan is very simple There are vague goals which are not requirements. They get to have 1.89 million sq ft of industrial commercial land use, 175,000 sq ft of retail, and 4000 residential units. The only requirement is a 4 story limit. If they default on their site plan and DRI and PUD, under their new land use they can do what they damned well please.

3. Impact fees are the fairest and most legally defensible way to assure that new development pays for itself. An impact fee system requires planning for growth and planning for funding and building facilities.

If you don’t know where growth is going to happen and you don’t know what facilities are needed, you can’t have a workable impact fee system. If you keep making dramatic changes to your land use and your urban boundary then there is no way that you can plan for what facilities are needed and how you will pay for them.

I was surprised a few years back to find that some commissioners don’t understand that, when developers make a “voluntary” donation, they don’t have to pay impact fees. Even if the donation is the wrong facility in the wrong place at the wrong time, they get credit for it. Meanwhile there will be a gaping hole in the budget for impact fees for facilities that were planned for and needed.

The “let’s make a deal, case by case” strategy assures that you cannot have a long range capital plan backed by impact fees. Then you go back to the old way of handling growth:

Approve the development – express surprise at overcrowded facilities – wait until it is a crisis – pass a bond issue – raise taxes to pay for it. That’s a really expensive, inefficient way to do things and it leads to a lousy quality of life.

Our commissioners have recently come to look at impact fees as slush funds rather than tools for planning and funding facilities. A majority recently decided that they wanted to use sidewalk impact fees for economic development.

That’s not legal. A local government cannot impose impact fees unless there is a rational connection between the fee and the cost the development will bring to the community. There is no rational nexus between sidewalks and economic development. There is a consequence to treating impact fees as slush funds. If they are not carefully designed and legally implemented then those who have paid into the funds can ask for their money back

THIRD POINT: Does a pro-development commission lower your taxes?

No.

I would wager that it never does anywhere, but I can prove it didn’t inMartinCounty.

In 2000 Martin County ad valorem taxes amounted to $76.8 million dollars.

That’s $606 a person.

Then we had the biggest  building boom in history,

In 2010 ad valorem taxes were $135 million dollars or $923 a person.

That’s an increase of 52%.

________________________________

FY2000  General Fund $47,953,979 + Other AdValorem $28,925,568 = $76,879,547  – by Annual Report

      $76,879,549/126,731 = $606.36/person          

FY2010  General Fund $85,954,632 + other AdValorem  $49,109,976 = $135,064,608 – by Annual Report

      $135,064,608/146,318 = $923.09

________________________________________

FOURTH POINT: Pro-business commissioners will run government like a business. They understand the bottom line and they will watch every dollar.

They have not been watching your dollars. They have been acting like kids in a candy store.

$200,000 for a sign for a county park?

$10 million dollars for a water park that will have annual operation and maintenance costs of $900,000?

Bonding the county road tax through 2026 to pay for roads to Port St. Lucie and encourage development west of PalmCity? Have you noticed how many roads in town are patched instead of resurfaced because there isn’t any gas tax money available?

Diverting over $8 million dollars of ad valorem taxes in the last four years to encourage redevelopment in CRAs? Drive through Golden Gate and Port Salerno and see if you can figure out where it went.

$4 million dollars for an airport consultant for five years?

Letting developers commitments go uncollected? West Jensen agreed to pay the County $750,000 toward the cost ofGreen River Parkway. The County still hasn’t collected.

$300,000 to plan a mooring field over grass beds in the Indian River Aquatic Preserve? A $2 million laundry/restroom building to serve the mooring field?

I could go on and on and on.

Meanwhile some county non-profits pay $50 an hour to use a single room in a county facilities and others get exclusive use of a building for $1 a year.

While county commissioners to the south were being indicted by aggressive prosecutors and local governments were making systemic changes to prevent favoritism and corruption, the Martin majority decided to see and hear no evil.

Palm Beach County now has an auditor to monitor spending. Cities and counties to the south have adopted strict new rules to prevent conflicts of interest.

And in Martin County Commissioners voted down a requirement to identify applicants for planning approvals. They didn’t want to know if they had a conflict of interest.

LAST POINT: Can we make the recession go away by approving lots of new developments to rebuild the housing bubble?

It seems like an unlikely solution.

Because of the bubble bursting, over 4000 housing units inMartin County are vacant and for sale or for rent. That doesn’t include houses that are tangled in foreclosure and can’t be sold or rented until that’s cleared up.

On top of that we have 3500 residential units in already approved projects that aren’t building and are asking for time extensions.

And there is remaining vacant residential land inside the urban service district that allows for 5800 units.

Last year building permits were issued for 183  new residential units  in unincorporated Martin County.

If we approve 8300 more units, how is that going to help?

We have a reality check next door to us in Port St. Lucie. The City has approved 5 huge Developments of Regional impact. The PSL economy and local government finances are in lots worse shape than ours.

We have a very good comp plan in place. It says: “Fiscal conservancy should be a major public value underlying the continuing development review process to assure that funding for adequate public facilitiesis assured prior to approval of new development and that County policies facilitate efficient and cost effective provision of services. The County shall formulate and carry out necessary fiscal management policies and practices, including impact fees, if needed, to assure such fiscal conservancy.”

We need to demand that that policy be followed. We need to find commissioners who understand it and will follow it. Whether you look at things as a tree hugger or a banker you need to know that your government is being careful with your money.

Related posts:


Comments are closed.