Tuesday’s BCC: Ad valorem & sales tax hikes sought

From Ginny Sherlock, renowned local attorney, civic activist, and former Associated Press editor: As Martin County Commissioners continue to approve millions of dollars in spending with no public discussion or explanation, Commissioners will be asked on Tuesday to put measures on the primary and general election ballots this year to authorize a property tax hike and a sales tax surcharge to make up for School District budget shortfalls.
Other matters to be considered by Commissioners include two items related to the incorporation of the Village of Indiantown and a report on homeless adults and children in Martin County.
Agenda Item 8C1, pre-set for 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, is a request by the Martin County School Board to place tax hike proposals before voters on the August 28 primary election ballot and the November 6 general election ballot.  The School Board wants voters to approve ballot proposals (1) to increase ad valorem property taxes by a half mill (50 cents per $1,000 of property valuation) and (2) to levy a countywide half-cent per dollar sales tax surcharge to pay for School District needs.
School Board members in Florida, unlike their counterparts in all but a handful of states, are paid annual salaries based n the size of their districts. Martin County School Board members each collect $35,216 annually while bemoaning the fact that they do not have enough money to maintain facilities or to pay “essential operating expenses” for public schools.
The Board is asking for an ad valorem property tax hike, effective July 1 this year through June 30, 2022, to pay for school safety and security, mental health programs, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, professional development for teachers and staff, and academic initiatives.  The average property owner would see an increase of about $150.00 a year in property taxes.  This issue will appear on the primary election ballot if County Commissioners agree.
The School Board also wants voters to approve a half-cent per dollar sales tax surcharge for seven years, beginning February 1, 2019, to pay for “critical capital needs” such as security upgrades and enhancements, replacement of Jensen Beach and Palm City Elementary schools and repairs or renovations of district-owned buildings.  The sales tax hike would appear on the general election ballot.
The Village of Indiantown wants the County to dissolve the Indiantown Community Redevelopment Agency.  However, the request from Mayor Susan Gibbs Thomas set out in Agenda Item 8A2 fails to acknowledge that the Indiantown CRA still owes $411,077.00 on a loan of $674,296.00 it received from the Rio, Port Salerno, Hobe Sound and Golden Gate CRAs in August of 2012.  Staff suggests that the BCC condition dissolution of the Indiantown CRA on an agreement establishing a re-payment plan, that the County defer re-payment of the loan until the Village starts receiving sufficient TIF allocations to make payments, that County taxpayers pay the outstanding debt from the General Fund, or  that the BCC deny the request to dissolve the Indiantown CRA until the loan is re-paid.
Another request related to the Village of Indiantown is Agenda Item 4B4 on the Consent Agenda to terminate the Rural Indiantown Revitalization Advisory Board which was established in 2016  to make recommendations regarding economic development and commercial revitalization plans for Indiantown pursuant to the Martin County Code, Land Development Regulations and Comprehensive Growth Management Plan.  These matters are now within the purview of the Village Council.
Also on Tuesday’s Consent Agenda is Item 4B1 seeking approval of $30 million in expenditures over the next five years for roadway improvements, stormwater management facility construction and maintenance and miscellaneous construction projects to be assigned to five contractors as determined by the Public Works Department.  The five contractors were the lowest of eight bidders, although it’s not clear why the other three contractors were shut out.  There will be no public discussion of this expenditure unless the item is pulled from the Consent Agenda by one or more commissioners.
The now-familiar list of payments made by the County during the last two weeks appears as Item 4B2 on the Consent Agenda, disclosing more than $12.3 million in taxpayer dollars handed out between April 25 and May 8, 2018, with no explanation as to where the money went aside from employee salaries and benefits.  Public disclosure of how the public’s money is being spent is apparently not a priority for commissioners.  Reviewing the County check registry posted on the website is no help, since only the payee, the amount, and the invoice number are provided for each entry, with no explanation of the purpose of millions of dollars paid by the County each week to individuals and vendors.
Agenda Item 8A3 is a presentation of the results of the most recent count of homeless persons in Martin County.  In January of 2018, the count found 209 homeless adults and 102 homeless children in the County. The annual count includes persons in emergency or transitional shelters or facilities paid for by service organizations and unsheltered persons sleeping on the street, in a car, in the woods, etc.  (Individuals staying with family or friends because of economic reasons are not included.)  Reasons given by the homeless for their situation include lack of employment or income (51%), disability (27%), substance abuse (11%) and lack of affordable housing (11%).  The 2018 count reflects a 38% decrease in the number of homeless individuals in the 2017 count.  The count is used to help the Martin County Health and Human Services Program apply for and utilize grants to help reduce homelessness.
Agenda Item 8B1 requests modification of the Dune Preservation Zone on Hutchinson Island to allow a private homeowner to expand a home which is already encroaches into side, front and centerline setbacks for structures on the barrier island.  The Commission is being asked to allow further expansion of the home on MacArthur Boulevard which has already encroached into the Dune Preservation Zone.  It is not clear what “unnecessary hardship” supports this request for an additional encroachment, which may be authorized only upon a determination that reduction of the area 50-feet landward from the mean high water line will not materially affect preservation of the dune or result in a net loss of dune. The Public Works Department has determined that although the proposed addition will further encroach into the Dune Preservation Zone, the area has already been impacted by landscaping hardscape (pavers and decorative stone).  In other words, because materials have already been placed within the Dune Preservation Zone, staff recommends that the BCC approve further intrusion.
The logic of allowing previous encroachment into the Dune Preservation Zone to support a request for additional encroachment is difficult to follow, especially as the environmentally fragile barrier island is currently under assault by a proposal to add hundreds of street lights that threaten natural habitat and community character.  County taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to replenish sand that washes away over and over again as more and more development encroaches into natural areas and as severe storms wreak havoc on beachfront property. 
On other matters on Tuesday’s BCC agenda:
– Item 6C is the second public hearing to adopt amendments to Article 3 and Article 4 of the–  Land Development Code to permit solar energy facilities to be constructed in the AG-20 zoning district and to authorize solar energy systems as accessory uses in all zoning districts.  The intent of the proposal is to create standards for solar energy facilities that can generate power for transmission off-site and to encourage installation of solar systems for specific structures.
– Item 6A requests approval for a swap of properties owned by Martin County and a private owner to facilitate re-alignment of SW Leighton Farm Avenue in connection with the widening of SW Martin Highway from SW Citrus Boulevard to SW Martin Downs Boulevard in Palm City.  Staff is recommending that the County initiate a Comprehensive Plan Amendment to change the future land use designation of property that will be affected by the road re-alignment.
– Staff has asked to continue to June 12 a proposal to reduce or eliminate fees the County now collects for responding to hazardous materials incidents, illegal or uncontrolled non-structure fires, false alarms and certain emergency services.  The proposed revisions to fire rescue and emergency services ordinances set out in Agenda Item 6B  are in dire need of re-working. 
Download or view Tuesday’s agenda items at:
Residents may attend the meeting at 9:00 a.m. Tuesday at the Administration Center, 2401 SE Monterey Road, Stuart, to express views on these or other issues or e-mail commissioners at 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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