Tuesday’s BCC: Fool me once . . .

From Ginny Sherlock, renowned local attorney, civic activist, and former Associated Press editor: Martin County Commissioners will be asked on Tuesday to approve language for a proposed one percent sales tax surcharge that is designed to trick voters into approving more taxes for new government facilities while existing infrastructure continues to crumble.

Voters have been fooled in the past when new taxes approved for environmental and conservation measures were spent instead on politicians’ pet projects.  Wiser, more fiscally responsible Martin County voters rejected a local sales tax surcharge three years ago. 

The County Commission is now being asked to take another run at taxpayers’ pocketbooks with a proposal for a 1% increase in sales tax (deceptively described as a 1 cent increase)  to “protect the environment and safeguard Martin County’s quality of life”.

The “One Cent Infrastructure Sales Tax” referendum ballot language will be discussed at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting (Agenda Item 8A4) following a joint meeting of the Stuart City Commission, Martin County School Board, and Martin County Commission in the Blake Library auditorium starting at 9:00 a.m.

The County Commission meeting will begin in Commission Chambers following the joint meeting, which should last an hour or so. 

The joint meeting agenda includes overviews of County and City capital improvement and large-scale development projects and the School District’s five-year capital plan.  The Arts Council of Martin County will present a proposal for a $15 million project to convert the old Stuart High School Building into a Cultural Center.

The joint meeting presentations are worthy of taxpayer attention.  The Cultural Center is very enticing but lacks specific information about how it would be funded.  The Arts Council’s executive director previously suggested that proceeds from the local sales tax could be used for this purpose.

The City of Stuart wants to use much of its share of the anticipated sales tax proceeds to re-locate City Hall, at an estimated cost of $7 million.

The County wants to spend $27 million in sales tax proceeds on a storage facility and obstacle course at the Sheriff’s gun range, a purchasing warehouse for the Sheriff’s Department, a field operations center and a general services facility for the Public Works Department, and a training facility and fire stations for the Fire Rescue Department.  Another $9.4 million is  earmarked for expansion of Sailfish Splash Waterpark and $10 million for an indoor sports facility.

Are you getting the connection between the proposed sales tax expenditures and the promise “to protect the environment and safeguard Martin County’s Quality of Life”?

Speaking of promises related to the proposed sales tax increase, Commission Chair Doug Smith has repeatedly assured taxpayers that if they approve the sales tax increase, the Commission will reduce the Florida Power & Light franchise fee that was approved to fund infrastructure projects after voters rejected a previous sales tax hike.  However, nowhere in the sales tax agenda item is there any reference to reducing the FPL franchise fee.

The proposed ballot language does not contain a promise to reduce the franchise fee.  The proposed ordinance does not contain a requirement to reduce the franchise fee.  The staff summary does not address any reduction in the franchise fee.

What assurance do voters have that if they approve a sales tax increase, the FPL franchise fee will be reduced?  

What assurance do voters have that if they approve a sales tax increase, the proceeds will be used to reduce the existing backlog of infrastructure repairs and replacements rather than to build new facilities and improvements that will only add to the backlog?

NOTE TO COMMISSION:  “Trust me” is not a good answer.

The proposed ballot language is insulting to the intelligence of Martin County voters by suggesting that the $23 million raised annually by the 1% sales tax increase will be used “to protect the environment and safeguard Martin County’s quality of life.”

A Frequently Asked Questions sheet produced by staff makes it appear that sales tax proceeds would be used only to reduce the $400+ million backlog of infrastructure needs.  However, the proposed ordinance authorizes expenditure of sales tax funds for a variety of new construction and projects.  

The ordinance limits the amount that may be used for “quality of life projects” to 25% of sales tax proceeds, while the lion’s share would be used for stormwater treatment projects and septic to sewer projects, reconstructing existing roads, drainage systems and bridges included in the adopted Capital Improvement Plan, to plan and construct or reconstruct facilities for the sheriff, fire rescue and public works departments and projects that comply with Sec. 212.055(2)(d)1, Florida Statutes. 

Sec. 212.055(2)(d)1 defines “infrastructure” as any construction, reconstruction or improvement of public facilities with a life expectancy of 5 or more years, any related land acquisition, land improvement, design, engineering and other professional costs, any fire department or emergency medical service vehicle, any sheriff or police vehicle or any other vehicle and equipment to outfit the vehicle for official use, any construction, lease or maintenance of utility facilities and any expenditure for improvement of any private facility that the owner agrees to make available for use on a temporary basis as a public shelter or staging area for response equipment during an officially declared emergency.

Are you getting the connection between allowable expenditures and the promise “to protect the environment and safeguard Martin County’s Quality of Life” with proceeds from the local sales tax surcharge?

The proposed sales tax ordinance and ballot language are so broad that virtually any project the Commission majority wants to pay for can be funded, regardless of whether the expenditure protects our environment or improves our quality of life.

Why doesn’t the language limit expenditures to backlogged projects which are already approved but not funded or maintenance and repairs for existing projects?

The proposed ballot language and ordinance allow new tax dollars to be used for an indoor sports facility or a new fleet of County vehicles or improvement of certain private property, regardless of political promises to reduce backlogs or lower the FPL franchise fee.  

Speaking of broken promises, Staff will not be presenting a proposed contract with the Humane Society of the Treasure Coast in Agenda Item 8A3, despite the County Attorney’s assurance at the May 23 meeting that a new contract would be submitted by June 2 and presented to the BCC on June 6.

HSTC continues to receive $46,670.60 in taxpayer dollars each and every month with no contractual obligations.  HSTC and Martin County staff have delayed presenting a new contract for more than eight months.  Experts have advised the County that the amount taxpayers pay HSTC is far higher than amounts paid for animal care services in larger communities.  The BCC voted to require any new contract to include provisions recommended by the Domestic Animal Control Task Force, including adequate flea and tick control and heartworm prevention for all animals impounded at the Palm City Shelter and elimination of the use of heart stick – an excrutiatingly painful method of euthanasia.

Why are staff and commissioners allowing this practice to continue at taxpayer expense?

In another inexcusable exercise in foot-dragging, County staff has failed to bring forward a trap-neuter/spay-vaccinate-return to field (TNVR) ordinance despite direction from the Commission to draft a permanent, county-wide ordinance to replace a pilot program that expires June 30.  Agenda Item 6A is a proposed ordinance to extend the pilot program another six months while a new TNVR ordinance is considered by the Animal Care and Control Oversight Board, which was established last December to replace the DAC Task Force but had its first meeting just last month.  

Caring Fields Felines, Inc., a non-profit feral cat sanctuary which drafted the existing ordinance and sponsors the pilot program, drafted a new ordinance and presented it to the County Attorney on March 9 to help move a permanent ordinance forward before the pilot program expires.  (Full disclosure: I am a former president of CFF and current legal counsel to the organization.)  However, staff stumbled through the May 18 ACCOB meeting without making any serious effort to present a proposed ordinance for review, instead proposing a one-year delay (which ACCOB members rejected in favor of a six-month extension).  So long as the County continues to delay adopting a comprehensive TNVR program, hundreds of healthy cats and kittens continue to be euthanized.

In other matters on Tuesday’s agenda:

– A preliminary review of requests for grants to private organizations in the upcoming fiscal year and review of proposed revisions to the Grants and Aids Policy will be considered as Agenda Item 8A2.

– A private meeting between Commissioners and County attorneys in the Lake Point rockpit case is scheduled as Agenda Item 8B1 in advance of mediation, which is set for June 12.  Lake Point, which is owned and operated in part by George Lindemann, Jr., who served time in federal prison for having his show horse Charisma killed to collect insurance proceeds after the horse failed to perform as expected, claims that Martin County, SFWMD, and Maggy Hurchalla prevented the company from operating as profitably as expected.

  

Download or view all agenda items at:

www.martin.fl.us/agendas/

Please consider attending the joint meeting of the City-County-School District at the Blake Library at 9:00 a.m. Tuesday, followed by the BCC meeting in Commission Chambers, 2401 SE Monterey Road, Stuart, or let commissioners know how you feel about these and other issues by e-mailing sheard@martin.fl.us, efieldin@martin.fl.us, hjenkins@martin.fl.us, eciampi@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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