Tuesday’s County Commission meeting: ‘Sales tax hike’s about building stuff, stupid’

At Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, language will be presented for an August referendum seeking voter approval of a 10-year local sales tax to raise money for construction projects disguised as environmental protection measures.

From Ginny Sherlock, renowned local attorney, civic activist, and former Associated Press editor: In case Martin County residents were wondering how to best protect and preserve our environment and our quality of life, proponents of a proposed local sales tax have the answer: Build more stuff.

At Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, language will be presented for an August referendum seeking voter approval of a 10-year local sales tax to raise money for construction projects disguised as environmental protection measures.

The Commission also will be asked to approve changes to the Water, Sanitary Sewer and Land Use chapters of the Comprehensive Plan without letting the public or commissioners know in advance exactly what changes are being sought.

In an apparent quest to be named one of the least transparent local governments in Florida, the Martin County Commission will consider Comprehensive Plan Amendment 17-10, which was presented to the Local Planning Agency on Thursday evening, just two business days before Tuesday’s BCC meeting. The Local Planning Agency heard public comment and engaged in thoughtful discussion for more than two hours before voting 3-1 to recommend that the amendment be tabled until public workshops can be held to explain the proposed changes.

The proposal posted on the County’s website is not the same proposal that was presented to the LPA. Staff made changes that were not – and are still not – set out in the agenda item summary of a proposal to extend water and sewer lines outside the urban services boundaries while increasing septic tank capacity in the same areas from a maximum output of 2,000 gallons-per-day to as much as 10,000 gpd.

Much of the language that staff seeks to change was adopted with extensive supporting data and analysis. Staff now provides lengthy and incomprehensible reports as purported data and analysis to support reversal of the requirements that were approved by the Florida Cabinet in 2016 despite a challenge spearheaded by the developer of the Hobe Grove project.

CPA 17-10 authorizes extension of water and sewer lines to parcels that are not clearly identified, such as “fairgrounds location” – wherever that might be. Other property that could benefit from taxpayer-financed utility line extension includes parcels in the privately owned Tuscawilla (Canopy Creek) community and in the Seven J’s subdivision. An attorney for Seven J’s told the LPA that the proposed language should include additional property that is not part of the Seven J’s Plat, although it wasn’t clear exactly where the additional property is located.

Never mind. Water and sewer lines could be extended to virtually every parcel in the County under language authorizing extension of utility lines to any parcel that has the “potential” to be a “contributor” to river pollution or habitat degradation. The decision to extend utility lines will be made by the County, the Loxahatchee River Environmental Control District and South Martin Regional Utilities without any guidelines or standards set out.

NOTE TO COMMISSIONERS: SMRU, LRECD and the County Utility Department make money from the sale of water and sewer service. There is a clear financial incentive to designate every parcel in Martin County as a potential contributor to pollution and habitat degradation to encourage extension of money-making utility lines throughout the County.

The LPA wisely recommended that CPA 17-10 be tabled for further discussion, review and public education. Staff disrespects the hard-working volunteers of the LPA by not even including a report of their recommendation in the summary for Agenda Item 6E.

Disrespect is also evident for the intelligence of Martin County voters in the proposed language for the sales tax ballot question. The language offered to explain the “Infrastructure Sales Tax” ballot question is:

“In order to protect the environment and safeguard Martin County’s quality of life, shall the one-cent sales surtax be levied for ten years to provide funding for water quality projects that reduce pollutants to our estuaries, to improve existing parks and construct parks projects, to construct facilities for sheriff, fire rescue and public works, and the construction and reconstruction of existing roads? Projects subject to annual review at a public hearing.”

The language misrepresents the tax as a “one-cent” tax rather than a “one percent” tax. The proposal does not add a mere penny to each purchase. It adds one percent of the total price to each purchase. And while proponents promised that each project funded by sales tax proceeds would be approved by the County Commission to ensure that proceeds are properly spent, the proposed ballot language calls only for “annual review” of sales tax-funded projects.

Agenda Item 7A2 encouraging voters to approve a local sales tax to protect the environment and improve our quality of life is a mini-Amendment One: Agree to pay more taxes to protect the environment and then watch as the proceeds are used to build a multimillion-dollar firefighter training facility or to add a dive well to Sailfish Splash Waterpark or to build an indoor volleyball court.

Hopefully, County Commissioners got the message that was sent by hundreds of residents who spoke resoundingly against proposed Comp Plan Amendment 17-7 to pave over small wetlands: Don’t try to fool voters with a bad proposal disguised as a measure to protect the environment and safeguard our special quality of life.

Agenda Item 6B is an ordinance to change the way that building height is measured. Although the four-story height limit would be retained, it appears that the new ordinance would allow for higher structures to be built by changing the starting place for measuring the height of a building.

A final site plan for Waterblasting Technologies in the Seven J’s subdivision (as referenced in Comp Plan Amendment 17-10 to extend water and sewer lines outside the urban boundaries) will be presented as Agenda Item 6C.

An ordinance to repeal disclosure requirements for applicants who seek approval of proposals involving real estate that are not related to development proposals or Comp Plan Amendments will be considered in Agenda Item 6D. This measure apparently was drafted in response to complaints from airport tenants who do not want to reveal the true identity of subtenants of County-owned property at Witham Field. Letters from County staff have already been sent to airport tenants assuring them that the repeal will be approved on Tuesday.

In other matters on Tuesday’s Agenda:

– The Consent Agenda includes the promotion of Assistant Engineering Director Terry Rauth to the post of Engineering Department Director, replacing Don Donaldson, who has been named Deputy County Administrator following the departure of Roger Baltz (Item 4B3) and several items to terminate or revise unity of title documents for previously approved developments (Items 4C1, 4C2 and 4C3).

– Appointments to the Treasure Coast Health Council and History Preservation Board are Agenda Items 5A and 5B. Why are agency and board appointments made by secret ballot rather than in public discussion so that Commissioners can hear and consider the reasoning of their colleagues in selecting (or not selecting) certain candidates? Confusion and misunderstanding like that which characterized the chaotic appointment of representatives to the Animal Care and Control Oversight Board could be avoided if agency and board appointments were addressed in open discussion among commissioners rather than by secret ballots.

– Agenda Item 8A3 seeks approval to explore the purchase of property owned by Wells Fargo Bank in Jensen Beach. The County owns dozens of vacant, surplus properties. It isn’t clear why another privately owned parcel should be acquired by the County and removed from the tax rolls when the County has no obvious need for the property.

– Finally, Agenda Item 8C1 is a proposed policy requiring County Commissioners to use their County e-mail addresses, rather than personal e-mail addresses, for all communications related to public business.

Download or view all agenda items at: www.martin.fl.us/agendas/

Please let commissioners know how you feel about these and other issues by attending the meeting at 9:00 a.m. Tuesday in Commission Chambers or by e-mailing commissioners at 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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