Workshops and Consent Agenda Creep in Tuesday’s Board of County Commission meeting

 

“When commissioners warn residents of impending disaster due to financial inability to repair or replace failing infrastructure, shouldn’t that warning be accompanied by an explanation of why $46 million is being held in a rainy day fund while taxpayers are being soaked?” Civic activist and renowned local attorney Virginia Sherlock poses that question and several others regarding Tuesday’s BOCC meeting:

 

The Board of County Commission meeting scheduled for Tuesday, March 24, 2015, includes a number of important and interesting topics, most of which will be discussed in the Commission’s workshop meeting room that does not allow the public to view the sessions on MCTV.

 

Workshops are scheduled on the County’s code enforcement process at 2:00 p.m. (Agenda Item 8B1), the budget at 2:30 p.m. (Agenda Item 8A4) and the grants program at 3:15 p.m. (Agenda Item 8A5). The agenda summaries are interesting but raise many questions. (Specific workshop topics are detailed below.) Here’s the Cliffs Notes version:

 

Code Enforcement Workshop: Staff says the purpose of code enforcement is to achieve compliance by property owners who violate the County Code. But the County does not use abatement to correct violations. Instead, it may take months or years to achieve “voluntary” compliance while neighboring property owners suffer the consequences. Why doesn’t the County foreclose on code enforcement liens that go unpaid? Hardcore violators have no incentive to comply when a violation can continue indefinitely until the property is sold and the fine is inevitably reduced to pennies on the dollar.

 

Budget Workshop: Maintaining reserves in excess of 10% of the total budget may be a laudable goal (Martin County has about 13% of its total budget held in reserve funds), but when commissioners warn residents of impending disaster due to financial inability to repair or replace failing infrastructure, shouldn’t that warning be accompanied by an explanation of why $46 million is being held in a rainy day fund while taxpayers are being soaked?

 

Grants Workshop: Should the County Commission continue to approve donations of taxpayer dollars to private charities? Who decides which charities are more worthy than others of the County’s largess? When it comes to handing out taxpayer dollars, past Commissions have followed the mi charity es su charity approach.

 

There are a couple of other matters on Tuesday’s agenda worth mentioning.

 

Consent Agenda Creep continues as more items that deserve and warrant public disclosure are relegated to the no-discussion zone. It would take only a few minutes for staff to let the public know about issues that affect residents – like changing speed limits on local roadways and considering new leases for public property. The time saved by placing items on the Consent Agenda is insignificant compared to the loss of public trust that results from violating published rules regarding the Consent Agenda and burying items that are of significant public interest.

 

For instance, many residents are interested in the Pitchford’s Landing Update that staff is supposed to provide at every Commission meeting. Consent Agenda Item 4B8 is the latest update. It would take only a minute or so to let the public know the status of this project. Staff says there is no update. But there have been e-mail exchanges about landscaping in the County right-of-way related to Pitchford’s Landing and at least one meeting earlier this month with the applicant’s attorney about proposed changes to recorded documents for the project.

 

Consent Agenda Item 4B7 is a contract amendment to retroactively change the terms of an agreement with the Marine Industries Association of the Treasure Coast to provide additional time to comply with requirements to obtain a $16,000 grant from the County for the Stuart Boat Show.

 

Consent Agenda Items 4C1 and 4C2 request changes in the speed limit posted for portions of SW Citrus Boulevard in Indiantown and NW Britt Road in Stuart.

 

Consent Agenda Item 4D1 seeks Commission approval to initiate negotiations with Martin Memorial to lease part of the County’s former Emergency Operations Center. How does this proposal fit in with the plan to have a consultant examine the use of existing County properties?

 

None of the Consent Agenda items listed above appear objectionable. But there’s no reason to keep the public in the dark, if for no other reason than to allow residents to applaud good efforts.

 

Finally, Agenda Item 8C1 is the CRA report for Fiscal Year 2014. The financials are a bit confusing. It appears the CRAs have millions of dollars on hand, but it’s not clear where these funds are held, if that’s the case, and what the plans are for them. Infrastructure? Beautification? Property acquisition? This item should be of interest to residents in and around the CRAs.

 

Please contact your County Commissioners regarding any of these matters: efieldin@martin.fl.us, ascott@martin.fl.us, sheard@martin.fl.us, jhaddox@martin.fl.us, dsmith@martin.fl.us and copy the County Administrator and Attorney at tkryzda@martin.fl.us and mdurham@martin.fl.us.

 

Here are some issues to consider with respect to the County Commission workshop sessions set for Tuesday’s Commission meeting:

Code Enforcement (2:00 p.m.):

 

The workshop is designed to explore whether County code enforcement procedures are appropriate as implemented or whether revisions should be made. Staff sets out the thesis that the purpose of code enforcement is to achieve compliance with the County Code, not to punish violators. The County spends thousands of dollars on staff time to investigate and process code enforcement cases, frequently resulting in fines for non-compliance that are ultimately reduced by 90% or more when compliance is finally achieved – sometimes years after the violation while neighbors and residents who comply with the code are forced to suffer the effects of violators’ non-compliance. Fines are generally reduced when a bank forecloses or the property is sold or abandoned by the violator.

 

The County is allowed by law to abate some violations – that is, the County can correct the violation by cutting overgrown weeds, removing junked vehicles, cleaning up yard trash, etc., and then invoicing the property owner for reimbursement of the cost. But staff notes that abatement has not been employed by the County for over 20 years.

 

First question for commissioners: Why not? If the purpose of code enforcement is to achieve compliance, why not use abatement to cure at least some violations to avoid allowing violations to continue for months or years while neighboring property owners (taxpayers) suffer the consequences?

 

Here are other questions commissioners should ask: Why doesn’t the County establish a policy for fine reductions that takes into account the length of time the violation has been allowed to continue and the impact on other property owners? And why doesn’t the County foreclose on code enforcement liens that have been established but have not been paid or addressed by the property owner? Too often, code enforcement liens just sit in the Public Records and fines accrue to the point where they are legally uncollectible because the fines exceed the value of the property. Hardcore violators know the County doesn’t enforce code enforcement liens, so what’s the incentive to comply when a violation can continue indefinitely until the property is sold and the fine is inevitably reduced to pennies on the dollar?

 

Citizens who are aware of issues related to code enforcement should contact commissioners in advance of Tuesday’s workshop to share your concerns.

 

Budget Workshop (2:30 p.m.):

 

The presentation prepared for Commissioners is a very interesting summary of County budget revenues and expenditures that raises many, many questions.

 

County revenues are approximately $352 million a year, consisting of funds received from ad valorem taxes (40%), a local share of state fuel and sales taxes, licensing fees, etc. (5.5%), fees for services, such as garbage and trash collections, parks admission, ambulance fees, etc. (24%), assessments and impact fees, grants from state and federal governments (1.5%), funds collected but not spent (16%), and “miscellaneous” revenue sources (11%).

 

I realize the percentages don’t add up to 100%. That’s the first question commissioners should ask about the staff presentation.

 

Categories for spending do add up to 100% . The budget includes expenditures for water and wastewater, solid waste, stormwater, environmental protection, and other “physical environment” programs equal to about 27% of the total budget, funds for constitutional officers (including the Sheriff’s budget) represent 23% of the County budget, general government expenditures (operating expenses for County government) amount to 18.3% of the budget, and public safety programs (not including the Sheriff’s department) consume 14.2% of the budget. The balance of budget expenditures are spent on reserves (6.3%), cultural and recreational programs (4.1%), transportation (3.8%), health and human/social services (1.8%), economic programs (1.0%) and court programs (.5%).

 

A question that comes immediately to mind is why we maintain more than $46 million in “reserves” but still have a backlog of $22 million in road/bridge/stormwater repairs that we cannot finance. Commissioners are asked at virtually every meeting to transfer funds from reserves to pay for various programs or projects that seem far less critical than crumbling roads and failing bridges.

 

Maintaining reserves in excess of 10% of the total budget may be a laudable goal (the current figures reflect about 13% of the budget is held in reserve funds), but when commissioners warn residents of impending disaster due to financial inability to repair or replace failing infrastructure, shouldn’t that warning be accompanied by an explanation of why $46 million is being held in a rainy day fund while taxpayers are being soaked?

 

Grants Workshop (3:15 p.m.):

 

Taxpayer dollars have been handed out to various private non-profits and charitable organizations by the County Commission for years without any policy or explanation as to why certain charities are more “worthy” of public funding than others. In the past, grants have been given to private charities based on preferences of individual commissioners, regardless of the preferences of individual taxpayers.

 

Mi charity es su charity.

 

Not surprisingly, more and more local charities applied for taxpayer funding until the current Commission decided to take a closer look at how public dollars are gifted to private organizations (not counting favorable leasing arrangements and other benefits that are given to non-profits by County government).

 

The current budget includes donations of County funds ranging from $1,000 to the Indiantown Education Coalition to nearly $100,000 to the Council on Aging ($88,134 to the Log Cabin program and $11,774 to the Senior Dining program). Grants also are handed out to Alzheimers Community Care ($5,000), Arts Council ($44,000), Treasure Coast Homeless Council ($25,000), Advocates for the Rights of the Challenged (ARC) ($12,600), the 211 crisis helpline ($10,500), Martin County Soil and Conservation District ($15,225) and Helping People Succeed ($11,250).

 

With more than 500 charitable organizations (recognized by the IRS) in Martin County, how are decisions made regarding which of them should receive public funding? While all of the selected organizations are certainly worthwhile charities, there is clear favoritism for organizations that provide services to seniors, mental health programs, the homeless, and the arts.

 

Few or no funds are given to organizations that provide valuable services for children, animals, struggling small businesses, or the environment, to name a few.

 

It’s definitely time to re-think the County’s grants program. Many taxpayers make private contributions to the charities of their choice. Why should the County Commission use tax dollars to donate more than $230,000 a year to charities that should – and do – raise funds privately? Most charitable organizations provide a valuable community service, not just the few selected by the County Commission to receive taxpayer dollars.

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