Watching the BOCC discussing the swap interlocal was painful. I’m glad they approved it, but it was painful. It is the very first step in resolving the $26 million funding inequity. They also made it very clear that they would have no objection to paragraph 16 being removed. Knowing that, it’s a very simple matter to delete that troublesome part of the agreement. This is reason enough to be cautiously optimistic.
Now for the bad news. The excuses and justifications were running thick. That was the painful part. It was unseemly and makes me wonder how sincere the county really is about fixing the problem. The BOCC seems more concerned with justifying their actions than about the financial squeeze they put on Key Largo taxpayers. Time to debunk those excuses once again.
Righting this wrong is going to take time and effort. It will be easy for the BOCC to talk itself out of doing the right thing unless they know people are watching.
Excuse #1: The BOCC didn’t set the District’s rates.
I’ve already addressed this one in Excuses, Lies and Alibis. As I said before, this is true but irrelevant. The District’s assessments and rates are based on the project cost and available outside funding. The District cannot pay for a project with money it does not have. If it’s not coming from the county, the state or the federal government, then it’s coming from the ratepayers. As an unincorporated area, Key Largo must rely on Monroe County to distribute the sales tax money in a fair, equitable and responsible way. For years, the District repeatedly raised concerns over the inequitable distribution and over the county’s excessive spending on other sewer projects. Those concerns were consistently dismissed and ignored. The District had no reason to believe that the county would be a reliable source of funding. Rates and assessments were set accordingly.
The District controlled project costs, pursued alternative funding sources, and secured a cost-sharing agreement with Islamorada. All of these efforts reduced but did not eliminate the funding disparity. We’re talking about a $100 million difference that has resulted in an over-contribution of $26 million. The District has done all it can to close the gap, but it is a huge gap.
Excuse #2: The county provides sales tax money to Key Largo for other infrastructure besides wastewater.
Also true, but irrelevant. Nobody has ever claimed that Key Largo gets zero sales tax dollars. The issue is that the county has distributed $100 million less to Key Largo for wastewater projects than they have to the other unincorporated areas. The Key Largo project is about the same size as the other projects combined but cost substantially less. Because of the huge $100 million imbalance, Key Largo citizens are forced to pay $26 million more for their project. That is the issue. The BOCC is well aware of this. The county’s statement implies that Key Largo has made out so well on other infrastructure spending, that the $100 million wastewater funding imbalance is somehow justified.
Rowell’s marina was given as an example of the “excessive benefit” to Key Largo. I don’t see how a $5 million park can possibly justify a $100 million dollar wastewater funding imbalance, but I’ll humor them. Let’s take a look at spending on parks. According to the Project History spreadsheet, $26.5 million will be spent on parks in the Lower Keys through 2019. What’s most interesting is $4.2 million of that will be spent on Higgs Beach in Key West – an incorporated area. Typically the incorporated areas are responsible for their own parks. When the $4.2 million for Higgs Beach is deducted, that leaves $22.3 million for the unincorporated Lower Keys. About $12 million will be spent on parks in the Upper Keys – $10 million less. So is that excessive?
The county will spend a little over half on parks in the unincorporated Upper Keys as compared to the unincorporated Lower Keys. Yet the population of the Upper Keys is two-thirds that of the Lower Keys. This certainly does not seem like an excessive benefit to Key Largo – quite the opposite. Perhaps the BOCC has factored in business activity? I’ve already shown that the Lower Keys break even on the sales tax and that the Upper Keys are a donor community to the tune of about $3 million per year. Looking a bit closer, the unincorporated Lower Keys generate about $3.23 million in sales tax per year. The unincorporated Upper Keys generate about $5.34 million – over $2 million more each year. I’m having a very hard time figuring where this “excessive benefit” claim is coming from.
As elected officials and full-grown adults, the commissioners need to stop making excuses, show a firm commitment to fixing the problem and make sure that it does not happen again. There is nothing that can possibly justify or excuse this – so just fix it already. They’ve taken the first small step but there’s such a long way to go. Let’s not forget the county is only entertaining the idea of funding equity because (1) they got called out; and (2) there’s state money available to offset county money (YOUR MONEY). Key Largo taxpayers need to keep a very close eye on this to make sure the county follows through.
For the folks who like to know where the data comes from, read on.
Here is a link to a population table I put together: Population2010. This data came from the American Factfinder at Census.gov. Here is a link to the county’s project history document: Project History (4). I modified it to detail spending on parks. Here is a table that details sales tax distributions: SalesTax_Distribution This information came from the Florida Department of Revenue’s Loger database. And here is a spreadsheet that estimates the sales tax collected by zip code: SalesTaxGenerated_byZipcode This information is available from the Florida Department of Revenue upon request.