Cudjoe Regional, Rowells Marina and the Reality Warp

chains-433543__340I really need to get something off my chest.  It bugs the snot out of me when people in the Lower Keys complain about Rowell’s Marina.  Unfortunately, I still see these comments on a regular basis.  Rowell’s Marina – a $5 million park in Key Largo – has repeatedly been used by the county to justify the $100 million wastewater funding disparity.  

In the topsy-turvy world of the Keys, folks in Cudjoe Regional have pointed to Rowell’s Marina as an example of the “wasteful” spending that is “depriving” them of their gravity system, deep well, [whatever it is they want now].  Cudjoe Regional already costs $10,000 more per EDU than Key Largo – almost twice as much.  Yet Cudjoe Regional customers will contribute $1,500 less per EDU while enjoying a median household income that is substantially higher.  The reality is that the Lower Keys are not only advantaged when it comes to the sewer system but when it comes to spending on parks as well.  Apparently, parks in Stock Island and Big Pine are perfectly fine, but Rowell’s Marina is NOT OKAY.

It’s easy to point the finger at the citizens of the Lower Keys.  But this cock-eyed reasoning didn’t come out of nowhere.  It all starts with the BOCC (Board of County Commissioners).  Theoretically, the BOCC is responsible and accountable to ALL the taxpayers in the Keys.  In practice, the BOCC is capricious and grossly unfair.

The worst part is all that spending on Cudjoe Regional hasn’t slowed the demands one bit.  I think that’s because at a basic level the demands are not about money but about transparency.  The Cudjoe problem cannot be fixed by throwing money at it.  At one time, it could have been fixed by providing accurate, truthful, and verifiable information.  It’s way too late for that now.  The county has lost all credibility with folks in the Lower Keys.  Writing a bunch of checks isn’t going to buy it back.  That only results in a project that’s way too expensive.

I’m not completely unsympathetic to my friends in the Lower Keys but the anti-Rowell’s comments are galling when you consider the out-sized financial benefits that Cudjoe Regional customers receive as compared to Key Largo.  It is the BOCC that holds primary responsibility for creating this disconnect from reality and perpetuating the false, misleading and divisive rhetoric surrounding Rowell’s Marina and so many other issues.

Comm. Kolhage, for example, voted against going forward with Rowell’s Marina and the Seven Mile Bridge, but had no problem supporting park improvements in the Lower Keys, such as Bernstein Park (in his district), Big Pine swimming hole and Higgs Beach.  As the saying goes, the fish stinks from the head.  The county has a habit of creating its own reality to justify what they want to do any way – from funky spreadsheets to made up words to demonstrably false statements to delusional reports.  All of this has a trickle-down effect.  If the BOCC’s decisions are not grounded in reality or any generally accepted ethical principles (like basic fairness and honesty) then anything goes.

If the BOCC were willing to face reality, how might they approach the Cudjoe problem?  They could increase assessments in Cudjoe Regional to help cover the $43 million cost escalation.  Unfortunately, they’ve done the exact opposite.  Assessments have actually been reduced by $10 million.  That combined with the $43 million cost escalation has created a $53 million gap which will be covered mostly by taxpayers county-wide.  But Key Largo is especially hard hit.  They have received $100 million less from infrastructure sales tax and as a result they over-contribute to their own sewer project by $26 million.

In fact, Key Largo’s $26 million over-contribution is almost half the amount of the $53 million hole needlessly dug by the BOCC.  Rather than taking pot shots at Rowell’s Marina, the citizens in the Lower Keys ought to give their neighbors in Key Largo a sincere and heart-felt “thank you” for all that cash.  It would be nice if they’d consider using their influence with the BOCC to intervene on behalf of their neighbors up the Keys.  But unlike the BOCC, I am a realist and I know that will never happen.  Key Largo taxpayers are going to have to battle it out on their own.  This blog is all about providing them with the ammo they need to do that.

I’ve provided some links below along with commentary and analysis.

June 18, 2013 BOCC minutes:  Kohlage votes “NO” on Rowell’s Marina, “NO” on Seven Mile Bridge, “YES” on Bernstein Park, “YES” on Big Pine Swimming Hole, “YES” on Higgs Beach.  Link:  06182013 Special BOCC Minutes – vote for Bernstein

Here’s a link to the recording of the entire June 18, 2013 meeting.  I’ve extracted a few of the more interesting bits and linked to them in the paragraphs below so you don’t have to suffer through the whole thing.  The dynamics are interesting and pretty typical of what I mentioned above.  I watched it to try to find the logic behind Kohlage’s vote.  I’ll spare you the trouble – there isn’t any.  It’s all about semantics and parsing the word “need”.  What park out there can be considered a “need”?  He refers to some list of parks and simply declares that Rowell’s Marina is “unnecessary”.  It’s clear from the county’s own project history document that spending on parks is somewhat slanted toward the Lower Keys.  Here’s a link to a map of all the county facilities in the Keys.  The map doesn’t indicate any excess of parks in Key Largo either.  Anyhow, here’s the link to that specific part of the meeting:  http://tinyclip.tv/352774dd.  In case the link doesn’t work, the discussion starts at about 11:04 a.m.

The good news is that there seems to be an awareness on the part of at least some of the commissioners (Kolhage, Neugent and Rice) that despite the fact that Key Largo is served by two special districts, it is an unincorporated area and as such is entitled to sales tax money the same as any other unincorporated area.  This is a simple concept but when you realize that county staff can’t wrap their minds around this, it’s pretty impressive that a majority of the commissioners actually can.  Here’s a link to that part:  http://tinyclip.tv/352afccb.  If that link doesn’t work, the discussion occurs from about 10:37 a.m. to about 10:50 a.m.

There’s a bit where they talk about swiping Key Largo’s $17 million from the Mayfield Grant in order to pave roads.  Not one word about repairing the financial damage they’ve done to Key Largo taxpayers.  Absolutely horrible.  At this point, they had known about the unfair financial burden on Key Largo for TWO YEARS.  If I had seen this at the time, I would have hit the roof.  This meeting took place not long after I found out about the county’s unethical Army Corps money grab.  The swap agreement is in place now, but Key Largo hasn’t seen a dime yet.  I’m not 100% comfortable they ever will.  The county has an established track record of unprincipled behavior.  If they want to carry on that way no agreement is going to change that.  Link:  http://tinyclip.tv/35227c35.  The discussion begins at 11:50 a.m.

Link to recent-ish news story about Cudjoe Regional issues.  Note that activists cite Rowell’s Marina and Higgs Beach as unnecessary spending.  Nothing said about Big Pine swimming hole or Bernstein Park.  I guess those “wasteful” parks are okay if they benefit you.  It’s extremely hypocritical, of course, but they are only following the BOCC’s lead.  If your commissioners aren’t fair and consistent, why should anyone else be?  This is what happens when leaders set a poor example.

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