This is third installment regarding public statements made about the funding disparity by Monroe County commissioners. The first two are here and here. Heather Carruthers is the commissioner most guilty of repeating the argument that Key Largo has benefited to such a great extent from the infrastructure sales tax that the $100 million wastewater funding disparity is justified.
She trotted it out at the budget meeting where Rowell’s Marina was discussed. She mentioned it again in email correspondence in July 2014. The county’s own records demonstrate that this simply is not the case. I first debunked this argument a couple of years ago. KeysNews poked some holes in it in this September 2014 story, and I followed up with a letter to the editor. I’ve debunked it again here on my blog so that the information is easily available to the public.
There’s no way of knowing if Carruthers knew this was a lie when she said it. I certainly hope not. County commissioners can’t be expected to know everything, but this argument has always been far-fetched. We’re talking about a funding difference of over $100 million. How does a $5 million park even touch that? Especially when $5 million parks are popping up all over the Keys (Higgs Beach, Bernstein Park, Big Pine Swimming Hole). She had to know something was off. She said it anyway – more than once.
A $100 million funding difference is huge money and it has real consequences for the Key Largo community. It results in a $26 million over-contribution. I’ve documented some of that here, here and here. The financial damage is real whether Carruthers knowingly repeated a lie or just didn’t care enough to check it out.
The good news is, I haven’t heard this argument in a while – not since September 2014 or so. I assume it got embarrassing to repeat after it was publicly shown to be false. This is why fact-checking, blogging and letter-writing are so important. Some county officials, it seems, will repeat a convenient falsehood until they are publicly called out on it. That’s very depressing. But it’s also good to know.
Like Kolhage, Carruthers has never voted “no” on a Cudjoe Regional spending increase. Unlike Kolhage, she was also part of the unanimous vote to reduce the assessment on Cudjoe Regional by $10 million. In total, Carruthers has voted in favor of increasing the cost burden on county-wide taxpayers by $53 million. This includes her own district, Key West, which is the largest generator of the infrastructure sales tax in Monroe County.
To her credit, Carruthers actually made the smartest suggestion I believe I’ve ever heard come from a county commissioner. When the topic of grinder to gravity conversion first came up, she suggested an independent study. Unfortunately, she didn’t even get a second. Too bad. I believe that suggestion could have saved the taxpayers a bundle. Here’s why:
- The relationship between the county and the FKAA is overly cozy. County officials repeatedly refer to as a “partnership”. That is totally inappropriate. The county has a fiduciary duty to all taxpayers – not just those served by the FKAA. County officials need to be asking tough questions, second-guessing, triple-checking. They occupy an oversight role. They need to be policing the project. Too often the county simply relies on what the FKAA tells them. That’s not how you run a project. A no-nonsense professional isn’t going to be blinded by all the hearts and flowers.
- The arrangement between the BOCC and FKAA provides zero incentive for anyone to watch costs. The FKAA isn’t paying so they don’t care how much the project costs. The BOCC is oblivious to reality. They expect the state to bail them out of the consequences of their overspending. But the state has other ideas. The BOCC will say the infrastructure sales tax isn’t a “bottomless well“, but they sure spend like it is. A third-party evaluation might have given the BOCC the dose of reality needed to keep the project on track. Oh well, too late now.
Carruthers does not seem to realize that by failing to address the wastewater funding disparity suffered by Key Largo for so long, she has created a situation where Key Largo is better off incorporating. The only entity that would suffer more than Monroe County if Key Largo were to incorporate is Key West, the area that she is supposed to represent. Her consistent support of uncontrolled spending and her failure to address the funding inequity is, of course, wrong in and of itself. Besides that, her irresponsible behavior could actually backfire on her own district.
Kolhage, also represents a portion of Key West. Voters there may want to pay closer attention to how their representatives have mishandled the wastewater issue. The only thing Carruthers and Kolhage have been willing to do to address the issue is vote for the iffy swap agreement.
Remember that Key West doesn’t benefit at all from the uncontrolled spending on Cudjoe Regional. It only makes resources scarcer for everyone. I estimate that Key West stands to lose about $860,000 per year in sales tax money if Key Largo decides to incorporate. That’s about $500,000 less in infrastructure sales tax money and $360,000 less from the half-cent sales tax. Those are the only two revenue sources I looked at. It could be more.
Here’s that map again. Notice that Cudjoe Regional is not in Kolhage’s district or in Carruther’s district. So why did these two push so hard for excessive spending and unfair funding policies that ultimately hurt their own districts? Cudjoe Regional customers are still upset over the way the project was handled. They’re not happy. Key Largo customers are paying $26 million more than they should. They’re not happy. Key West citizens are looking at a loss of revenue if Key Largo incorporates. They shouldn’t be very happy either.
It’s a given that nobody in District 5 should vote for Kolhage or Carruthers. But Districts 1 and 3 should also think very hard about who’s representing them. Fortunately, both Kolhage and Carruthers are up for election in 2016. Well-qualified challengers with a message of fairness and financial sanity would be the best thing that could possibly happen to the Florida Keys, including Key West. I believe the voters of Key West, like voters anywhere, value fairness. In this case, Key West may actually pay a real financial penalty because of the unconscionable behavior of the commissioners who represent them. Behavior that they probably would not even approve of if they were aware of it.