Update: Since this post was written, I’ve been forced to revise my opinion. See here and here. In fact, when I read some of what I wrote here it makes me gag a little. How could I have been so naive?
District 5 Commissioner, Sylvia Murphy, deserves a lot of credit. She is typically a voice of reason when it comes to financial sanity – even when she has to go it alone. At the October 2013 BOCC meeting, she was the only commissioner to vote “no” on the $20 million change order for Cudjoe Regional. At that same meeting, she did raise the disparity issue. Neugent and Rice took it up as well. But they were all steamrolled by Kolhage and Carruthers who were chomping at the bit to spend away.
There is a very troubling black mark on Murphy’s record that I have to mention. And it’s a biggie. She supported the assessment reduction for Cudjoe Regional in July 2012 without even mentioning the funding disparity suffered by Key Largo. At that point, the county had been aware of my concerns for a year. Similar concerns had been raised by others prior to that. There really is no excuse for what happened there.
Murphy subsequently voted “no” on two more grinder-to-gravity conversions. At the April 2015 budget meeting she made a very clear point about the out-of-control spending on Cudjoe Regional. It’s at about 12:16. Somebody needed to say something and she did.
Here’s the problem though. Murphy is very clear that she’s “against” over-spending but what is she “for”? While I certainly have issues with Carruthers and Kolhage, they are not shy about fighting for what they support – whether it’s fair or not, whether it makes any sense or not. Spending on Cudjoe Regional is a great example. Kolhage argued for $5 million worth of dirt at Bernstein Park, while at the same time finding flimsy excuses to veto Rowell’s Marina. Carruthers argued for county funding for $5 million worth of improvements at Higgs Beach – a park located in the incorporated area of Key West, which receives close to $6 million of its own from the infrastructure sales tax. Murphy let Neugent take the lead on arguing for Rowell’s Marina. That’s Murphy’s job, not Neugent’s. Although I thank him for doing it.
Unfortunately, District 5 has really suffered under Murphy’s leadership. The Key Largo wastewater project has received $100 million less in county wastewater funding. To make matters worse, the county has actively tried to divert much-needed state and federal funding away from Key Largo as well. The results are not pretty – a $26 million over contribution. Excessive financial pressure on a moderate-income, revenue-generating area. The excessive contribution shows itself in assessments and in rates.
While financial restraint is a worthy goal, and one I whole-heartedly support, it cannot come solely at the expense of District 5. There’s a line between restraint and neglect. Monroe County blew way past that line in their treatment of Key Largo. Murphy let them get away with it.
It’s been said that Murphy is not elected by District 5. The election data shows that is NOT true. She has won District 5 every time. She ran unopposed in 2012. She has never had a serious challenger in a general election. She’s beaten all her opponents in the Republican primary. That means that less than half the voters in District 5 have ever had the opportunity to select their own county commissioner. Murphy is not the only one who needs to decide what she’s “for”. District 5 voters need to figure it out, too. And they need to field a candidate who can get them there regardless of party affiliation.
Certainly, fairness in the disbursement of county funds should be high up on the list. That goes hand-in-hand with transparency. Gross unfairness is pretty hard to get away with when people know about it. That’s why this blog exists. Fixing the wastewater funding disparity probably has a the biggest price tag at present. It also happens to be very doable if state money comes through. But there is no back-up plan. If there’s no state money, Key Largo’s only hope is to get loud, really loud, Cudjoe Regional loud.
District 5 needs to make sure it is treated fairly going forward on other big projects – sea level rise (tidal flooding), affordable housing, canal restoration, paving. What happened with wastewater is unacceptable and can never be allowed to happen again. The lesson from wastewater is that the county will sink pretty low if they think they can get away with it. It’s sad and it’s unfortunate. But it is better to know the reality than cling to a comforting illusion.
I know people are upset over some of FDOT’s activities – the unsafe crosswalk, the treatment of businesses on US 1. Perhaps addressing the high kill rate at the Upper Keys animal shelter might be something the voters care about. To look at Facebook it seems like there are a lot of animal lovers in Key Largo. They were strangely silent when the issue hit the newspaper, but they can’t possibly be okay with what’s going on.
So while I applaud Murphy for keeping her eye on the dollars, there’s a lot more to the job of representing District 5 than just that. District 5 needs a candidate who will go to bat for them while at the same time making fair and financially sound decisions on behalf of the entire county. It definitely will not be an easy job. Right now, the county mindset is “let’s see what we can get away with“. Maybe with some firm leadership in District 5 that can change to “let’s do what is right“.