HSAB and the “Sin” Tax

cautionComm. Carruthers’s Emergency Services Surtax (ESS) has been well documented on this blog.  The county made a number of statements about this proposal that turned out to be false.  When asked to substantiate their claims, county staff largely failed to do so.  (They did manage to provide support for their claim that tourists pay 60% of the sales tax.)

Comm. Carruthers, who sponsored the proposal failed to mention how much she and her campaign donors would benefit from it.  She also failed to mention that most local homeowners would actually pay more, and that all local renters would certainly pay more.  To me, these are inexcusable omissions.

Carruthers eventually abandoned the proposal saying it was “dead”.  The County Administrator (aka. the iPhone Bandit), however, contradicted her.  He described it as being “in the freezer”.  He went on to say that folks in the Keys just weren’t ready for such an “innovative” idea.  I have a feeling that this proposal or something similar to it will be back.  It’s just too beneficial to Carruthers and her backers.  I’m sure the other commissioners would benefit as well.

Carruthers had hoped that the state would allow any excess ESS to be used for human services needs.  The state, thankfully, shot her down.  However, at the county’s first budget hearing on May 24, the idea of an additional tax on alcohol and cigarettes was introduced.  The proceeds of this “sin” tax would go toward funding human services needs.

As much as they try to tiptoe around it, the county is looking to impose a tax increase.  If the county wanted additional money to pay for human services, they could opt for one of the indigent care sales taxes already available.  But those taxes would have to be offset by a reduction in the infrastructure sales tax.  The county has negligently mismanaged capital projects.  They’re going to need every bit of the infrastructure sales tax and more to keep up with the overspending and to meet continuing infrastructure needs.

Or the county could also secure additional funding from property taxes.  But the rhetoric these days seems to be all about controlling property taxes.  They’re looking for a bright spot to cover over their abysmal handling of the infrastructure sales tax.  Property taxes look to be it.  It’s a shell game.  The county is crowing about property taxes remaining the same, while at the same time trying to increase the sales tax, which by the way, is already among the highest in the state. And which, by  the way, hits low-moderate income people the hardest – the very people the county claims they want to help.

I’m not entirely opposed to the idea of a “sin tax”.  I recognize that the needs exist.  I understand that many families are struggling to make it in the Keys on very low wages.  I get that people are close to the edge financially and need a helping hand.  And I know that private donations aren’t always enough to fill the need.  I also know that the county’s mishandling of existing revenue sources does not help the situation at all.

The Human Services Advisory Board (HSAB) collects and reviews funding applications from non-profits throughout the Keys.  The HSAB, appointed by the BOCC, then decides who gets funded and how much.

I reviewed the HSAB recommendations and applications for FY 2016.  Here are some general observations:

  1. The HSAB doesn’t seem to have or do any independent review of county-wide needs.  It appears they rely solely on the information provided in the applications for funding.  Some of those applications provide very good, verifiable information.  Others not so much.
  2. Many of the applicants who claim to provide service county-wide have board members exclusively from one geographical area.  How effectively can they serve the county-wide area?
  3. A few claim to provide county-wide services, but have facilities located in only one geographical area.  How do they provide services in areas where they have no facilities?  Some of the non-profits address this question.  Many do not.

While I don’t completely hate the “sin” tax in concept, I definitely have reservations.  Obviously, the ongoing irresponsible and sleazy conduct of the BOCC is cause for concern.  With the BOCC’s track record, there is a good chance that the proceeds from any revenue source will be pointlessly squandered.  Besides that, inequitable funding is very much the rule in Monroe County.

We’ve seen it with wastewater funding.  We’ve seen it with animal control.  We’ve seen it with the overall distribution of the infrastructure sales tax.  Unfortunately, that lack of investment in certain areas is coupled with excessive waste in others.  It’s a pattern that repeats itself over and over again.  When called on it, the county lies – both commissioners and staff.  There’s every reason to believe the problem exists with human services as well.  Why wouldn’t it?

The services overseen by the HSAB are currently funded by property taxes collected county-wide.  (Here is an estimate of the contribution from each area.)  Whether the “sin” tax passes or not, there needs to be a mechanism in place to ensure that resources are distributed in accordance with need.  And that the needs are evaluated as accurately and as fairly as possible.   It is common practice in Monroe County to over-burden and under-serve certain areas.  These decisions have consequences. We’ve seen the impact on Key Largo’s economy.  We’ve seen the high kill rate at the Upper Keys animal shelter.  I don’t even want to think about what the consequences of inequitable human services funding might be.

I’ll be following this issue very closely.

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