Stewardship Act – Smoke and Mirrors

truth-257159__340Update:  The language meant to protect the Mayfield Interlocal never made it into the bill at all.  It was not included when the bill was filed.  The anemic version of the language cited below was not added until March of 2016.  Monroe County caught in yet another lie.

I’ve had some heartburn over the Florida Keys Stewardship Act (FKSA) for some time now.  I want to be supportive.  I want to be comfortable.  I want to like it.  But somehow I just can’t quite get there.  The more I read about it, the more uncomfortable I am.  I’ve written about it here and here and a few other places.

The Act was supposed to increase the amount of money available for water quality projects and ensure a predictable flow of money for that purpose.  It did not work out that way.  At all.  Theoretically, there’s more money available, but the Keys will have to fight for it year after year.  Except for this years $5 million for water quality projects, the final version of the bill guts the Mayfield Interlocal.  That means the Keys are back at square one in terms of unity.

Here is the language that the county claimed would be added to the bill.  The documentation can be found in the agenda for the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting held on October 21, 2015.  See Item Q2.

There is additional language that has been proposed to be added to this section of the
bill, but at the time of agenda item preparation, had not been finalized by the
Representative’s office:
The first $1 00 million in funds distributed pursuant to this section or s.
215.619(1){a)l. shall be in accordance with existing or successor interlocal
agreements between Monroe County and any political subdivision or public
body thereof.
This language seeks to confirm that the current ILA will determine the distribution of
the first $1OOM in water quality appropriations.

Here is the language that actually appeared in the final version:

For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the sum of $5 million in nonrecurring funds from the General Revenue Fund is appropriated to the Department of Environmental Protection to be distributed in accordance with the existing interlocal agreement among the Village of Islamorada, the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District, the City of Marathon, the Monroe County/Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, the City of Key West, and Key Colony Beach, for the purposes of constructing sewage collection, treatment, and disposal facilities;

When it comes to funding for wastewater and other water quality projects, the FKSA leaves the Keys far worse off than they were before.  It says nothing about preserving the Mayfield Interlocal long-term and destroys the unity achieved by that agreement.  Unity that was, in fact, demanded by the governor.

Somehow, funding for land purchases edged its way to the front.  This, despite the fact that wastewater funding and other water quality projects are still a huge ongoing need.  And despite the fact that there is no plan for these land buys.  Who?  Where?  How much?  We have no idea.  It’s all very open-ended, which opens the door to fraud, waste and abuse.

Kevin Diaz, who is running against Holly Raschein for state representative submitted an analysis of the bill to the Blue Paper.  His letter urges us to be cautious about the FKSA, and outlines some possible hidden impacts of the bill.  The letter drew a long, pompous, condescending response from county commissioner, Heather Carruthers.  Apparently, if anyone dares question the FKSA, Carruthers will come at ’em with a flamethrower.  Why is she so desperate to shut down any criticism of the bill?  I’m genuinely curious.

Let’s start off with a brief consideration of where the county commissioners might be coming from.  The fact that Carruthers’s 2012 campaign was largely bankrolled by tourism interests is well-documented.  She has shown little interest in the wastewater projects other than to recklessly divert huge sums of taxpayer money into certain, specific projects while under-funding others.

Her hare-brained “light rail” proposal, which thankfully failed to gain traction, was all about moving more tourists into the Keys.  Even Kolhage, who cares nothing for the residents of the Upper and Middle Keys gave that one the side-eye.  Carruthers’s Emergency Services Surtax (ESS) proposal demonstrates that she has little regard for the people who live and work in the Keys, including her own constituents in Key West.

Kolhage’s 2012 campaign was heavily subsidized by developers.  His reckless approach to wastewater funding is identical to Carruthers’s.  I would definitely not expect him to be able to stand up for the environment.  Sylvia Murphy is anti-development on paper, but has been ineffective at advocating for her own district.  I doubt she would be any more effective at controlling development.  That’s three pro-development votes.

Diaz made three main points in his letter.

First, within the Act it states that an additional 3,550 residential units may be constructed. Having this provision within an environmental protection bill seems strange.

Carruthers made a huge deal out of the fact that this and other material actually isn’t stated in the FKSA itself.  It’s in the staff analysis.  Fine, but Diaz’s main point still stands.  Why is an “environmental” bill being used to further development of any kind – even good and necessary development?  Now might be a good time to point out that the FKSA was once called the Florida Keys Environmental Stewardship Act – the word “environmental” was removed.

It might also be a good time to point out that the original version contained the following language:

An act relating to local government environmental financing; amending s. 212.055, F.S.; authorizing use of the surtax to purchase land to reduce hurricane evacuation times;

Historically, hurricane evacuation times have been the main limiting factor on development in the Keys.  Taking steps to reduce hurricane evacuation times has the potential to open the door to additional development and increased densities.  That combined with the gutting of funding for water quality projects and the sudden push for “affordable” housing is certainly cause for concern.

Fortunately, that language was revised.  Presumably some eagle-eyed citizen’s group zeroed in on it.  However, the following language was included.

The acquisition or contribution is not used to improve public transportation facilities or otherwise increase road capacity to reduce hurricane evacuation clearance times.

Interesting.  I suspect that the original goal was to widen roads, reduce hurricane evacuation times and increase development.  They probably backed off when somebody caught them at it.  I don’t know how they’re going to reduce evacuation times without widening roads.  Is this where the light rail comes in?

Here is Diaz’s second point.

Within the surtaxes section of the Act[2], it labels affordable housing as infrastructure. How can affordable housing be an infrastructure need included in this bill, when the purpose of the Act was to receive capital in order to further treat our water concerns and better protect our environmentally sensitive land?

Yes, how did “affordable” housing suddenly become an infrastructure need?  How did it suddenly become an “environmental” need?  True infrastructure needs in the Keys are huge.  The wastewater project is still unaffordable in many areas.  The canal restoration projects, though poorly planned, at least have the potential to improve water quality on the off-chance they are well executed.  Storm water.  Adapting to sea level rise.  Road and bridge repair.  The list goes on.

My guess is that one of the usual suspects stands to gain from the land shuffling allowed by the FKSA.  It’s not difficult to imagine who that might be.  Frank Toppino is on the Key West Housing Authority board, and “affordable” housing is definitely being pushed hard.  In fact, the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) unanimously approved a huge Toppino development project over the objections of area residents. True affordable housing is certainly needed.  My concern is that the money will be squandered and misspent to benefit certain interests at great expense to the taxpayers, while leaving the urgent needs of the community unaddressed.  It is a valid concern, and Carruthers failed to discuss it in her letter.

Frank Toppino’s son, and business associate, Richard Toppino, serves on the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA) board.  The Toppino companies along with the other contractors and subcontractors have squeezed all they can from the wastewater projects.  The FKSA allows for land bought for the purposes of protecting potable water to be sold if it is determined that it no longer serves that purpose.  Hmmm…again this is an open-ended provision that provides a possible loophole for those who may seek to profit off the taxpayers.

Or does the FKAA own some land that might be suitable for development?

Diaz’s third point:

Third, the Act creates a mechanism to sell environmentally critical land.[3] The bill cites that the building of affordable housing is a critical state concern. With this language the State has officially labeled affordable housing as a critical state concern and the land authority is authorized to sell off land in order to achieve that goal.

Nicely summed up here.

In my analysis of this Act, the Florida Keys receives $5,000,000 in guaranteed funds, and in exchange the State of Florida receives the power to sell off environmentally critical land in order to build residential living units for people that make nearly $100,000 a year.

Diaz’s concern appears to be valid.  According to the FKSA, the state of Florida gives the Keys $5 million for land purchases each year for some number of years.  The Keys may then use that to buy conservation land or land on which to build “affordable” housing.

Think about it for a second.  Key West was ready to blow $55 million on Peary Court.  This was unquestionably a terrible deal for Key West taxpayers and a great deal for the nameless, faceless, very-difficult-to-identify sellers.  (Kudos to Martha Huggins who managed to unmask them.)  Fortunately, Key West voters had a voice and shot it down.  But the community has no veto power over what land is bought with this annual $5 million.  These purchases could be every bit as foolish as the Peary Court purchase.  How easy would it be to crowd out purchases of conservation land with foolish, excessive “affordable” housing purchases?  Especially since “affordable” housing has been identified as a “crisis”.  And “crisis” is a code word used to green-light the squandering and misuse of taxpayer money.

Bottom line – this bill is very flawed.  Diaz is right to be concerned and I am glad he opened this dialog.  His letter and Carruthers’s pompous response to it encouraged me to take a closer look.  I’m glad I did, but I sure do not like what I see.

 

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This entry was posted in Affordable Housing, BOCC, Bubba System, Florida Keys Stewardship Act, Monroe County. Bookmark the permalink.

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