Stewardship Act – What It Actually Says

chaos-485502__340This is a long one.  It’s almost as long as Carruthers’s temper-fit response to Diaz.  I hope you have the patience to slog through.  I’m going through the Florida Keys Stewardship Act section by section to figure out what it all means for the Keys.  It’s essential to separate fact from rhetoric.

I want to start off by saying that in 2014 Rep. Holly Raschein was instrumental in securing the second $50 million of the Mayfield Grant, and making sure that it was distributed equitably.  It was a major achievement and she deserves a lot of credit.  It would not have happened without her leadership and without her insistence that the entities act as a unit, each respecting the needs of the others.  I think that track record should earn her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the Florida Keys Stewardship Act (FKSA).  To a certain extent any way.

Rep. Raschein is getting some criticism – primarily from her opponent, Kevin Diaz.  Maybe it is warranted, maybe not.  I am not pleased that the Mayfield interlocal, which provided unity and stability for Florida Keys entities seeking state funding, has seemingly been abandoned to a large extent.  The fact that the FKSA is (or was) laced with language that appears to open the door to expanded development does not inspire confidence either.

Presumably we will hear from Rep. Raschein shortly.  We’ll be better positioned to accurately evaluate the FKSA as more facts become available.  One thing is sure, the true impact is murky at this point.  And I thank Mr. Diaz for beginning a very necessary dialog.

Comm. Heather Carruthers was very proud of her discourteous response to Diaz.  She posted it on her Facebook page.  Me being me, I asked her some questions.  Surprise!  She answered, and in a civil tone, too.  Some of what she had to say was informative and helpful even!  So that’s a positive development.  Here’s a link to the Facebook page.  By the way, Diaz responded to Carruther’s nasty-gram in the Blue Paper.  And did a fantastic job of it, too.

I  mentioned in an earlier post, that the following language was included in an early version of the FKSA.

expanding the purposes of purchasing lands to include reducing hurricane evacuation times;

My assumption, now backed up by Carruthers’s response to one of my questions, is that Last Stand spotted this language, understood its significance and demanded that it be changed.  Thank goodness.  The FKSA has been presented to the public as an “environmental” bill, though Carruthers is now arguing that it is not.

At this point, hurricane evacuation times are the major limitation on expanding development potential in the Keys.  The bill proposed decreasing hurricane evacuation times, but did not address the impact that might have on increased development.  That casts doubt on the idea that the FKSA is an “environmental” bill.  The environment certainly did not seem to be the primary focus in the version from October 2015.  In fact, the bill included the language when it was filed later in October 2015 and was not revised until January 2016.

That mismatch between rhetoric and reality makes it hard to understand what the FKSA is really all about.  There are some good elements to it.  There are some bad elements to it.  It looks like some of the bad elements were mitigated to a degree.  That’s why I decided to go through the exercise of breaking it down here.  That way I have a firmer grasp of what it’s really all about.  Maybe that will help other people understand better, too.  I had been relying on media reports and statements made by public officials, but honestly that’s a sure way to be really confused and deluded as to what’s actually going on.

I color-coded a copy of the final version of the FKSA signed by the governor.  It includes links to the statutes being revised.

Yellow:  This has to do with the revisions to the infrastructure sales tax (F.S. 212.055).  The infrastructure sales tax is collected locally, and has been used for such things as building the wastewater systems, parks, government buildings, roads, fire and rescue vehicles, etc.  The FKSA now allows it to be used “to prevent or satisfy private property rights claims resulting from limitations imposed by the designation of an area of critical state concern”.

There’s no doubt that true infrastructure needs still exist: wastewater, roads, bridges, government buildings, etc.  I think it’s fair to ask whether property rights settlements really should qualify as infrastructure.  At the same time, this is a rare occasion where the county is actually trying to be proactive.  (That’s my very generous interpretation anyway.)  I hate to smack their little hands over it.  It makes sense that property rights claims could become a significant financial issue.  And there has to be a way to pay for them.

However, it seems to me this provision can be easily abused.  What is the protocol to make sure these settlements make sense and are fair to the taxpayers?  Whats to stop the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) from coming to some logic-defying settlement with a well-connected bubba?  Based on their handling of the wastewater projects, we have reason to worry.

I’m sure the verbiage below was added to allow for the payment of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority’s (FKAA) legal bills related to Cudjoe Regional.

[…] and all other professional and related costs required to bring the public facilities into service. For purposes of this sub-subparagraph, the term “public facilities” means facilities as defined in s. 163.3164(38), s. 106 163.3221(13), or s. 189.012(5), regardless of whether the facilities are owned by the local taxing authority or another governmental entity.

I don’t necessarily object.  Those costs have to be paid for somehow, but it is an irritating reminder of how much the county’s mishandling of the project has really cost us.  It’s not just the excessive construction cost of the project itself, but other costs as well including legal fees.

By including this language, the bill helps to enable the ongoing mismanagement of the county’s wastewater projects and other capital projects.  The Keys would be far better off with capable, transparent county-wide government.  But for now, that remains a distant dream.

Green:  This has to do with revisions to Bonds for Everglades Restoration (F.S. 215.619).

One very important thing to know, the FKSA does not increase the amount of funding available for water quality projects.  My dialog with Carruthers actually helped clear that up.  The total amount of funding available remains at $200 million, and $100 million has already been distributed to Florida Keys entities for wastewater specifically.  There’s $100 million remaining for water quality projects.  So there’s no benefit from the FKSA in terms of increasing available state funding for water quality projects overall.

The FKSA includes the Key West Area of State Critical State Concern.  It also expands the types of water quality projects that may receive funding beyond wastewater.  Here is the applicable language.

 […] projects that protect, restore, or enhance nearshore water quality and fisheries, such as stormwater or canal restoration projects, projects to protect water resources available to the Florida Keys […]

I have no objection to either provision as long as the funding distribution spelled out in the Mayfield interlocal is preserved and/or renegotiated in good faith.  The terms of the agreement only apply to the $5 million received from the General Revenue Fund this year.  And that wasn’t added until the very end.

In general, I’m nervous about any county capital project.  Monroe County has failed over and over again to take the steps necessary to ensure successful, cost-effective projects.  I’ve discussed my reservations about the canal restoration projects here.  The county has also failed over and over again to ensure fair funding for capital projects – resulting in excessive financial burdens for some areas of the Keys and enormous subsidies for others.

Comm. Carruthers cited this passage in her response to Mr. Diaz.

If the South Florida Water Management District and the Department of environmental Protection determine that lands purchased using bond proceeds within the Florida Keys Area of Critical State Concern, the City of Key West Area of Critical State Concern, or outside the Florida Keys Area of Critical State Concern but which were purchased to preserve and protect the potable water supply to the Florida Keys, are no longer needed for the purpose for which they were purchased, the entity owning the lands may dispose of them. However, before the lands can be disposed of, each general purpose local government within the boundaries of which a portion of the land lies must agree to the disposal of lands within its boundaries and must be offered the first right to purchase those lands.

I would love to know what this means in practical terms.  Perhaps the dialog that Mr. Diaz has begun will lead to clarity.  It seems like there’s an underlying story here.  But what is it?  This passage would seem to apply exclusively to the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA).  Do they own some nice, buildable land that would be perfect for a high-rise condo?

Pink:  This revises F.S. 259.032.  The statute is all about conservation and recreation lands.  The FKSA includes this language.

Lands used to prevent or satisfy private property rights claims resulting from limitations imposed by the designation of an area of critical state concern if the acquisition of such lands fulfills a public purpose listed in s. 259.032(2).

The referenced paragraph 259.032(2) limits the uses of land that can be purchased to settle private property rights claims.  So it sounds like if land is purchased to settle a claim, it cannot be used for affordable housing.  Affordable housing isn’t one of the listed uses.

I get the impression that the FKSA was originally a pro-development bill disguised as an environmental bill.  The county changed the language when they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar.  That would explain why the bill is so muddled.

Blue:  This section revises F.S. 259.105, the Florida Forever Act, as follows.

Beginning in the 2017-2018 fiscal year and continuing through the 2026-2027 fiscal year, at least $5 million of the funds allocated pursuant to this paragraph shall be spent on land acquisition within the Florida Keys Area of Critical State Concern as authorized pursuant to s. 259.045.

On my original read through I took this to mean that the state will dedicate $5 million per year for nine years to purchase land in the Keys.  Unfortunately, the yellow and orange sections dampen some of the excitement.

It looks like this is about allowing and/or mandating money collected in the Keys to be used for land purchases.  The yellow section above allows the infrastructure sales tax to be used “to prevent or satisfy private property rights claims resulting from limitations imposed by the designation of an area of critical state concern”.   The infrastructure sales tax, of course, is collected locally.  The orange section below reinforces that idea by allowing the Monroe County Land Authority to provide money to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for land purchases.  The land authority is funded primarily through the Tourism Impact tax (TIMP), which is also collected locally.

Here’s another worry to add to the pile:  This language appears to mandate a minimum of $5 million toward land acquisitions each year for nine years.  If the state doesn’t come up with the money to make those purchases, does that mean that local taxpayers are now obligated to scrape together the money for those purchases even though there might be more pressing infrastructure needs?  What does this mean for existing obligations?

Let’s not forget that the county has racked up an enormous amount of debt in the past four years.  Much of that is to be paid out of the infrastructure sales tax.  Will that debt have to be stretched out over a greater number of years, thus racking up additional interest?  Will infrastructure needs be further postponed, thus ensuring that they will be more expensive to fix down the road as assets deteriorate?  Will others simply be neglected?

Some clarification would really helpful here.  What exactly does the FKSA really do for (or to) the Keys as far as purchasing land?  Will there be more state money for land purchases in the Keys?  Or does it only allow for the use of local resources for land purchases?  Does it, in fact, mandate a minimum amount of local resources for land purchases?

Rose:  Here’s a bright spot!  A rose among thorns, if you will – hence the color choice.  The Keys got $5 million from the General Revenue Fund for water quality projects.  And that $5 million is to be distributed in accordance with the existing interlocal.  Hurray!  This is money that looks to be outside of the existing $100 million still available.

That suggests to me that the state still supports Keys water quality projects, and is still insisting that the existing interlocal be honored.  Hurray again!

I know for a fact that the federal government does not appreciate the county’s games.  Take it from someone who spent a very awkward and difficult year fixing what the county sneakily broke.  The state, on the other hand, has definitely sent some mixed signals.  However, it was the governor who demanded the interlocal in the first place.  The need for the interlocal has been made crystal clear.

In fact, the governor did not include money in his budget for the Keys  in 2013 because the interlocal wasn’t ready on time.  Ultimately, the Keys received zero money from the Mayfield Grant that year.  Key Largo and Marathon only received money that year because we participated in the “water parade” – a hearing where entities from throughout the state made their case for project funding.  We got $1 million each.

That is why I find it very hard to believe Carruthers’s claim that “Tallahassee” completely flip-flopped on the need for the interlocal.  The split dictated by the interlocal never made it into the bill at all until the very end.  That, to me, suggests that officials at the state level intervened to preserve the split that they demanded in the first place.  Or was at least receptive to an intervention by one of the affected entities.  I would love to know the real story there.

People in the Keys love their home, and rightfully so.  But I think sometimes they lose sight of the fact that everybody loves their home.  Folks throughout Florida think their home regions are the most important, the most special, the most fabulous.  Just like people in the Keys.  In my travels to Tallahassee, I’ve spoken to a lot of these people.

Indian River Lagoon.  The springs.  Miami-Dade.  Orlando.  Tiny rural towns with wastewater systems they need but can’t afford.  There are water quality projects all over the state that are every bit as worthwhile as those in the Keys.  Perhaps even more so.  The Everglades, for example, has state-wide impact.  It’s important for the Keys to acknowledge and respect that there are state-wide needs, and I was happy to see the Village of Islamorada doing exactly that with their recent resolution on Florida Bay.

Another part of that is that local Keys governments need to use resources wisely.  Squandering local resources and then looking to the state for a bail-out is not cool.  Equally as uncool is squandering what is received from the state.  The county, in particular, needs to put more emphasis on financial discipline.  That won’t happen with the current crew, and unfortunately it looks like we’re stuck with most of them for another four years.

People in Tallahassee don’t give a crap about the Keys’ local-yokel drama.  They sure as hell don’t care about “needs” created by reckless over-spending.  They are there to represent their own districts.  Even so, many of these people supported the second $50 million of the Mayfield Grant in 2014 despite having pressing needs of their own.  They did it because the wastewater projects were state mandated.  That is what makes the Keys’ situation truly unique.

How likely is it that state officials will support significant funding going forward if Monroe County officials continue to promote disunity and drama within the Keys community?  Nobody wants to hear it.  The Mayfield interlocal is a simple document but it took months to achieve and has been invaluable in securing state money.  It put a stop to the games and the infighting, if only temporarily, and allowed for a common focus.  When the county undermines the interlocal, they undermine the Florida Keys.  Period.

If the interlocal needs to be updated, fine.  Renegotiate it.  Do not abandon it.  Do not undermine it.  Do not play games with it.

Purple:  This section amends F.S. 380.0552 to include other water quality projects besides wastewater, which I suppose is okay.  But none of these other water quality projects are state-mandated.  That might make it harder to secure state money.  It puts the Keys in the same boat as everyone else.

Orange:  This section amends the powers of the land authority (F.S. 380.0666).  The land authority may now “contribute funds to the Department of Environmental Protection for the purchase of lands by the department”.  In other words, taxes collected in the Keys may be used toward land purchases made by the DEP.

How much will be spent on land for “affordable” housing versus conservation land?  How much will the state contribute?  How much will the Keys contribute?  We don’t know.  Perhaps nobody does at this point.  As I said in an earlier post, Rep. Raschein mentioned a county land acquisition plan.  County staff says there is no land acquisition plan.  So I guess we’ll just have to wait until they all get their stories straight. County staff did provide some documents, and they do seem to support the notion that conservation land will come first.  I’ll have to read through and see what they actually say.  This might take a while.  Bear with me.

This section also includes the watered down language regarding hurricane evacuation times.

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

Not sure how its possible to reduce hurricane evacuation clearance times without improving public transportation facilities or increasing road capacity.  Maybe the county will build the world’s most expensive zip line from Key West to Florida City.  May as well make hurricane evacuation fun!

Summary:  There’s a lot of confusing rhetoric surrounding the FKSA.  It has been presented as an environmental bill, and yet it attempted to remove the remaining obstacle to irresponsible over-development.  When Diaz challenged some of the less than environmentally friendly provisions, Comm. Carruthers angrily said it was never an environmental bill after all.

First there’s a land acquisition plan, then there is no land acquisition plan, and then there is a “sort of” plan.  Two years ago the state wanted an interlocal to divvy up the money for water quality projects, now we’re being told the state wants nothing to do with the interlocal any more.

It’s hard to say what the hell is really going on here.  Hopefully, clarity will emerge as the campaign season wears on.

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