by Rick Boettger…….
We are taking a break from detailing the individual Monroe County Commissioners’ Ethics violations to report on Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners’ meeting at the Harvey Government Center in Key West. It was a doozy. We will continue with Commissioners Kolhage (“It’s All Danny’s Fault if We Lose”) and Murphy (“His Weirdness”) in the next two weeks.
For Tuesday’s meeting, I wanted to follow up on Commissioner Heather Carruthers’ assertion about it being common for the BOCC to squander hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars without blinking an eye. She convinced her fellow commissioners to spend another $100k extending the ever-losing SUFA lawsuit some years ago with the following sharp reasoning: “And honestly, I mean, you know, a hundred thousand dollars does sound like a lot of money to a lot of people, but we make decisions all the time about things that I think might be even less justifiable spending that kind of money.”
So I went over the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting and, sure enough, I found an item that would squander well over $100,000 of our tax money. (Do these pop up every month, or did I just get lucky?) It involves the purchase of privately owned parcels of undeveloped property by the county, to reduce pressure for more development and reduce the county’s exposure to “takings” lawsuits. We already lost a biggie, millions of dollars, for depriving a landowner of the right to develop his property. With our running out of ROGO’s (“Rate Of Growth Ordinance”) which give landowners the right to build a house on their property, the idea is buy them ourselves.
Eight properties were on the agenda for the BOCC to approve the purchase and the prices. Two on Big Pine Key were properly priced at $25,000 each, and were on sensitive land touching water. But six were on inland lots on Duck Key and seemed on first blush to be overpriced, at around $80,000 each. So I did a quick spreadsheet analysis, which you can look at HERE. It compares the cost per square foot of the six proposed purchases with four comparable properties I found that had sold on the open market in the last 19 months. Open market: $6.49 per square foot. The amount of our tax dollars being proffered: $9.57 per square foot.
This adds up to an immense difference. We are offering a total of $558,000 (plus transactions costs) for land that should cost at the open market rate only $378,516. This is a difference even above Heather’s benchmark $100,000, a whopping $179,484 out the window in windfall profits for some lucky landowners.
I handed a copy of my spreadsheet to Commissioner Danny Kolhage, noting to the other commissioners that I thought he was the only one who could understand it, as it involved percentages and fractions, hard stuff that would only make them feel bad ( I didn’t voice that last part, but they got the vibe). Danny, to his credit, perused and quickly understood it. He vouched for its being worth my discussing it with the county staff responsible for the high numbers.
The Land Authority is conveniently housed just down the hall from the meeting chambers, and I met with two fine gentlemen in charge of it, their Executive Director and Senior Land Acquisition Specialist. Their justification boiled down to saying the chosen properties demanded a premium because, though not on the water, had water views between houses across the street that were on the water.
In point of fact, this was not true.
I went back to my office and used Google Maps ground level view to see these views for myself. For example, to see the view from one of the target lots inland on Bimini drive, you look at the photo of the house on the water, e.g., 134 Bimini Drive. That photo is taken while standing on our proposed acquisition.
Result: of the six properties, only one had any glimpse of the water, a sliver through the stilted carport. All the rest were either face-on to a house, or completely occluded by our normal lush foliage. Water views were no advantage.
In fact, my four comparables were MORE desirable than the proposed purchases. Two of my four were corner lots. One had the good fortune to have a real water view: the house across the street on the water was on he center of a three-lot parcel, enjoying large empty space on either side of it, My comparable was directly across from one of the empty lots.
Most damning, one of my lots was right next door to one of our proposed purchases. Same size, same non-view. Open market price in April of 2016: $80,000, the highest per square foot of all my comparables. But our offer today was even higher: $95,000. A difference of $15,000, or 18.75%.
Does anyone think Duck Key land prices are shooting up after hurricane Irma?
I reported this further information back to the land staff. They had no counterargument.
But, drum roll: with the staff and the BOCC getting this free analysis from me, which took about two hours in all, they blithely went ahead and approved the purchases at the inflated prices! Not even a deferral to rethink the high appraisals that do not withstand even rudimentary scrutiny.
I also spoke up about the new contract with the SPCA for running the Marathon animal shelter. Not only does it increase the rate from the $251k/year agreed to as recently as May 17, 2017 to a new rate of $425k/year, it contains contradictory language about spending money out of county. I asked if they had learned anything at all from the SUFA debacle, where they were outraged that SUFA was sending big dogs that had been in cages down here for as long as five years up to a cold-weather climate where they were all adopted in weeks. They ignored this advice as well, and voted quickly to approve the flawed contract as is.
So why am I going to run for the County Commission for District 2? Basically, to have a conversation with our commissioners, the Keys corporate media, and the voters who do not read the Blue Paper. Not only do the commissioners not reply at all to my criticism of the financial reporting and the outrageous statements they made in closed sessions on the SUFA lawsuit, but the corporate media has not written a word about the immense amount of their misreporting, the $15 million and 700+ other errors, or the closed session declarations.
I have a lot to say. I tried speaking at the BOCC, but not only is the time limited to 3 minutes, but the County Attorney, Bob Shillinger, said any critical comments had to be circumscribed by relating specifically to a current issue, such as the spending-money-out-of-state language. I did so, but wonder at any prior restraint of free speech rules the County has conjured, and will be following up on that with Shillinger next week.
At this meeting, the first since the Florida Commission on Ethics levied its $20,000 in fines for a total of 16 separate violations against four of the commissioners (they gave George his three last year), they did not say a word about it. They have never voiced a word of apology to us citizens for their misconduct. They explain themselves by dismissively saying “I’m not perfect” or attributing malign motives to me, kind of like blaming the traffic cop who nails you for drunk driving. The process of their monthly meetings is an embarrassing display of self-congratulatory pomp. They fell all over themselves for 15 minutes at the beginning praising George for his wondrous term as Mayor, and themselves for being such a great group since replacing the notoriously pro-development Gang of Three in 2006. Their accomplishments since then include not only the million-dollar SUFA debacle, but the Hickory House disaster, the iPhone and laptop scandals, the grinder pump mess, the Oceanside Marina “vacation rental lockout” scandal, a lack of providing worker housing, etc., etc. And, as far as I can tell, nothing they said indicated any of them had gone into the 1800 pages of material supporting what they were voting on, such as the land purchases and the new animal contract, as I had.
Way back in 2006, I wanted to run against Sonny McCoy, one of the “Gang of Three”. By then he was so unpopular, anyone could have beaten him, and they did. But Cynthia begged me not to do it: “You’ll be gone up the County all the time!” Having been married for 20 years to a Coastie and enduring the months-long deployments alone, she wanted us to enjoy our golden years within sight of each other.
That’s how I got into journalism. It has been a great 12 years, but the BOCC has shown me I have to up my game. By running, I will have access to election venues that allow free speech and access to a county-wide audience for a number of months, even if I lose. The corporate media might even cover me, though I would not be surprised if they censor my criticisms of the sitting Board.
How can I run for District 2, George’s seat? I consulted with the Supervisor of Elections’ office, and it turns out you do not have to live in a district to run for office. If I won, I would have to establish legal residency there to be sworn in. That would be easy, renting a home, changing my driver’s license and voting registration. Join a church, eat at the local restaurants. I might have to quitclaim my interest in my Key West home to Cynthia, but that’s no big deal. All easily accomplished in a week, in time for the first meeting.
What are my chances? Larry Murray got only 8% of the vote, as the most critical watchdog over the School Board. We just elected Trump, and Alabama might elect Roy Moore, showing what the voters think of ethics in general. Nonetheless I respect the will of the people. It is not my responsibility to force myself upon them, but I see now that people like me, who can analyze reams of complex material and handle it ethically, should get off our lazy asses and throw ourselves out there. Let the people decide.
It is not exactly a law, but common practice to leave a media position when running for office. Therefore I will not formally declare until I am done with this series. In time for a very merry Christmas.