Margaret Blank: Stewardship Act: Smoke and Mirrors

margaret blank headshot

by Margaret Blank…..

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.  Even worse, 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.

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.  Classy as always.  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.

Just so we’re clear as to where I stand politically:

  • I am a huge supporter of Rep. Raschein.  She’s done a tremendous job for the Keys.  Can’t say enough.
  • I dislike and distrust Heather Carruthers.  She is reckless with taxpayer money.  Her self-serving Emergency Services Surtax (ESS) proposal was detrimental to the majority of Keys locals and was supported by extremely deceptive statements.
  • I do not know Kevin Diaz, but I liked his letter.  I think it was clear and well-written.  I appreciate the time and the research he put into it.  At this point, I don’t know if his analysis is correct or not, but I think it’s great that he did it.  Carruthers’s toxic over-reaction says a lot about what she thinks of open discussion and critical analysis.

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?  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 real goal was to widen roads and increase development.  They probably backed off when somebody caught them at it.

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.  The 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.

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 thenameless, 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.


4 thoughts on “Margaret Blank: Stewardship Act: Smoke and Mirrors

  1. Hi Margaret, I’m beginning to realize that Everything that comes out of the Machine’s media outlets-All(as in every paper publication Daily, Weekly, Promotional, Special Editions), Radio-news, talk, public opinion, Morning Magazine(as an example) are only Parroting the Machine’s spin on how the ?leaders? want to Con the Voters/Taxpayers. Why am I so pessimistic? Well I’m 76 years old and lived approximately 42 years in the Chicago Megalopolis and during my formative years observed a Legend in Corrupt poltics. His majesty The Honorable Richard J. Daily Sr. One of the things that I’ve come to admire about the Daily Sr’s administration was that although everyone knew or suspected that he was a crook R. J. Daily Sr. Took care of the little guys in the neighborhood. You got a cracked sidewalk, trees trimmed, need to put in a driveway, No problem. Call up your ward committee man, tell him your problems, He checks the voting logs and if you’ve been pulling the handle marked Democrat, the next morning a City of Chicago work crew shows up and your problems are over. Kinda like a Robin Hood type character-even tho it was crooked the People in the neighborhood got taken care of. Our Extremely Crooked County Commissioners and corporate municipal leaders DON’T take care of the Voters/Taxpayers. They’re only taking care of Themselves First, then The bubbas, and other “Strap Hangers”. As long as their is County Wide Voting NOTHING will change. The Machine will make sure their Puppets will jump when their strings are pulled. Another Historical observation I’ve made is the longer a Civilization, country, movement exists the more Corrupt it becomes until it Collapsed from internal greed and corruption. The Banana Republic of America seems to be in lockstep sliding down the drain. Who was it that said? When You control the media you Control the minds of the people? Was it Uncle Jo Stalin, Mao, Joseph Gobles, Kim jung un, George Neugeant, all of the above?

    1. Keys citizens definitely have to be very aware and informed. It would be nice to be able to take public officials at their word. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible. The issues are complicated but government officials, particularly those at the county, try to complicate them even further. They can get away with an awful lot if people are confused and/or uninformed.

      I’m at the beginning of the learning curve on the FKSA. I still have lots and lots of questions.

  2. Thank God we have people like the dynamic Margaret Blank, Martha Huggins, and of course Naja & Arnaud who make it all possible for people who are paying attention and researching for the truth to enlighten us with their findings!
    And who would have looked at all if Diaz had not effectively said, “Hey, y’all! You better watch this bill, because it looks like another Trojan to me!”
    And you can take that word ‘Trojan’ as either or both of the two common interpretations, because we have here yet another bill that contains something unexpected and once again the taxpayers get screwed for the pleasure of a few fat cats who risk nothing.

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