The podcast that aired an hour before Tuesday’s Commission meeting took place quoted a Chronicle editorial from April 3 of this year. The quote was, “People who complain that ‘government has plenty of money, they just want to use it for their special projects’ just aren’t doing the homework.”
I agreed with the quote in past columns and in this week’s podcast as well, citing that the county’s razor-thin efficiency operation is helping us keep costs low in the short-term potentially at the expense of greater costs in the long run.
It turns out, though, that the Chronicle and I were wrong. There has been money and it has been used for special projects.
This column is going to take some nuance. I am going to be in favor of the Commission’s decision on Tuesday to negotiate the Pirates Cove park while being against special project spending. I am going to be for increased spending of impact fees while maintaining my position against them being raised. Neither of these are contradictions with proper explanation, but they do appear at least to be on the surface competing rather than complementing ideas.
Let’s start with Pirates Cove. The Commission voted 3-2 (Commissioners Scott Carnahan and Ron Kitchen in dissent) to move forward with negotiating a price for a 3.6 acre piece of land at the end of Ozello Trail with the intention to turn it into a park featuring grills, picnic tables and a waterfront view.
The Commission approved two appraisals of the property, which appraised the property at roughly $650,000, and the Commission will now turn to the state with a confirmed sale number in hand to ask for grant money in the upcoming legislative session.
The state does have a responsibility to preserve parts of Florida that keep our charm, and as a native Floridian, I do feel this would be a good project to do that. The county can’t do it on its own though.
Commissioner Jeff Kinnard, who has become the public face of this project, promised the Board that not one dollar of county general fund money would be used toward the purchase if it came to a vote. This would be true if the state picked up the bill. It would not be fully true if they don’t.
Dr. Kinnard argued the next funding source would be Duke Energy money, in reference to $1 billion in additional taxable revenue created in 2019 when a new power plant and the Sabal Trail pipeline went online, but Tuesday’s meeting changed the perspective on that money.
“Duke money is general fund money,” Commissioner Ron Kitchen repeated several times. He’s right. The county had been using it for special projects because it was a bonus at the time, but that has not been its restrictive use.
Dr. Kinnard asked how much Duke money was available for the upcoming fiscal year, expecting there to be something to use toward the Pirates Cove purchase in the event the state doesn’t come through. County Administrator Randy Oliver said all of it, $1 million for 2021-2022, has been allocated in one project: the Ft. Island Trail bike path.
This multi use trail also got $150,000 from the Duke funding source, which should be synonymous with the general fund, during the last fiscal year as well.
This $1.15 million spent or allocated on this special project that is going to cost at least $20 million (potentially $50-60 million) more with only the hope of help from the state is an absolute folly.
The Commission does have other money independent of the general fund that they could be using to beautify Citrus. This is the park impact fee, which has around $190,000 for Commissioner Kinnard’s District 1 and around the same amount in Commissioner Ruthie Schlabach’s District 3 representing Beverly Hills.
I applaud the Commission’s decision to at least try for state money to preserve a part of old Florida for all to enjoy, but the idea should stop if no allocation is made.
The Commission should instead focus on improving the existing parks with the money we collect that has restrictive use for parks rather than continuously designating Duke money that could be used in the general fund toward special projects that have no clear plan of completion.
I defended the county and the Chronicle quote many times saying that there was no special fund for pet projects. Turns out I was wrong.