Commissioners need to get fiscal house in order

The election is over, and the new incoming Martin County commissioners have their work cut out for them. 

Simply getting up to speed with the ongoing litigation is a job in its own right. Among the cases: Lake Point, All Aboard Florida, Midbrook, King Ranch, Zeus Park and Pitchford Landing.

Understanding the budgetary process and priorities is paramount. The Martin County Tuxpayer Association believes the county must begin to manage its escalating expenditures. 

Our recent study shows the county population has grown approximately 18 percent over the past 15 years while government expenditures have in­creased approximately 60 percent for the same period.

There are many reasons for this, but the county has approximately a $250 million capital shortfall and should look at ways to generate revenue ( other than ad valorem increases).

Recently, there has been an effort to reduce this shortfall through the Florida Power & Light Franchise Fee, allocating money away from the community rede­velopment areas and economic devel­opment fund, as well as taking money from the health care reserve fund. 

Although these are short-term sourc­es ofrevenue, the Martin County Tax­payers Association believes these reallo­cations are not healthy in the long run and the county should develop strategies that manage this shortfall without using short-term strategies.

Taking money away from the CRAs and economic development fund is counterproductive. At the end of the day,these redevelopment areas will produce more tax revenue for the county.

If the county demonstrates some discipline in its spending, there is a pos­sibility that a sales tax could be success­fully passed to tackle the capital short­fall. However, the taxpayers want a guarantee that the money would be used for capital expenditures and they also want to see conservative fiscal policies developed at the board level.

Martin County has been a leader in developing a comprehensive plan that allows the county to have local control over its development and economic future. The plan provides a great deal of specificity relative to how, and in what manner, the taxpayers of Martin County would like to see their community grow.

However, there is no long-term plan that converts this comprehensive growth plan into specific financial needs and costs. In other words, what are the most effective methods for funding our county's future vision?

This plan should look out over a mini­mum of 25 years and suggest methodolo­gies to create a more diversified tax base. The Martin County Taxpayers Association has repeatedly stated that the county needs a more diversified tax base, and we believe such a study would substantiate this.

Martin County is a great place to live and raise a family. However, it is becom­ing a community where only the wealthy can afford to live. Hopefully, our leaders will study ways to keep our expenses down while continuing to protect our quality of life.

Richard Geisinger is communications chair for the Martin County Taxpayers Association.

Treasure Coast Newspapers Saturday, October 1, 2016 9
Martin County Taxpayers Association: Fire-rescue merger still a good idea

July 15, 2016

By Richard Geisinger
fire truckRecently the city of Stuart voted not to proceed with the fire-rescue merger discussions with Martin County. For years the Martin County Taxpayers Association has pushed for a merger between the city and the county. The reason for the push: taxpayer savings.

In 2014, MCTA made the prediction there would be more than $1 million in savings immediately if the two departments merged, and this savings would only increase over time. Since then, a consultant was hired and the merger study began. As the information began to unfold, it became clear the savings would be much greater than $1 million.
As with any study, the devil is in the details. When the consultants plugged in average property assessments for fire-rescue service, they used the same average for the city and the county. Unfortunately, this is not reality. They also used an incorrect number for the costs currently associated with the city of Stuart's fire-rescue department.
However, the greatest void in the study was the lack of salary and benefit package comparisons between the two departments. In the past few years the city of Stuart has trimmed its operations and developed a more efficient model of operations. Additionally, the city realized that nearly 50 percent of the incorporated properties were not paying into the system because of low assessments. This realization caused the passage of a fire assessment tax that would require all properties to pay into the department.

According to the studies we have reviewed, firefighter/paramedics are paid significantly more in the county than in the city. This is an important difference, and it contributes to the imbalance between the departments.
It would have been helpful if the study would have considered these differences and made recommendations to balance these salaries and benefits. Additionally, the study should have used real numbers for the average property assessments. If that would have been taken into consideration, the discussions about the merger might have continued. Instead, the study simply concentrated on closing stations, sometimes without enough thought to response times.

The Martin County Taxpayers Association continues to believe the merger could produce huge savings if done properly. However, to accomplish that, the consultant must review the discrepancies that are discussed above.
Real assessment numbers and salary/benefit discussions have got to be included in the study. Additionally, management and operations must be a part of the discussions. It is not about simply closing stations.
Interestingly, nearly 80 percent of all calls into fire/rescue are medically related. This statistic alone should cause a paradigm shift in the manner the departments operate.
The Martin County Taxpayers Association believes there are considerable savings that could occur without a reduction of the level of service if the departments were merged in a logical professional manner.
Finally, the city of Stuart and Martin County must begin to develop a better, more trusting environment between each other. There will never be any mutually beneficial projects to consider if there is no trust. And, ultimately, these additional costs will be paid by all of the taxpayers.

Richard Geisinger is communications chair for the Martin County Taxpayers Association.
Fire Merger 06.27.16

Recently the City of Stuart voted not to proceed with the Merger discussions with Martin County. For years the MCTA has pushed for a merger between the City and the County. The reason for the push...taxpayer savings. In 2014 the MCTA made the prediction that there would be over $1,000,000 in savings immediately if the two departments merged and this savings would only increase over time. Since that time a consultant was hired and the merger study began. As the information began to unfold it became clear the savings would be much greater than $1,000,000.

As with any study, the devil is in the details. When the consultants plugged in average assessments, they used the same average for the city and the county. Unfortunately this is not reality. They also used an incorrect number for the costs currently associated with the City of Stuart’s fire/rescue department.

However, the greatest void in the study was the lack of salary and benefit package comparisons between the two departments. In the past few years the City of Stuart has trimmed their operations and developed a more efficient model of operations. Additionally, they realized that nearly 50% of the incorporated properties were not paying into the system due to low assessments. This realization caused the passage of a fire assessment tax that would require all properties to pay into the department.

According to the studies we have reviewed, the County pays their Fire/Rescue department an average of about 20% more per employee than the City of Stuart. This is a significant difference, and contributes to the imbalance between the departments.

It would have been helpful if the study would have considered these differences and made recommendations to balance these salaries and benefits. Additionally, the study should have used real numbers for the average property assessments. If that would have been taken into consideration the discussions about the merger might have continued. Instead, basically, the study simply concentrated on closing stations, sometimes without enough thought to response times.

The MCTA continues to believe that the potential merger could produce huge savings if done properly. However, to accomplish that, the consultant must review the discrepancies discussed above. Real assessment numbers and salary/benefit discussions have got to be included in the study. Additionally, management and operations must be a part of the discussions. It is not about simply closing stations.

Interestingly, nearly 80% of all calls into fire/rescue are medically related. This statistic alone should cause a paradigm shift in the manner the departments operate.

The MCTA believes there are considerable savings that could occur without a reduction of the level of service if the departments were merged in a logical professional manner.

And finally, the City of Stuart and Martin County must begin to develop a better, more trusting environment between each other. There will never be any mutually beneficial projects to consider if there is no trust. And ultimately, at the end of the day, this costs all the taxpayers more money.
Not All Aboard Florida 03.16.16

This week’s events on the FEC tracts provided us with a glimpse of what can happen when there is an accident on the rail line...two lives were lost.

At the time of this writing, there is not enough information to know exactly what caused the accident. However, what we do know is that a freight train and a truck had a collision and the individuals in the truck were killed.

The crossings were closed for over 4 hours between Indian Street and Cove Road. If the train was longer (as predicted for future freight trains), the crossings could have been affected from the St. Lucie River all the way to Cove Road. Add to that the fact that FEC could have been carrying hazardous materials and we have a perfect storm getting ready to happen.

The MCTA has been opposed to All Aboard Florida and increased rail traffic and has been an advocate for planning some sort of mitigation to help counteract the increased train traffic. Whether or not “All Aboard Florida” or “Brightline” as it now called, is successful we must have an alternative way to cross the tracts. Planning an overpass or underpass does not happen overnight. We have been given plenty of notice that the freight traffic is going to pick up along with the number of trains as well as the length of the trains. It is time to have a conversation about alternatives.

Martin County recently had a study on a majority of their real property holdings and we do not believe that the idea of an underpass or overpass was even mentioned. Not uncommon since the experts were from out of the area. It is virtually impossible to know what a community needs when you do not work or live in the community.

As it stands, Martin County owns property on the NE corner of Indian Street and the FEC. Additionally, Martin County owns property on the NE and SE corners of Monterey and FEC.
Both of these intersections have potential for some sort of underpass or overpass. That is not to say that there should be additional mitigated crossings in our south region. If we do not begin to look at this seriously, we will be reacting instead of being proactive. Reactive behavior historically cost more and is much less efficient.

We cannot afford to put our community at risk if there is a horrific train accident with no way out. Minutes become critical when you have had a heart attack, stroke, or have been in an accident.

We urge the county to take the lead on this very important issue. They own the land and have the staff to begin the study.

Possibly we could get ahead of the curve if we begin to act now. Crossings will be blocked and delays will happen. Property values are certain to decline with the simple fact that there will be additional freight trains (notwithstanding the high speed passenger trains). If we can mitigate this problem we will all be safer and our quality of life, although diminished, won’t be disastrous.
What is the Capital Improvement Plan 03.07.16

One of the most important, but often overlooked, elements contained in local government budgets is the Capital Improvements Plan, or CIP. A Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is a multi-year planning instrument used to identify needs and financing sources for public infrastructure maintenance and improvements. Public infrastructure reflects capital improvements required to provide the level of service adopted in our Comprehensive Plan. They include roads and bridges, parks, beach access, buildings, fire engines and police cars, anything that has a life span of three years or more and costs in excess of $60,000. The level of service is a measurement adopted to try to assure a quality of life standard, i.e., library books per person, acceptable traffic congestion, fire and emergency response times, acreage of parks required per person, a wide variety of things desired by our citizens.

The County Administration has posted a guide to the CIP as approved by our County Commission. It says, "Martin County provides necessary and desired public services to the community and the purpose of the CIP is to facilitate the orderly planning of maintaining, preserving, and protecting the infrastructure system that is utilized for those public services.” The CIP is a proposed schedule for the expenditure of funds to maintain, acquire, or construct these necessary improvements over the next ten-year period. This plan provides the public, residents, and stakeholders transparent information on how the County plans to address significant capital needs over the next ten fiscal years.

The CIP offers a comprehensive outlook of countywide needs by:

• Maximizing the uses of revenue to reduce the burden of the taxpayers

• Encouraging efficient government by interdepartmental coordination

• Maintaining a fiscally sound and consistent financial program

• Guiding anticipated growth and development needs

• Enhancing opportunities for federal or state grant awards

The CIP represents a comprehensive and direct statement of the physical development policies of Martin County. The County has a comprehensive process for capital improvement planning and budgeting and this process is guided by the Capital Projects Policy.

The CIP is the link between planning and funding the construction of our anticipated needs. It is guided by Section 14.4 of our adopted Comprehensive Plan. It plans for public facilities based on projected population. It is a ten year Plan, meaning that it looks forward ten years, the first year of the plan is the foundation of the plan that is what gets built next year. The first five years of the plan have to be fully funded and can be relied on by our citizens. The CIP is built using a weighted process with emphasis on eliminating public hazards, replacement of obsolete structures/equipment, maintaining the adopted “Level Of Service” and reducing operational costs.

The process is supposed to be a technical decision but, as with many things, it can become political. This is where you as a taxpayer and MCTA as a taxpayers organization can get engaged. Martin County will soon release it draft CIP for 2017, and will hold hearings in April to determine priorities. Knowing that funds are limited, our goal is to insure the priorities are met and critical capital improvements are completed.
County’s Owned Real Estate Study 02.24.16

Martin County has recently received the report from CB Richard Ellis (CBRE), their consultants concerning the county’s facilities and real estate holdings. MCTA has advocated this study by an independent professional organization to give the county’s leadership objective, non bias information pertaining to their real property ownership. This includes 550 parcels inside the urban service area and 5,400 outside the urban service district.

At a time where ad valorem revenues are critical to the county, there is now a basis from which a dialogue can occur concerning the use of county owned property. Additionally, CBRE placed values on selected sites based on current market sales.

MCTA advocated for this study because the county holds title to many different parcels of property and many of them may have little or no use to the county. Some, on the other hand are critical either to the county, utilities, drainage, etc., that provide benefits to the taxpayers.

The report brings up some interesting discussions concerning the county owned golf course, the administrative buildings (owned and rented) and multiple vacant parcels. Most of these properties are important to the county’s operation, recreation and some are environmentally sensitive, while some are simply parcels that seem to have little or no relevance to the county’s operation.

We would caution the county to take the necessary time to digest this report and possibly have town hall meetings discussing the outcome of the study in an effort to get feedback from the taxpayers. Selling or renting county owned assets may seem like a slam-dunk when it comes to raising money to reduce our capital shortfalls, however, the MCTA association cautions the county that selling assets to pay for operational shortfalls may not be a healthy resolve. We call the capital shortfall an operational one due to the fact that the county used capital funds to shore up operations during the recession, thus we have the $250 million shortfall.

The county is just beginning the budgetary process for the upcoming year. Part of this process should be to identify possible reductions in the budget that could be used to gradually reduce the capital shortfall. We have had an increase of $9 million of revenue from increased real estate values, either by appreciation or the addition of new residences and commercial buildings that have come on line. Additionally, there should be an increase of revenues of approximately $9 million in FPL franchise fees that have also recently been approved by the county.

With the failure of the sales tax referendum last year the county has had to look at all possible strategies to reduce the capital shortfall. Some of these strategies included increased millages and FPL franchise fees. However, the biggest challenge facing us is our increases in expenses across the board.

$18 million is a far cry from the $250 million shortfall, however, if you reduce the budget by as little as 5% the county could then have an estimated $33 million to dedicate to the reduction of the shortfall.

The MCTA believes that the county should use the report to begin discussions on their real estate holdings and dispose of the properties that are of no consequence to the county. Recognizing that properties close to the rail crossings like the Indian Street (Fair Grounds Property) may be needed to mitigate the closings that will inevitably occur when and if the rail traffic increases. We need to think long term, 20 - 50 years out.


mctax logo 2017
Martin County Taxpayers Association
 
Quarterly Luncheon

July 11 • 12:00 p.m.

Sandhill Cove • 1500 S.W. Capri • Palm City • FL 34990

Martin County’s proposed one cent $ales tax
penny
sarah heardGuest Speaker:
Comm Sarah Heard

Members: $25
Non-Members: $30

Reservation must be paid in advance by July 6, 2017

Kindly RSVP at admin@mctaxpayers.org

 or Mail to MCTA
PO Box 741
Stuart, Fl 34995


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