Much has been made about the animosity that has existed between the City of Stuart and Martin County. It is true that, at times, there has been tension between the governmental entities. But why should it exist at all?
All local government, both counties and municipalities, are the purview of the states. Municipal governmental formation is done usually by a state charter. The authority that municipalities possess can be altered by charter and/or state statute depending on the state’s constitution.
There are no legal distinctions in Florida between cities, towns, or villages. Local government has “home rule” authority under the Florida Constitution. However, that authority can be pre-empted by an act of the legislature that is signed by the governor. Cities are formed by an act of the legislature granting approval of a charter after a vote of the residents within the proposed boundaries. There are currently 413 municipalities in Florida.
The U.S. Constitution does not mention local governments. Therefore, under the 10th Amendment, it is up to the States to control political subdivisions within their borders. Of the 50 states, 48 have or had counties as political subdivisions while in Louisiana the subdivisions are called parishes and in Alaska boroughs.
Until the mid-20th century, counties as arms of the state provided very little municipal-type services except those things that the state was required to provide. For example, courts (usually in a town known as the county seat), a tax collector, and law enforcement through a sheriff. The state capital could be far away, and it was not reasonable for locals to travel that far.
The criteria for establishing new municipalities was generally when enough people settled in an area and the population density required that a more organized entity was needed to provide municipal services. Achieving potable water, sanitation, and better roads would necessitate asking the state to allow incorporation. The provision of these services by both is the root cause for the animosity between the Martin County and Stuart.
Stuart was a long-established town in 1925 when Martin County was created from parts of St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties. Stuart was the long-dominant county seat with about 40% of the county population in 1930. By 1960, it had 25%, and then by 2000, less than 10%. Today, the population has stabilized at a little over 10% of the county population.
From the County’s inception until the 1980s, the City of Stuart was pivotal in electing County Commissioners. As the City’s percentage of population has decreased in proportion to Martin County’s overall population, Stuart has become less and less a factor in countywide elections. This loss of political power translates to a loss of governmental influence.
However, culturally and historically, the residents of Martin County have looked to Stuart as their “city” regardless of where they live in the County. This has created an economic burden on the actual taxpayers of Stuart to provide for these perceived “citizens” and their expectations. The recent Sailfish ballfields are a good example since most of the people using them are not from Stuart.
At the same time, Martin County has been providing municipal services to unincorporated residents for decades. This has acted as a barrier to municipal incorporation throughout the County. As an example, one does not have to proceed further than the recent Hobe Sound defeat of incorporation. These two factors, history and culture and the County providing municipal services are the two main reasons for the discord.
Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and St. Lucie counties have proportionately few residents in unincorporated areas. Martin County has less than 20% of its population living in incorporated areas. Early on, Martin County began providing services instead of encouraging incorporation. Now the formation of new cities is much harder than in the past because the main reason for them has been usurped by County government.
So, what outcome can be expected? In the past, both governments have been too quick to impugn the motives of the other. Further, County Commissioners did not understand and act as if residents and taxpayers of Stuart were also residents and taxpayers of Martin County. As an example, if the City annexes, the County does not lose ad valorem taxes. Their General Fund continues to collect tax revenue regardless of where residents live…unincorporated Martin County or The City of Stuart.
What is not collected by the County in municipalities are the MSTUs (Municipal Service Taxing Units.) Those additional revenues are how Fire/Rescue and Parks, for example, are paid for in unincorporated Martin County. Since these services are not provided by the County within the City, they can’t be charged through the County’s General Fund.
One of the sources of the friction is how the cost of providing the services is allocated between the specific MSTU and the General Fund. For instance, when calculating the Fire/Rescue MSTU, are the costs such as Human Resources or the Legal Department’s time allocated at all? If so, whether it is an accurate amount charged to the MSTU. If not, then the General Fund would contain costs associated with providing the services that should not be included. There are several other items, such as impact fees, that have contributed to the antagonism.
These and other problems could be remedied If both can acknowledge their different roles, then every taxpayer in Martin County would benefit.
To read a more in-depth study of this problem: