During commissioner comments at a recent City of Stuart meeting, Commissioner Becky Bruner made a remarkable request of her fellow board members.
She wants to spend $50,000 of taxpayer dollars to help the Martin County Arts Council with their planning of the renovation of the old high school building on East Ocean Blvd. The building belongs to the school board and not the city. Though the building is within the city, there is no other connection to the Arts Council, and the council is not a city department or agency.
As an elected official Bruner, is not alone in her desire to use public funding for pet projects with just the most tangential connection to government. Stuart repeatedly supports private entities like Stuart Main Street to the tune of $70,000 per year. On the BOCC, Commissioners Smith and Ciampi use what are known euphemistically as “District Funds” to funnel money to their favorite projects and interests without going through a formal vote of the commission.
The MCTA has noticed a pattern that is only getting worse in our elected local officials, that is using taxpayer money to fund those pet projects. We are not against the use of tax dollars for legitimate public purposes. Defining those legitimate purposes are the problem that elected officials must wrestle with determining.
If Martin County were Jacksonville, Tampa, or Miami, then what constitutes a public purpose would be broadened. These are localities with governments that have greater tax bases and populations that can support a more robust public format. Local government in Martin County is constrained in both the amount of taxes collected and the number of residents from whom to collect them, forcing government to choose on what projects to spend tax dollars.
Bruner’s ask for a $50,000 subsidy for the Arts Council may seem trivial, but that effectively takes those funds away from more pressing core government needs such as public works and safety. The BOCC works around those obstacles by ostensibly creating separate district taxing accounts to be used at the discretion of each commissioner within their districts. There are some parameters in place to observe the bare legalities, but it is still taxpayer money.
Two recent examples of how this system can go awry are the actions of Commissioner Smith. He used district funds to have a new “artistic” bar top created for the Stuart Beach café to the tune of $37,000 and $200,000 to be added to a new fire house in his district for architectural details. In both cases, the original designs were in the budget approved by the entire commission. Smith, by his judgement alone in these two instances, is circumventing the process.
The MCTA wants the public to know that we believe that tax dollars are not being used in the most efficient manner. Though we do not rate elected officials on their fidelity and conservatism in fiscal matters, we feel that we are obligated to point out when they may claim to be both by their words but fail to do so with their deeds.