Our View

 

Our View

 

Date: June 9, 2010
by: The Observer Staff

 
 

GOAL 1 — “To preserve and enhance the character of the town of Longboat Key by the following: 1) ensuring that the location, density, intensity and character of land uses are responsive to the social and economic needs of the community and are consistent with the support capabilities of the natural and manmade systems; and, 2) maintaining an environment that is conducive to the health, safety, welfare, and property values of the community.”
Longboat Key Comprehensive Plan, Future Land Use

This is what Longboat Key town commissioners will decide — perhaps on Wednesday, June 9.

They will make a subjective judgment on whether the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s proposed redevelopment and expansion:

• Is “responsive to the social and economic needs of the community”;

• Fits in “with the support capabilities of the natural and manmade systems”;

• And is “conducive to the health, safety, welfare and property values” of the Key.

That is the decision — a subjective conclusion that each of the seven commissioners must reach.

All of us may opine — as the director of planning and zoning did and as the Islandside Property Owners Coalition has — that the Key Club has asked for a lot of departures from the town’s zoning codes. But town codes allow that; the Key Club has the right to ask for as many departures as it deems necessary.

These departures matter indeed, but only in the context of whether commissioners believe they exceed the bounds of the criteria above.

On this, most everyone would agree: This has been an unpleasant process for all involved. But that often is the case with important far-reaching decisions. They rarely are black and white.

In that vein, we can expect the commissioners won’t make their final judgments with a definitive “yay” or “nay.” History repeatedly has demonstrated on Longboat Key, they will look for a way to approve but with a long list of conditions.

Call it massive; call it too intense (we believe it is neither). The economic future of Longboat Key hinges on this project coming to fruition. That is the real subject of the vote.

+ It’s easy — raise tax rates
Well, that was easy — balancing the town of Longboat Key’s budget for the next fiscal year.

Just raise the general-fund tax rate 24.6%.

What the heck, if you live in a $1 million home on the bay side of Gulf of Mexico Drive, you’ll only be paying $220.80 more a year in Longboat Key taxes. If you live on the beach side of Gulf of Mexico Drive, you would see your Longboat taxes go down $240.20 next year.

Good job!

Why should anyone find fault with that?

Here’s why: It provides a free pass for the town government. And for Town Manager Bruce St. Denis.
If it were only as easy as this for taxpayers and businesses. When interest rates drop on your savings, just tax someone to make up the difference. When the value of your retirement portfolio goes down or when revenues and profits fall in your business, just tax someone to make up the difference.

To be sure, there are many Longboaters who have no qualms about paying more in Longboat taxes. We hear it every year. In the bigger picture of property taxes, Longboat Key’s tax rates are comparatively small.
They consume from 7% of your overall property taxes in Manatee County to 15% in Sarasota County. And this is why many of those Longboaters who believe taxation is more beneficent than theft say they’re happy to fund more police officers and fat pension plans if it only costs them $100 more a year. Heck, that barely covers a dinner for two at one of Longboat Key’s premier restaurants. How can anyone bellyache over that?

But that line of thinking — that a $100-a-year tax increase is no big deal — has been the attitude that infects almost every town commissioner. Never in their lifetimes on the commission have they pressed the town managers to produce measurable annual efficiencies that many of the commissioners had to meet when they managed their own businesses.

Government instead for the past three decades has spread at every level — federal, state and local — far worse than any oil spill, to the point government employees have lapsed the private sector decisively in pay. The average federal employee now earns — not counting benefits — $71,000 a year compared to the average private-sector employee at $40,330. According to USA Today, when the recession began in 2007, the U.S. Department of Transportation had only one person earning a salary of $170,000 or more.
Eighteen months later, 1,690 employees had salaries above $170,000.

Where do people think that money comes from? And if they would think a little bit harder, they would realize that what we’ve watched in Greece is soon to be here — more people leeching off of the producers than there are producers. Read “Atlas Shrugged.” Ayn Rand becomes more prescient every year.

None of this is to say we have bad people in Longboat Key government. Their incentives need to be changed.

This is where direction from our town board of directors — the Town Commission — is crucial.

The commission should break its mold and its version of insanity — doing the same thing over and over with never different results.

You know the annual routine: The town manager looks for direction on the budget from commissioners, rather than his taking a leader’s initiative and proposing financial improvements and efficiencies. The options are always always couched in two choices:

• If the town keeps the same tax rate, it’ll likely have to cut some services or not give town employee raises or both.

• But if the town raises the tax rate, it won’t have to cut services.

And the commission responds: Keep it tight; show us.

When the first budget arrives, it’s typically government in the margins — a knick here, a tweak there. The most dramatic change to the town’s budget occurred a year ago, when commissioners settled on a 4% cut in total spending over the previous budget.

With property assessments falling another 10% and about $1 million in cash needed to shore up the town employees’ pension funds, it looked a month ago as though the town could be facing a second consecutive year of declining revenues and spending cuts.

Welcome to the private sector’s world — where businesses here and everywhere have faced as many as three years, in some cases four years, of consecutive declines in year-over-year revenues. And more than 4%.

But rather than contract spending to meet revenues, Town Manager Bruce St. Denis opted to propose tax increases, however slight some may think they are (click here to view a table of Longboat Key tax rates).

So now the annual nitpicking begins. We’re not convinced two more police officers are necessary. Nor certainly has the town manager made a convincing case that he has enacted every efficiency gain or meaningful expense cut in the town’s operations.

Break the mold, commissioners. Ask the town manager to show gains in productivity and to figure out a way not to increase taxes. If American businesses and families can scale back to weather a recession, governments should be no different. If Longboat Key can make it through this fiscal year with a 1.4903 millage rate, it can do it again.

Change St. Denis’ incentive. Tie his and his managers’ pay to increased efficiency and productivity and providing acceptable services at less cost.

Break the mold; show other communities how it can be done. Hope springs eternal.

 

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