Our View

 

Our View

 

Date: September 16, 2009
by: The Observer Staff

 
 

The second administrative test for the Longboat Key Club’s proposed expansion plan is expected to occur at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in the Longboat Key Town Commission Chambers.

Members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment are expected to rule on two questions:

Should the Longboat Key Association Inc., the organization with oversight of Longboat Club Drive, be included as one of the applicants in the Key Club’s application to amend the town’s Outline Development Plan?

If the board of adjustment rules in favor of the Longboat Key Association, the Key Club’s application would become incomplete, requiring another delay and decision to be made by Key Club how to proceed with its application.

This meeting should not take long — because in the 50 years of the town’s zoning code, no judge or board of adjustment has ruled in favor of what the Longboat Key Association is arguing.

The association says that if Key Club Associates proceeds with its expansion plan, construction will require it to make new “cuts” (entryways) on Longboat Club Drive, which the association will argue, constitutes development. And if that is true, the association would be expected to become a party in the club’s development plan.

But in all of town history, that contention has never been enacted. To be sure, for all of the developments along Gulf of Mexico Drive, the state of Florida, which owns and controls Gulf of Mexico Drive, has never been a party to any development that has made “cuts” on the state road.

If a majority of the zoning board of adjustment rules against the application, it would set a precedent, which, no doubt, would trigger litigation and put Longboat Key taxpayers at risk for legal fees and judgments.

Our hope is the four zoning board of adjustment members who have committed to being at the meeting vote unanimously in favor of the Key Club’s application being complete.

If just one of these members votes against the application and in favor of the Longboat Key Association, the vote will trigger another delay. Procedurally, the zoning board must have a majority of four votes to determine the outcome of a petition.

Let’s get on with this.

+ Good government decisions
Sometimes, albeit rarely, governments make good decisions. Here are two:

• The Longboat Key Town Commission voted Monday night to adopt the 1.4903 base millage for the town.

• Gov. Charlie Crist endorsed a deal with Port Dolphin LLC that will preserve two sand sources for the town and compensate the town for the sand’s early dredging — all the while increasing natural gas supplies for the state.

In the case of the former, this year’s town budget process was far less contentious than in previous years, a sign that the majority of commissioners embraced the proven tax strategy expounded by famous economists Milton Friedman and Arthur Laffer. In a recession, you don’t raise tax rates. And you do more with less.

This is what every business in America has done over the past two to three years. Government should be no exception.

To this point, we have commented over the years that one of the problems with government is that lawmakers rarely, if ever, demand productivity gains from government managers.

For instance, Town Manager Bruce St. Denis gets paid his contracted salary and benefits no matter what.
There are no incentives in his compensation to make town operations more efficient and less costly. St. Denis’ incentives are tilted toward protecting levels of service, which usually means protecting the bureaucracy.

But consider the flip side of the bureaucratic coin: Imagine what good things would and could result if the town manager and employees received extra compensation every year for hitting financial targets and efficiency gains.

A radical approach? No, that’s the way the private sector operates every day.

Meantime, Longboat taxpayers came out OK on the Port Dolphin LLC natural-gas pipeline, thanks to Gov. Crist.

Crist obviously saw the injustice in giving Port Dolphin free access through the Gulf of Mexico without paying any compensation to others who want and need the sand on the Gulf bottom.

As the pending agreement stipulates, Port Dolphin will have to reimburse the town up to $5 million and pay up to $500,000 in the town’s permitting fees for the sand in two locations north of Anna Maria Island.

As they say in business, it’s not a good deal unless everyone wins. This is a good deal.

+ You’re paying for free care
In all of the heated discussions about health care, one area that has avoided much attention is an important local one: the cost of charity and uncompensated care at public hospitals.

If you look at the table below, you can see that Sarasota Memorial Hospital in 2007 and 2008 was unable to collect $118 million from patients who didn’t pay. This fiscal year, if the nine-month results stay on track, that number is likely to reach about $48 million. That’s $166 million in three years — more than 10 times the annual budget of the town of Longboat Key.

Who pays for this free care?

You do. Taxpayers do. Patients who have insurance do.

If you look at the table below, it shows how Sarasota Memorial Health System’s property tax has generated almost enough money to cover the cost of the hospital system’s unpaid patient bills over the past three years. This tax money keeps the hospital system going. Without it, the hospital system would not be operating profitably.

To the hospital system’s credit, it will have reduced its bad-debt expense by 20% over the past three years. Instead of bad debt increasing, the hospital’s efforts to collect at least something from patients has reduced bad debt.

Still, this is a huge amount and one that is deserving of taxpayers’ attention. This is especially so in light of the Sarasota Public Hospital Board in the next few weeks opting to raise its property-tax rate from 0.94 mills to 1.08 mills — a 15% increase in recessionary times. Hospital officials say they need this increase to make up for lower property assessments (and less tax revenue) and to be able to meet the costs of uncompensated care and move forward with a plan to build a new hospital tower.

But going forward, how much of this burden are taxpayers willing to bear? Sure, it’s great to have a public hospital that treats everyone. But this is not free. What is the threshhold for annual uncompensated care that taxpayers should or are williing to accept — $40 million, $56 million, $60 million?

What’s more, consider the record of the hospital board. Since 1995, its tax rate has risen from 0.25 mills to what is soon to be 1.08 mills — a 332% increase. Since 2000, the hospital board’s millage rate has risen five times.

The amount of uncompensated health care that Sarasota Memorial has administered to Sarasotans has necessitated these tax increases. But the tax increases beg the question: How can the amount of uncompensated care be reduced?

To no surprise, many public hospitals would favor the Democratic Party plan to require mandatory health insurance for all. That might help a little, but it wouldn’t eliminate what would become endless cases of insurers refusing to pay for patients who abuse their insurance.

Mandatory insurance probably isn’t going to occur in the coming Obamacare. Meantime, however, we would advocate a new public protocol at Sarasota Memorial: No admittance to the emergency room unless it truly is an emergency. All other patients must be directed to less costly walk-in clinics. And: Everyone must pay — even if it’s over time.

To see a chart illustrating the cost of free heath care, click here
 

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