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Longboat Key Wednesday, Apr. 25, 2012 5 years ago

Our View: Reviewing codes long overdue


Longboat Key commissioners don’t get much credit, but for this we want to encourage them to forge ahead. Reviewing the town’s zoning codes and comprehensive plan is a task that is long overdue.

It must be done.

We know that Bob White, founder of the Islandside Property Owners Coalition and steadfast opponent to the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s expansion, believes this idea of reviewing the code and comp plan is something of a sop to the Key Club and was triggered only because a 12th Circuit judge ruled in IPOC’s favor and against the Key Club earlier this year. But allow us to provide a little context:

This subject has been on the public agenda and put off since 1999. Some longtime Longboaters might remember that a Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce task force — sanctioned and encouraged by the Town Commission — recommended this idea 13 years ago. Even then commissioners and town leaders were worried about the future of Longboat Key’s commercial enterprises and properties.

Commissioners asked the chamber task force to present suggestions on what could be done to spur the upgrading of commercial properties and make the town’s regulatory climate less antagonistic toward business.

After months of meetings, the chamber task force recommended the town simplify its zoning code, especially by combing through it and throwing out a lot of the outdated codes that were written for a different era.

Commissioners did, indeed, adopt a few minor code changes, but as evidenced by what has occurred and not occurred on the Key in the past 15 years, the changes didn’t amount to much. The big recommendation — to review the entire code book — died a quiet death.

And, yet, the need remained and still does.

This task should not be viewed as an attempt to help any special interest. It should be viewed the same way the town convenes a charter review commission every decade; or the same way the state of Florida convenes a constitutional revision commission and tax revision commission every 20 years. Laws get old; many live beyond their usefulness.

When many of the town codes were written, they were crafted to address a period of explosive growth and development. Today, Longboat Key is built out. Its future is one of redevelopment; and that creates a need for a different set of guidelines and rules.

So while we applaud the Town Commission for moving forward on this important task — for Longboat Key’s future, we also want to caution them on the idea of hiring outside consultants to complete this job.

There are plusses and minuses to consultants. Two plusses: They can be agnostic and uninfluenced by the town’s politics and special interests, and they bring in fresh perspectives.

A minus: They are outsiders. Think of them as guests telling you how to decorate the home with which you are plenty happy. Often times that doesn’t go over so swell.

We’ve noted the following before: Longboat Key is full of extraordinary and talented minds. We hear raves about some of the thinkers who serve voluntarily on the Longboat Key Revitalization Task Force. It would seem to make sense to tap such minds to address this challenge. It’s akin to writing a new town charter or new constitution. Draw on the people who have a vested interest and love for the Key. Many of them were visionaries in an earlier era. We should tap their vision again.

+ Too soon to be talking taxes 
And so the cycle begins yet again…

That is, the town of Longboat Key’s annual budget discussions. And just as they have the past half-decade, they are beginning again with the town administration signaling to the Town Commission that declining property values will lead to lower property-tax collections, which will lead to another budget deficit.

Either taxes must go up, or expenses must go down, or a combination of the two.

At first glance, it appears the town administration is — surprise — leaning toward increasing what taxpayers are required to pay.

It’s interesting how this process works — how business and government respond to revenue shortfalls. In business, the first thing a CEO does when confronted with higher expenses than revenues is look for ways to cut expenses. In government, the response most of the time is the opposite — look for ways to raise revenues. Not by selling more, but by forcing taxpayers to pay more.

Longboat taxpayers received a big hint toward that approach last week in a memo from Longboat Key Finance Director Tom Kelley. The memo alerts commissioners to a predicted decline in property values and tax collections, and also lists two potential revenues sources to make up the shortfall:

• A public-service tax on utilities.

• Requiring the town-owned water-and-sewer utility system to pay a franchise fee, the same way Florida Power & Light Co. pays a franchise fee to use the town’s rights of way.

Commissioner Lynn Larson, one of the group’s more vociferous budget hawks, essentially called these ideas the “acts like, walks like a duck” — a tax is a tax. And former Mayor George Spoll noted that if you’re going to raise taxes, then raise taxes. That way, property owners can include the higher taxes in their federal-tax deductions; only the utilities would get to deduct the franchise fees and public-service tax.

What seemed to lack emphasis, though, was the David Brenner approach, which ultimately led to the departure of the previous town manager. In each of the past two budget cycles, Vice Mayor David Brenner had asked the town manager to do what business executives do when confronted with a serious financial challenge: Look ruthlessly at the company’s operations and expenses and present a plan that accomplishes the mission — however painful it might be. Take the entire organization out of its comfort zone. Explore options to reinvent. Cut costs.

The standard line in government these days is “been there, done that” — for the past five years. There is nothing left to cut without seriously downgrading the services taxpayers demand or demoralizing the town staff.

But surely they jest.

This is a good test of Interim Town Manager David Bullock’s mettle. He can go the route of his predecessor and ask commissioners to make the tough choices, to go line-by-line through the town budget to help him balance the budget. Or, he could do what most of his private-sector counterparts do with their directors: Recommend a plan requiring himself to make some tough but necessary decisions.

This is the part of the job every leader hates — deciding the fate of some employees. But, as all Longboaters know, in every company and organization, there is always someone not measuring up, someone dampening morale. Start there.

And then keep looking.

It may turn out, indeed, the property-tax rate must be increased. But taxpayers will be much more accepting of that if they know the town manager and staff have done all they can to cut the proverbial government fat.

“… Whatever the ultimate outcome of the case against George Zimmerman for his shooting of Trayvon Martin, what has happened already is enough to turn the stomach of anyone who believes in either truth or justice.

“An amazing proportion of the media has given us a painful demonstration of the thinking — and lack of thinking — that prevailed back in the days of the old Jim Crow South, where complexion counted more than facts in determining how people were treated.

“One of the first things presented in the media was a transcript of a conversation between George Zimmerman and a police dispatcher. The last line in most of the transcripts shown on TV was that of the police dispatcher telling Zimmerman not to continue following Trayvon Martin.

“That became the basis of many media criticisms of Zimmerman for continuing to follow him. Only later did I see a transcript of that conversation on the Sean Hannity program that included Zimmerman’s reply to the police dispatcher: ‘OK’

“That reply removed the only basis for assuming that Zimmerman did in fact continue to follow Trayvon Martin. At this point, neither I nor the people who assumed that he continued to follow the teenager have any basis in fact for believing that he did or didn’t.

“Why was that reply edited out by so many in the media? Because too many people in the media see their role as filtering and slanting the news to fit their own vision of the world. The issue is not one of being ‘fair’ to ‘both sides’ but, more fundamentally, of being honest with their audience … ”
Thomas Sowell
April 24, Creators Syndicate

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