Friday, April 15, 2016

Board Takes Action But No Public Comment Allowed while County "Finds" Money For BuyBack Program But Still None for Our Neglected Roads

County Administrator Mike Merrill scheduled a "Community Transportation Workshop" Wednesday for the Hillsborough County commissioners. Workshop meetings provide the opportunity for the board to focus on, discuss and ask questions, especially concerning specific complex topics, transparently and in the Sunshine. Workshops are intended for discussion only, not action by the Board. Therefore, public comment is not allowed at workshops. 

The agenda for Wednesday's meeting included presentations and discussions about the proposed mobility fees and discussion about taking the mobility fee ordinances and the sales tax hike ordinance to public hearing. The Eye attended and we were surprised at some of what we heard and the actions taken at the meeting. 

Two-thirds of the meeting was about the mobility fee issue. Mobility fees are a complex issue and when the commissioners started wading into the minutiae, there seemed to be more questions than straight answers. We did note that Commissioner Hagan was concerned about the mobility fee rate discouraging business as he said this:
Hagan should take those concerns into consideration regarding his support for pushing our local sales tax higher to 7.5%  These are the counties with a sales tax rate of 7.5% which is the highest rate in the state: Calhoun, Escambia, Gadsden, Jackson, Leon, Madison and Monroe. Calhoun, Jackson and Gadsden are all small counties in the Panhandle. Escambia is Pensacola and Leon is Tallahassee. Madison is a small county at the George border and Monroe County is Key West. Are we competing with these counties?

These are the counties that we are most probably competing with and their sales tax percentage is the same or lower than our current 7%:  Broward - 6%, Dade - 7%, Duval - 7%, Manatee - 6.5%, Miam-Dade -  7%, Orange - 6.5%, Palm Beach - 6%, Pasco - 7%, Pinellas - 7%, Polk - 7%, Sarasota - 7%, Seminole is 7%, Volusia - 6.5%, 

We don't wan't to put Hillsborough County at a competitive advantage either with a higher sales tax. Our county budget should also have a sound financial framework to appropriately fund our county's highest priorities first which includes funding our local roads, a primary responsibility of local government. 

There was also presentation on a proposal for a buy back program for the county to buy back some of the $94 million impact fee credits that are outstanding today. County staff showed how easy it was for the county to "find" money or reallocate tens of millions of dollars in our existing budget for this buyback program. 

But wait - the county has been telling the public for years there is no money in the budget for roads. Here's proof that is not true. Money was found in the budget to fund the buy back program from growth revenues, realigning CIP funding, using some reserves. Great idea but why hasn't the county done the same fiscal due diligence and funded our roads? Why haven't they pursued with such tenacity funding our roads within our existing budget?

Someone(s) down at county center owes the public some answers. The county commissioners need  to start vigorously challenging where our current budget dollars are going as they are not going to one of our highest priorities - our neglected roads.

At the end of the meeting was this agenda item:
Board Discussion items

This agenda item apparently with a misnamed title of Board Discussion was about all the ordinances the commission was considering to take to public hearing. It was obvious from the discussion that there was clear intent for the board to take action and vote at this Workshop. County Administrator Mike Merrill set the stage for the orchestrated action to be taken. Merrill told the Board he had already scheduled the venues for the public hearings. Chair Les Miller specifically stated that he got the advice and counsel of County Attorney Fletcher prior to the meeting that a separate vote for each ordinance is required to take each one to a public hearing. Remember this meeting was not noticed to the public as a meeting that allows public comment.

Interestingly the discussion regarding the sales tax hike included whether the Board had to decide at that meeting on a specific number of years for the tax or the percentage. Why would those questions be asked if no vote or action was expected to occur? The Board was told by County Attorney Chip Fletcher that the number of years in the ordinance is blank. The board has the flexibility to discuss that as part of any decision they make about putting the referendum on the ballot when they vote immediately after the 4/27 meeting. Fletcher also will determine whether the sales tax hike ordinance title could be changed so that the public hearing is noticed properly but would provide flexibility on the percentage of any sales tax hike without having to schedule another public hearing - not sure if that is possible or not at this time.

Below is the Board Policy regarding Workshop Meetings:
BOARD POLICY - SECTION NUMBER: OF ORDER - BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS- HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FLORIDAEFFECTIVE DATE: April 6, 2016 Rule 18WORKSHOP MEETINGS. By supermajority vote, the Board may schedule a workshop meeting to discuss items of special importance or complexity to the Board. The purpose of a workshop meeting is to allow staff to make presentations and to allow questions by the Board. Generally, public comment will not be allowed during a Board workshop meeting. However, a citizen may provide written comments on a workshop issue to the County Administrator at least a week in advance of the workshop meeting which will be provided to Commissioners as part of the workshop agenda materials. Further, public comment may be allowed at the discretion of the presiding officer, but will be no more than three (3) minutes for each person unless the presiding officer wishes to extend the time limit. If the Board plans to take official action on a proposition at the workshop meeting, then members of the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard and public comment will be taken. An agenda of the order of business at the workshop meeting shall be prepared by the County Administrator and made available to the public a reasonable time before the workshop meeting. The County Administrator’s Office shall include language in the agenda of each workshop meeting that if the Board plans to take official action on a proposition at the workshop meeting, members of the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard and public comment will be taken. Official action may be taken upon any of the items discussed at the workshop meeting and any of the items of official business that require immediate consideration and decision by the Board. If a workshop meeting is scheduled on a Wednesday following a Tuesday land use meeting, the workshop meeting shall start at 1:30 p.m.
Did the Board violate this policy by not opening up the meeting to allow public comment on the actions the Board obviously planned to take at this workshop? We are pursuing that question with the County Attorney's office. 

The Board should have used the workshop to discuss the items to gain closure on their questions to finalizing any ordinance language. They should have requested the finalized ordinance language be brought back, just a week later, to the April 20 regular BOCC meeting, where public comment is always available. That way the meeting would have been properly noticed providing an opportunity for the public to weigh in on whether these ordinances should even go to public hearing. Then the Board could have taken their action voting on the finalized ordinance language and whether to take the ordinances to public hearing. 

At the very least, the Workshop meeting should have been opened up for public comment when it was clear the Board was going to take action and vote.

With the ballot language not yet finalized, there was a conscious decision by the commissioners to vote at this Workshop on each of the 5 ordinances to take to a public hearing . It was a unanimous vote to take the first four related to mobility fees to public hearing on 4/26. It was 6-1, with Commissioner White voting No, to take the sales tax hike ordinance to public hearing on 4/27.

Even if the outcome was the same at the 4/20 BOCC meeting, the proper process and policy should have been followed by the Board, Merrill and Fletcher, especially after we have all experienced the Go Hillsborough debacle. They are all well seasoned commissioners and bureaucrats. There's already enough distrust in this county and trust is built on being honest and being honest brokers.

Almost nothing is coincidental in the Merrill Administration. Most everything is setup, orchestrated and staged like a well choreographed ballet.

Next time their choreography should at least include following their own policies and properly notice a meeting where the intent is for the Board to vote and take action.

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