Saving Us Money?

SRQ govt throws money away on vanity projects, yet claims fundamental obligations are too expensive.

Originally published May 26, 2012 in SRQ Daily
Of the many reasons given for government action, one explanation is met with nearly universal approval: saving taxpayer dollars. During challenging economic times, who can argue with local leaders who tell us that their actions will save money?

Yet in Sarasota, saving taxpayer dollars has been the rationale used for abdicating fundamental responsibilities of government. And while the public interest is compromised to “save money,” the same leaders eagerly dole out dollars for unvetted, unproven projects that are antithetical to the free market and limited government.  Citizens pay taxes to ensure sound government. In 2010, one Charter Review election was so close that an automatic recount was triggered. The second place candidate, Kathy Bolam, was approached by the Supervisor of Elections office and told that a recount would cost taxpayer dollars (and require SOE employees to work extra hours).  Bolam declined the recount.

In 2005, when a local judge ruled against voter approved terms limits for the Sarasota
County Commission (approved by 68 percent of voters), it was up to the commissioners
to appeal the ruling on behalf of voters. They declined to do so. After refusing to hold a
charter-mandated stadium bond approval referendum during regular elections in 2008,
county commissioners continued to dodge the required referendum in 2009 and concocted a scheme to issue over $20 million in stadium bonds backed by County money without the required voter approval. In every instance—the failure to hold a recount, appeal the term limits ruling or seek voter approval for a massive spending project—our government told us that these actions were too expensive. They were “saving” us money.

While Sarasota government pinches pennies when it comes to processes that ensure the
public interest, its appetite for imprudent spending projects is unwavering. Our county
commissioners allocated $650,000 to Sanborn Studios, a company that promised to create a $164 million in economic impact in five years, along with at least 117 jobs. A cursory vetting would have revealed Sanborn principals with a history of industry failure. The struggling (or is it failing?) Sanborn Studios has yet to produce numbers anywhere near projections. One year ago, the County Commission was ready to finance Jackson Labs with $100 million, failing to provide citizens with any cogent analysis and ignoring the assessments of Collier and Hillsborough counties who rejected the deal because the numbers didn’t add up. Why does Sarasota County leadership, with money to burn for Jackson Labs and Sanborn Studios, find an automatic recount, required voter approval for spending projects and a term limit appeal so “expensive”?

The most recent attempt to “save money” involves re-precincting. The Supervisor of
Elections office is reducing the number of precincts from 156 to 98, and polling locations are being reduced from 127 to 85. The changes, made without public input and without sharing the methodology involved, will “save” us $100,000. These changes may be appropriate, but failing to solicit meaningful public input that could actually be incorporated into the changes once again reveals where citizens rank in County priorities.

We live in a county where basic public works projects have languished for years—
sidewalks along Myrtle Street and the widening of River Road—because there is “no
money.” Sarasotans who live in incorporated areas (and are taxed twice) have been told
that Sarasota County is unable to pay to maintain city parks and beaches, unlike parks
and beaches in unincorporated areas maintained at County expense. Yet Sarasota
County can find $100 million for a spending project rejected by its neighbors and at the
same time call its fundamental obligations to citizens “expensive.” Broward County
Commissioners appealed their local court ruling against term limits; they didn’t find it
“too expensive.”  There must be other Florida counties that conduct automatic recounts
that don’t ask candidates to “save tax dollars” by forgoing recounts.

Sarasota County government should be focusing on fundamental responsibilities to its
citizens—ensuring public input, upholding the County charter, maximizing voter access.
That’s what our money is for. Stop trying to save us money by compromising the public
interest.

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