Down in the Mississippi Delta near Clarksdale stands the intersection of Highway 61 and US 49.
A story is told about the legendary bluesman, Robert Johnson, who grew up in abject poverty on a plantation in rural Coahoma County. He is said to have stood at the crossroads one dark night and sold his very soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of the guitar and the incredible success and ultimate escape it would bring.
It’s a tale as old as time, really.
Throughout history – from St. Theophilus of Adana to Doctor Faustus – cautionary yarns have been spun of men and women who, in a misguided pursuit of personal riches and power, fall victim to temptation and sell out who and what they are for what they desperately hope to become.
But what happens when folklore becomes reality?
In my view, Volusia County has become a despicable example of just how pernicious crony capitalism, through the corruption of the campaign finance system, can be when uber-wealthy individuals and their corporate entities repeatedly secure a political quid pro quo from local office holders.
In fact, it represents a legal return on investment in a system that permits a privileged few to develop financial relationships with potential and current office holders, then obtain direct access to the public purse in the form of preferential tax breaks, infrastructure and even direct subsidies for their private projects.
In exchange for the all-important financial resources and political clout local candidates receive as an anointing from Volusia’s “Rich & Powerful,” our elected officials are expected to perform their role like the bought-and-paid-for chattel they are whenever an issue directly involving the self-interests and profit motives of their campaign benefactors presents itself before the dais of power.
The result is a slow erosion of the public’s trust in the legitimacy of their own government.
In Volusia County – a region with some 17% of the population living at or below the poverty level – we see the results of these so-called “public/private partnerships” – a concept that generally means the right last names will be granted public funds to reduce overhead on the development of a private enterprise.
It’s most obvious at places like One Daytona and the newest and bestest “Game Changer” on Beach Street – the super-hyped Brown & Brown headquarters campus.
Just these two projects have taken a collective $50-million in public funds – all facilitated by County Manager Jim Dinneen – a flimsy excuse for a public executive whose sole purpose is to direct the priorities of the elected body away from the broader public interest and keep them focused on the needs, wants and whims of well-heeled insiders.
Look, I know I sound like a broken record, but, in my view, nothing has had a more deleterious effect on our economic viability, equal access to government decision-makers, or compromised basic fairness in the local marketplace like this sinister disease of cronyism and the ensuing backroom deals that are routinely sprung – ambush-style – on an unsuspecting constituency.
It also manifests in insidious tariffs – such as sales-based “enhanced amenity fees” at places like the taxpayer subsidized One Daytona complex – and money-grubbing sales tax increases, ostensibly for transportation infrastructure, which our local governments are actively groveling for (don’t worry, the flashlight-under-the-chin scary stories of what will happen if We, The People fail to cough-up the extra half-cent will be coming later this summer. . .).
Add to that the absolute refusal of our elected dullards on the dais of power in DeLand to even discuss increasing impact fees or requiring that mega-developers pay a smidgen of their fair share of the cost to the public posed by lucrative unchecked growth, and you begin to see the seriousness of the problem in Volusia County.
Unfortunately, our newspaper of record, The Daytona Beach News-Journal, far too often ignores the obvious and tacitly supports the goals of this oligarchical system by touting the potential benefits of a massive entertainment/shopping complex built with the assistance of $40-million in public funds by the billionaire International Speedway Corporation – or wailing about what a boon the complete removal of motorcycle special events, or handing over a public park, to accommodate the wants of super-insider and High Panjandrum of Political Power, J. Hyatt Brown, will be for long-suffering Beach Street merchants.
But what if all this rosy, “Happy Days are Here Again, again!” horseshit turns out not to be the case?
What happens if the highly-touted Brown & Brown building turns out to be just what it is – another glossy glass-and-steel insurance office, where corporate drones arrive at seven – eat lunch in their cubical – then hit the gate at five-o’clock and return to the relative comfort of a zero-lot-line, wood framed gated community in north Ormond?
What if a few years from now, One Daytona finds that people aren’t so willing to take even more hard-earned cash from their own pocket to pay ISC for dubious “enhanced amenities” as a requisite fee for patronizing a shopping center they financially subsidized with their tax dollars?
And what about the wholesale squandering of public access to our most precious natural amenity – and giveaways of our century-old heritage of beach driving – as a means of “incentivizing” the developer du jour (who just happens to be emerging as a major campaign donor in the 2018 County Council election)?
It’s out of control, folks – and it’s getting worse.
And only the electorate of Volusia County can change it.
I encourage all voters to carefully study the legally required public campaign contribution reports for all local candidates for public office during the important 2018 election cycle – I assure you they tell an interesting story.
Then form your own opinion on these continuing Faustian bargains that have been so detrimental to our social, environmental and economic progress.