As regular readers of these screeds know, I have an opinion about everything, from the nutty to the newsworthy, the routine to the ridiculous.
But when it comes to the machinations of this bastardized Oligarchy that passes for governance here on Florida’s fabled Fun Coast – the plotting, maneuvering and self-serving schemes of our elected officials and their uber-wealthy benefactors – it goes beyond a passing annoyance for me.
Because, like many of you, I have a tangible investment in the outcome – my hard-earned tax dollars – and a true interest in what the future will look like for my grandchildren.
In my view, the idea of bringing impact fees back before the Volusia County Council next week for the sole purpose of deciding whether the real estate development community should be afforded even more considerations – after being given the long-time luxury of having impact fees remain stagnant for nearly two-decades, while road construction costs increased some 74% over the same period – essentially refusing to pay their fair share of solutions to the very infrastructure burdens they created with greed-crazed sprawl.
Florida law requires that impact fees be based upon the most current and localized data available – but since when did Volusia County government give two-shits about the law – or basic fairness in the age-old conflict of interest between serving the best interests of their constituents and meeting the clear profit-motives of their political benefactors?
When you factor in the complete lack of strategic vision by our elected and appointed officials, you begin to get a clear picture of just how ham-handed and out-of-touch those dullards on the dais truly are (and have been):
During a building boom in the early 2000’s, our ‘powers that be’ borrowed some $65-million to underwrite road projects, such as improvements to Williamson and LPGA Boulevards – something they would later claim was necessary to lure warehouse jobs at Trader Joe’s Distribution Center, and see the publicly underwritten Tanger Outlet become a reality.
Without bothering to consider the proverbial ‘rainy day,’ these mental midgets believed they could pay the money back using the steady flow of impact fee revenues available at the time.
According to a February 2018 report in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, in total, the county has spent an estimated $13.4 million of the $14.7 million received from impact fees since 2012 on debt service alone – leaving a paltry $1.2 million available for transportation infrastructure.
In addition, the 12 cents per gallon on gasoline consumers pay in Volusia County earmarked for road construction (which has brought in some $24.7 million in gas tax revenue since 2017) has, for a variety of reasons, remained painfully flat – even as county government allowed unchecked growth along the spine of east Volusia from Farmton to the Flagler County line.
Now, the bond money is quickly running out – even as our transportation and utilities infrastructure needs soar.
This self-inflicted “emergency” now has come home to roost – leaving county and municipal officials salivating over the anticipated $40 million in annual revenue their ill-advised half-cent sales tax initiative would bring.
The problem is – after the “old” Volusia County Council (which looks a lot like the “new” Volusia County Council) voted last November to increase impact fees by 100% in some categories over a two-year period, with 75% of the increase beginning next month, and the remaining 25% in 2020, now the development community is asking for the unthinkable.
Following an election which saw $1 of every $5 in campaign funding originating from the real estate development community, the Volusia Building Industry Association, a local trade lobby “representing, promoting, and protecting the construction industry,” wants the County Council to change how it enacts impact fee increases – to allow developers to pay the fee on pending building permits before March and avoid the higher rates – a scheme that will allow developers to put even more money in their already groaning pocketbooks.
Naturally, our doddering fool of a County Chair, Ed Kelley, accommodated the VBIA’s request like the sycophantic lickspittle he is – inexplicably agreeing to resurrect and rehash the impact fee matter at the very same meeting that the VCC is scheduled to appropriate nearly a half-million in public funds for a controversial special election on the sales tax increase.
After all, how does one say “no” to the very hand that feeds your political ambitions?
When this incredible turn-of-events broke last week, I had a conversation with a very smart former law enforcement colleague about the horrific optics of politicians – who just received a sizable portion of their individual campaign funds from the development community – opening up the impact fee debacle to provide even more incredibly lucrative concessions by creating a loophole to avoid full payment of the already approved increase.
We both agreed that, when taken in its disproportionate totality, this latest reveal comes dangerously close to how most citizens define quid pro quo corruption (this for that).
Clearly, individuals and corporations are permitted by law to make campaign contributions to candidates who have similar views to their own, or those who are sympathetic to a cause or industry in which they have a vested interest, as a means of ensuring favorable policy decisions – and the Supreme Court has refused to criminalize campaign contributions absent an explicit something-for-something arrangement – apparently making what we see happening all around us perfectly legal.
However, in my view, when the connection between massive campaign contributions, and the millions in return on that investment some political insiders realize in Volusia County – coupled with the disproportionality between specific industries (with 20% of campaign funds originating from developers) and the considerations, accommodations, millions in infrastructure support, tax abatement, fee suppression, etc. – the ethical line becomes too bright to ignore.
Look, I’m not an attorney – just a flummoxed bystander struck dumb by the crystal clear ethical, moral and good old-fashioned right vs. wrong questions posed by the coercive effect massive campaign contributions by wealthy insiders and the various corporations and LLC’s under their control, invariably have on the implementation of public policy – and the distribution of public funds.
I happen to believe that even a cursory quantitative analysis by any credible regulatory agency, or our state’s neutered ethics apparatus, would clearly demonstrate that these massive campaign contributions have an influential impact on the distribution of public funds to private interests.
It seems clear to me, anyway – and I believe a sizable portion of my neighbors feel the same way I do: This stinks like a rotting mackerel by moonlight.
My sincere hope is that our elected officials on the Volusia County Council will see that what they are being asked to do by the building/development industry and their stooge Ed Kelley – an official act to reverse a decision made by a previous council for the sole purpose of limiting its financial impact on the very developers who contributed so heavily to their various campaigns during the last election – is simply over-the-top and too blatant to ignore.