Commentary by Ricardo Martinez - Village took wrong approach in preparing community for resiliency-related GO bond vote

The community is greatly divided on the bond referendum and the main issue is how the village has rolled out the referendum. The lack of input from voters and insufficient information on the projects has led to the current divisiveness and “ugliness” in the upcoming election. It should be the village’s and the current council’s goal to get overwhelming and unified support from Key Biscayne residents for the use of a GO Bond as well as the underlying proposed projects.

Let’s do this right and unify our village behind these projects through process and education. This Is not government by referendum, it is informing the voters about actual projects and costs before they vote, and not just the notion that they are voting for “giving this or future council’s a better financing option.” That option will still be there in the future.

The facts:

The village needs to address the general issues in the referendum. Some of which have been discussed ad nauseum for years, which raises the question, why now during these difficult times?

General Obligation bonds, now and in the future, are generally the most cost-effective way to address large capital projects that are not revenue producing. However, they are paid by raising the ad valorem taxes. This means that the payment method for these projects is predetermined if the “cheaper GO Bond'' is utilized. Two of the projects under consideration, undergrounding and stormwater, have been under constant debate as to which pay-for method (ad-valorem, assessment, etc.) should be utilized. Also, the stormwater fees were recently increased. How does this play with the referendum request? These issues should be explained and resolved for the sake of community unity -- condo and single family, renter and owner. The voters have not been fully educated on the consequences of voting in favor of the bond. It’s not as simple as you are just “giving this or future council’s a cheaper alternative.” If that was the case, why would the state mandate a referendum vote. The voters’ need to know what they are giving them a cheaper alternative for. The projects need more specificity, and a cost.

The current economic uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic is a real concern. Many residents question the sudden timing of this referendum, regardless of whether these bonds will not be issued now. It is important to note that the 20/21 budget contemplates interest payments for the Resiliency Bond. Clearly the issuance of GO bonds is not far off.

The referendum materials lack details regarding the projects to be financed using the GO Bond. Despite assertions that this is how other municipalities proceeded with GO Bonds, that is not the case. Before casting their votes, most citizens need details such as specific projects and cost figures that are more than “good ballpark figures.” That’s what other municipalities did.

If this referendum is approved, regardless of the fact that the regular project approval process needs to be followed, the electorate will give current or future councilmembers the authorization to issue $100 million in debt, subject to the 1% Debt Cap, for the purpose of resilience -- without knowing what they are specifically approving the authorization for. The constant threat of more expensive financing, utilizing the remaining debt cap, should not be used to garner support. It is the council’s fiduciary responsibility to act responsibly regarding decisions involving debt commitments on behalf of the village.

The village set out on this process being advised by their own attorney to proceed cautiously because citizens may be reluctant to approve bonds. He explained that they had one shot to get it right by laying out the foundation for the residents to understand the need for resiliency projects, not the benefits of GO Bonds as is being presented.

The village hired a Resiliency Officer after much debate as to whether the position should be resiliency or communication. Some questioned the necessity of the role, despite the growing popularity of the buzzword “resiliency.” Regardless, the Resiliency Officer should be creating a KB Master Resiliency Plan and updating the Comprehensive Plan for Sea Level Rise. One of the objectives of the 2020-21 budget is to “Develop a resiliency & sustainability plan which will focus on developing projects or initiatives.” This is the information the voters need to see before deciding how to vote on a GO Bond.

The Village stumbled out of the block requesting $150 million, asking voters to bypass the 1% cap, and stating that current interest rates were the reason this should be done now. You have to understand why many raised concerns with these developments.

Florida set up debt restrictions/regulations -- including referendum on GO Bonds -- on local governments in order to prevent corruption, discourage extravagance and promote sound fiscal policy. I believe it is the latter reasons why most people want more information about projects covered by this bond referendum. Once the electorate has this information, they can decide to give the council the ability to use GO Bonds.

This additional information is necessary since the law requires a “purpose or bond question” be approved by the voters. Our three projects are grouped as a single purpose, “resiliency,” even though the Complete Streets is classified under Quality of Life: Transportation in the budget, not resiliency.

The bond, if approved, must be used for the single purpose of resiliency. However, projects can be transferred by council, as long as they are within the same purpose. Little do the voters know that they could end up with totally different projects financed by the bond in the name of resiliency.

That is why we need more specifics on the projects, especially since this council may not be the one deciding projects in the future. Why weren’t these three projects proposed as separate referendum questions? Wouldn’t it be best to know how voters feel about each before moving forward? These issues should be resolved beforehand, to have a strong consensus and unified support for the projects. Failure to address these issues now will lead to problems later.

Which brings us to the assertion that “this is how other municipalities did it.” That is not true. Miami Beach and Pompano Beach underwent a thorough process that included citizen input, separate referendum questions, and more specifics about prospective projects prior to the vote, which resulted in overwhelming support. That is what we are lacking, while being told we are just voting for a better financing option. That is simply not true. We are voting for a financing option for $100 million in unspecified projects.

So how should we proceed? Taking Miami Beach as a model, and modifying for our realities, I would proceed as follows:

Village Manager creates an initial project list utilizing the Resiliency Officer’s “KB Resiliency & Sustainability Plan,” the Master Plan, Comprehensive Plan for Sea Level Rise and other studies as well as input from other department heads.

Council members and Village Manager review and prioritize the projects list and make adjustments.

The village publishes the project list along with the village’s Resiliency Plan.

Mayor Davey convenes a citizens panel composed of people from both sides of the “Boulevard” to review the projects and hammer out differences that have plagued some of these projects for years.

Village workshops for the community should be held to explain the projects, and get feedback on the individual projects.

Council workshops should be held to finalize bond questions by project, listing their estimated costs in order to formulate bond questions.

Develop ballot information and send to residents’ homes and emails several months prior to the next primary or general election.

This would ensure a thorough review and prioritization of the projects with support from the council, residents and department heads for the projects in order to get an affirmative vote on the GO bond questions, which offer the best financing option. The recently approved village budget has funds to proceed with current needs while this plan is rolled out.

To see how the two municipalities proceeded pre-referendum in their communities, check out these websites:

Ricardo Martinez