- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

July 21

Miami Herald on David Beckham and new stadium:

It took a year for soccer celebrity David Beckham to give up on his dream to build a waterfront soccer stadium in Miami.

He has now agreed to a landlocked site next to Marlins Park in Little Havana, a site that had been initially dangled in from of Team Beckham, but which they had soundly rejected, calling it “spiritually tainted.”



All that’s now forgotten. With the new stadium site, Beckham must acquire private and city property. Assistance is needed for the residents who will be displaced within what’s being called the “former Orange Bowl site,” not Marlins Park site. Perhaps a faint trace of taint still remains.

We’re glad Beckham didn’t give up on Miami altogether. There’s a strong fan base in South Florida for Major League Soccer.

Although Beckham and his partners were not as warmly received as they’d hoped, this stadium deal should help erase whatever hurt feeling might linger. That means taxpayers who have been bamboozled in the past won’t be saddled with a deal that showers a sports team with public funds.

Will we ever be able to forget that in 2009, Miami-Dade and Miami contributed about $490 million in borrowed construction dollars to Marlins Park from public coffers? For now, the negotiations with the Beckham group have mostly involved securing free or low-cost public land. Miami Beckham United will be built with $200 million of Beckham’s and his partner’s money. As it should be.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado wanted to make that perfectly clear last week when the new site deal was announced: “This is not a Marlins stadium deal,” the mayor said. Let’s keep it that way.

Settling on a site had to happen because Beckham apparently needed to either keep or pass the ball. There are other cities wanting to purchase this coveted MLS franchise.

Still, the acceptance of the site in the middle of a neighborhood is quite a turn-around. When Beckham and his team met with the Miami Herald Editorial Board more than a year ago, they were determined to get a waterfront site. Period.

This despite the fact they were running into roadblocks. The initial push was for a site in PortMiami, a sliver of land next to the headquarters of Royal Caribbean Cruises. Beckham’s team underestimated the backlash from company executives, who believed the company had much to lose in the land deal.

Then, the Museum Park site along Biscayne Boulevard came into play with Parcel B, the strip of land behind AmericanAirlines Arena. That was quickly rejected due to public outcry led by downtown dwellers who were promised green space at the site. Then a tax-friendly deal with the University of Miami was briefly on the table, and then off.

Along the way, Beckham felt some unexpected public backlash, perhaps unaware that local residents had become skeptical of any deal that would involve asking for coveted waterfront property.

In retrospect, Beckham picked a bad time to bring up the topic of a stadium in Miami-Dade, in light of recent efforts by Marlins and Miami Dolphins team owners to get taxpayers to help finance their venues. We doubt there’ll ever be a good time for that, going forward. But Beckham’s Miami ordeal was a learning experience all around.

We’ve learned to see past the glitter when it comes to stadium projects. What’s clear today is this: Taxpayers won’t be fooled again.

Still and all, welcome to Miami, Beckham.

Online:

https://www.miamiherald.com

____

July 21

Tampa (Florida) Tribune on Gov. Scott operating in secret:

The Project Sunburst open-records initiative unveiled by Gov. Rick Scott four years ago has been a huge disappointment for people who think the public is better served by a more transparent government.

As the Tribune’s James L. Rosica reports, government watchdog groups give the initiative failing grades, despite Scott’s sunny pronouncements when he rolled it out to much fanfare.

“It was all baloney,” says Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit supported in part by media interests.

The website was supposed to provide a window into the official email correspondence of Scott and top government officials entrusted with conducting the public’s business.

It certainly sounded like a good idea. As official correspondence became almost entirely digital over the past couple of decades, the access to that communication became increasingly more difficult.

Scott promised Project Sunburst would display his official government emails within seven days of being sent and received, and do the same with the digital correspondence of top aides and department heads.

By logging onto the www.flgov.com/sunburst, the public could read along as their tax dollars were spent and government policies and projects were discussed.

But it never really happened. The site turned into a complaint repository for people with a beef against the government. Mundane correspondence and meeting schedules were posted.

Petersen says Scott doesn’t even use the account to send emails anymore.

This abandonment of a promise for transparency follows a disappointing pattern of conducting the people’s business in the shadows.

Just recently, the governor and the state’s three cabinet members, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, settled a lawsuit brought by news organizations over the secretive way the former head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was forced from his job. The lawsuit contended Scott and the cabinet members failed to follow the state’s open-meetings laws.

And The Associated Press found that Scott had for years used a private email account to conduct business having to do with the state budget and legislative vetoes. His office says he no longer uses the account.

They also point out that Scott was the first to put entire employee email accounts online. But it appears the prospect of having their correspondence open to the public has kept the employees from writing anything of substance that might provide insights into how decisions are being made.

Rather than inspire transparency, Project Sunburst appears to have driven employees to find ways to communicate the important stuff without using email.

Scott is certainly not the first public official to fail to deliver on a promise of transparency. As Petersen points out, each governor over the years has conducted business in varying degrees of openness.

But she says Scott is going to some lengths to be secretive. “It seems like Scott bends over backwards to stop you from getting information.”

It really gets to the trust people have in their government. By this measure, at least, that trust is lacking.

Online:

https://tbo.com

___

July 18

News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida, on county tax rate:

Government spending always should be closely scrutinized and justifiable. When higher taxes are involved, the burden of proof becomes even greater.

Volusia County’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015-16 includes the same tax rate that has been in place since 2013 - $6.32 per $1,000 of taxable value. Before congratulating council members for holding the line on taxes, consider that because property values have increased over the last year, property owners would pay larger tax bills next year under the same rate. That’s a de facto tax increase of 4.4 percent countywide.

Under Florida law, taxing authorities can set the millage to the “rolled-back rate,” which is the number which generates the same amount of revenue as the previous year (in Volusia County, the rolled-back rate for 2015-16 would be $6.02). Thus, property tax bills would remain static.

After several years of belt-tightening budgets made necessary by plunging tax revenues from the Great Recession, county officials are becoming comfortable with loosening the spending restraints as more money becomes available. The next total operating budget for the county is expected to be $665 million, or $37 million more than the 2014-15 fiscal year - an increase of about 5.9 percent.

The proposed new budget includes $57 million in capital improvements, such as a new public works service center, an elections warehouse and sheriff’s office evidence and forensic laboratory. The county also is looking to spend money on the design and permitting process involved in extending the Daytona Beach Boardwalk, and developing off-beach parking areas.

“It’s nice to be part of a council that gets to make these decisions for once,” Councilman Josh Wagner told The News-Journal’s Chris Graham. “Instead of having the sole focus on cutting, we can focus on infrastructure and positive changes.”

Indeed, it’s usually more fun to spend money than to not, especially when it’s someone else’s. But by declining to implement the rolled-back rate in order to collect more revenue, the county would be leaving property owners with less to spend.

To be sure, the county during the dark years of 2007-12 also had to do without by instituting substantial spending cuts, reducing its workforce by more than 500 positions and delaying capital projects. In 2013, County Manager Jim Dinneen noted that the per-capita tax revenue in the general fund had the same buying power than that it had in 2004.

But the County Council also sought to recover that lost ground as soon as possible. In 2013 the council hiked the tax rate from $5.88 per $1,000 to $6.32, which not only was a direct tax increase, it also was nearly 10 percent higher than the rolled-back rate. In 2014, although the rate remained the same, it still constituted a 5.2 percent increase over the rolled-back rate.

If the council approves the proposed rate, it would constitute the third year in a row property owners have been required to pay more when the county had the option of keeping their tax bills the same - despite the fact that because new construction is not calculated in the rolled-back rate, governments still can realize revenue gains. Just not the ones they deem sufficient to support their spending plan. And make no mistake, as Volusia County Property Appraiser Morgan Gilreath likes to point out, tax increases are about spending, not the real estate market.

So the focus should be on the budget and making the county justify why each proposed expenditure must be funded now, why it can’t be pushed back and why the county can’t adopt the rolled-back rate as some other local taxing authorities are doing. Let’s see the same kind of public participation - from civic and business leaders to average Joes - at County Council tax and budget discussions in coming weeks as occurred during the debate over beach driving in May.

Online:

https://www.news-journalonline.com

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