There’s no quick answers

Two weeks ago, the Board of County Commissioners, under the leadership of Chairman Ed Ciampi, gathered a group of experts from a range of fields to decide whether or not to dredge the St. Lucie Inlet. Some panelists consider this an imminent crisis–that the inlet will become unnavigable from shoaling.

Since that night, when the panel of marine, business, government and academic leaders attained a consensus within the first 30 minutes that Martin County’s marine industry–which reportedly contributes more than $250 million to the local economy–would collapse without a navigable inlet, the county commissioners have been under fire for not having a quick solution to fund the dredging.

There’s no quick answer to that question, especially since inlet maintenance used to be largely federally financed.

Panelists made it abundantly clear that financing the work, which cost more than $11 million the last time the channel was dredged in 2007, is a formidable task, not only for this year, but in four years hence—the frequency required to maintain a clear channel.

It seems almost laughable that we do not find out that the inlet’s funding was maintained by funding from federal earmarks, until they’re chopped off budget bills.

Potentially—and some say likely—not a dime will come from Uncle Sam, although our state and county officials seem to be making some real headway lobbying the US Army Corps of Engineers and our federal representatives for a major portion of the funding.

And what if that funding does not materialize? While we wait, we are in danger of exceeding the deadline extended by the supervisor of elections to hold a special referendum in the fall, so voters could decide whether or not the county’s half-cent sales tax, which expires at the end of December this year, can be extended. That might be considered “Plan B” to funds for dredging and maintaining the inlet.
The cost of a referendum will be slightly more than $100,000 with no guarantee that voters would approve it.

Should we pass a sales tax extension, however, the revenue would provide about $10 million annually, far more than the estimated $3 million that needed to be set aside in order to accumulate $12 million every four years.

More than one panelist urged adoption of a long-term solution for inlet maintenance, concurring that a permanent solution is available, but expensive, an estimated $25 million.

Truly, that does not sound expensive, considering the cost of only one dredging and facing the prospect of needing to dredge every four years in perpetuity.

Other options available to raise the needed funds, according to county Administrator Taryn Kryzda, are cutting county services by $3 million a year or to raise property taxes. (The county sets aside $250,000 for beach renourishment and $750,000 for the inlet from current property taxes.)

A suggestion to increase vessel fees, Kryzda explained, is not adequate, since those are set by the state and many of the vessels using the inlet are registered in other states, which are primarily more than 26 feet in length.

Another suggestion was quickly rejected—an FPL franchise fee of six percent of home and business electric bills in the unincorporated areas of the county.

Florida Oceanographic Society executive director Mark Perry suggested establishing a special taxing district, which is how both Sebastian Inlet and Jupiter Inlet maintain their channels. In that case, the people who benefit the most are the ones who are taxed.

Kryzda responded that a special taxing district is a “complicated thing to do” and that Florida’s legislature would have to authorize such a district for Martin County; thus that option thought the most logical, could not address the immediate need.

But is that need honestly so urgent that we cannot take a deep breath here to create a solid plan for both the next dredging, plus funding for the future?

Kryzda revealed that the vast majority of the boats registered in Martin County are those in the 16-24 foot range, those can navigate the shallower channels, which are now around 10 feet deep at their shallowest point.

The panelists predicted that even with sand accumulating at 10,000 cubic yards a month, with the strength of the outbound current, it’s unlikely the channel’s closing would be imminent.

Instead of engaging so much energy in bashing our county commissioners–some of them, anyway–and our state lawmakers for allowing this situation to arise and for not having a “Plan B” if no federal funds arrive to save the day, let’s work together to find that viable, long-term solution.

Let’s also stop wasting energy predicting that the sky will fall, the inlet will close, that we cannot wait until the 2012 general election to hold a referendum. Perhaps we can if we need to. And let’s quit commissioner-bashing…some commissioners, that is…for falling asleep at the wheel.

The truth is that we all fell asleep, not just lawmakers, not just some commissioners. The marine industry itself shares some of the blame, as do all the rest of us who just do not pay attention.