It’s an incredibly busy time in Monroe County

Michelle Lincoln, Monroe County Commissioner, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about what’s been going on in the county.

The county commission met yesterday where the budget was finalized.

Lincoln said, “I think next year, we’re going to try to do a better job of letting people know that they’re invited to the workshop that we hold every spring, where we really dive into each and every category. Some of the comments that I received on emails were, oh, your budget is hundreds and hundreds of pages long and it’s too much to go through. It is very extensive and it needs to be because every single department turns in their budget. Not only does every department within the county turn in their budgets to us, but also the constitutional officers turn in their budgets because the county is responsible for the constitutional officers’ budgets, the sheriff’s department, the clerk of court, the tax appraiser, the property appraisers tax collector. We’re in charge of all of their budgets as well. So it is very detailed.”

All summer long, following the spring workshops, the county has what they call summer studies, where the staff works to see if they can shave anything off the budget.

Lincoln said, “It’s a lot of money. None of us are saying it isn’t. I think people get confused. This budget this year is a $660 million budget and a lot of the money that is in the budget is grant money that comes to us like over $80 million in grant money to do some of these road projects and to do our Emergency Operations Center and to do the airport. That’s all grant and fund money that is added into the budget and I think people see that number sometimes and they’re like, oh my goodness, this is so much money. Why do you even have to raise our taxes because you have all this money? But it’s in a different pot.”

A large number of projects that are currently ongoing are paid for with grant money, not taxpayer dollars.

Lincoln said, “Of the ad valorem taxes, 77 percent of it goes for public safety. I can’t say that enough.”

Michael Stapleford of KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM pointed out, “We all talk about how safe we feel living here in Monroe County and that comes at a cost. Certainly the sheriff’s department has to be funded, emergency management has to be funded, emergency services have to be funded. And in the county’s defense, they’re all subject to inflation and rising costs, insurance costs. Those are all things that are out of the control of the county.”

Lincoln added, “A lot of people last night were saying to us, but there’s only 82,000 residents, why is our budget so large, and why are you spending so much money? While we might only have 82,000 permanent residents, last year alone, we had 5 million visitors. So our functional population on any given day is 170,000 people. So as I said last night in the meeting, when a person calls 911, we don’t ask are you a resident or are you a tourist? We go out and we provide that level of service that’s required for safety and health. So while we might be a small county, we have large county challenges.”

Public safety is also a big issue for the county.

Lincoln said, “Another one of the costs we had was the cost of the three helicopters, Trauma Star helicopters and again, that’s all about public safety. I love the exchange, as I said, I really am going to encourage more people to make an effort to come to the workshop that we hold every spring for budgets or attended by Zoom, because it really does help explain all of the different revenue sources and the pots of money that must remain in a certain fund and we’re not allowed to use it for anything else. Another example of that would be the tourist development tax money. A lot of people say, whoa, that’s such a huge amount of money, yet, by the Florida State statute, there’s only a certain amount of things we can spend that money on. I think that’s an important point to make. One thing we want to be able to do with tourist development tax money, again, that is the money that comes from the bed tax from anyone who comes and spends a night in a hotel. There’s a tax that’s attached to that. The county gets a penny of that. There’s an amount in reserves right now due to the influx of people that came here during COVID, that wasn’t budgeted and no one expected. So the Tourist Development Council didn’t have that pot of money, extra money for advertising or for bricks and mortar, and it’s about $25 million. Mayor Cates had brought this to our attention a couple of months ago. Last night, we unanimously decided we wanted to set that $25 million aside, not put it in any part of the tourist development budget and now we’re going to go to the legislative body and ask permission, because we need Florida permission, because it’s a Florida State statute, get permission from our legislators, for us to use that money for workforce housing.”

Workforce housing is definitely a priority.

Lincoln said, “Key West has so many hotels and have to have all of those rooms serviced and cleaned and maintained, and they’re hurting for employees, and they’re hurting for their employees to have housing. So this could be a really nice way, as we know how expensive it is to develop an apartment complex, how very expensive that is, that if we can offset the cost with this bed tax, it’s a win/win. So it’s not adding a tax and it is not taking away from the advertising budget for the Tourist Development Council. It’s using money that is simply in reserve that isn’t being used for anything else.”

The Key West International Airport being was named Commercial Service Airport of the Year throughout all of Florida, by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Lincoln said, “That was quite a surprise. I don’t think that our airport director was expecting that. He was at the conference when he was given that award. He gave an excellent presentation to all of us yesterday, on all of the where we are with the development of the airport, and we’re thinking, when will it be finished? It’s still a year off, but it’s coming along and the designs and everything he was showing us yesterday, really show that it’s just going to be a beautiful, beautiful concourse. It’ll be smoother than it is now. There’ll be more room in all the holding areas. There will be nice restaurants and some bars and just is really, really going to be nice. If we’re getting awards right now, I just can’t imagine what we’re going to get when this airport is complete because it’s just going to be something we’re all going to be very proud of. We really tried to keep the flavor of that airport the same. I know a lot of people talk about how when you step off the airplane in Key West and they open the airplane door and the heat hits you and you’re walking down the runway, and it’s like, wow, I’m in the Florida Keys and it’s really laid back. But we all know that that really wasn’t safe. On days like today, you wouldn’t want to have pouring down rain and trying to get on or off an airplane. It’s going to be all glass jetways so you’re still going to have that experience of thinking you’re outside but it’ll be elevated and safe and enclosed.”

There is still talk about Monroe County becoming a charter government – in fact an in-depth presentation was given yesterday.

Lincoln said, “We’ve decided we’re going to have a workshop next, at least one, probably more, where we’re inviting all of the public to attend. We’re really going to drill down on some more ideas and how this would play out and what it could look like and what the commissioners want it to look like. So that will be probably in October. We’re really looking forward to as we do this, to get in front of as many organizations as we possibly can to dispel any myths, and to really get the sense of the community and then reminding everyone that this will be on a referendum. The main reason we’re doing this is because when we’ve asked for the last several years, the legislative body, if we could put on a referendum for an extra sales tax, specifically for infrastructure, our bridges, there are 46 bridges that the county owns and maintains, the roads that need to be elevated due to coastal flooding, that the legislative body keeps saying no, we’re not going to allow you to put that on a referendum for your residents to vote on. They’re taking away our home rule. If you become a charter, you have that ability to put that question on a referendum, to allow your residents to vote on it. We had five million visitors that came to visit us last year alone. They’re on our roadways, they’re on our bridges. They’re taxing our infrastructure, and they’re also spending money. So if we can get those $5 million to have an extra sales tax, it can go directly to taking care of those bridges and raising those roads. So that is the only reason we want to become a charter, is to let our residents vote on whether or not they want this additional sales tax that would go for infrastructure.”

Another issue facing Monroe County is combining the judicial district with Miami-Dade County. The Monroe County Commissioners had a resolution opposing that.

Lincoln said, “We had Robert Lockwood, who is our public defender, he came to the meeting. We had the director of the court administration, and also Dennis Ward, State Attorney all came to thank us for that. It was interesting, because we all did that mass notice to everyone a couple of weeks ago to go on this website and fill out the questionnaire and let your voice be heard on our county wanting to oppose this merger. Last Friday, the committee that was put together to decide whether the circuit courts should be combined had one of their meetings and I was listening in on it and they made comment that they thought it was huge numbers in Monroe County that whereas like Miami Dade had like 20 residents that filled out the questionnaire. In Monroe County, we had over 1,400 people fill out this questionnaire and there was some talk that they thought it might be fraudulent or skewed or not somehow correct. So Robert Lockwood got up and spoke about that. On October the 13th, they’re having their next committee meeting and a delegation from Monroe County is going to go and say oh, no, our residents pay attention and this is something they do not want. So that is a fight we’re going to continue to diligently fight because there’s no way in the world that a person in the Florida Keys is going to get an opportunity to have their voice heard through a vote of who’s going to be the circuit judges and/or get to a courthouse in Miami Dade. I mean, that’s just ludicrous.”

Who ultimately makes the final decision?

Lincoln said, “My understanding is that this is the committee and they’re going to then make their recommendation to House Speaker Renner. This was his initiative and this will be something that’ll be maybe carried through for the legislative session. I think this committee is supposed to have the report in prior to the deadline for the legislative bill. If the committee recommends it, then we will have to fight the good fight all through this season’s legislative session, which starts in January.”

The commissioners declared September National Suicide Prevention and Action Month. Between the ages of 10 and 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States.

Lincoln said, “Very sobering numbers on statistics of suicide. We’ve had some very high profile cases here in the Florida Keys. We just really encourage everyone to call if you are feeling suicidal, there’s numbers you can call, there’s people who can help you. It’s always good to keep the foremost of everyone’s mind, that suicides can be prevented.”