Our county commissioners are hard at work for the upcoming legislative session

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 legislative session will begin in January and the commissioners are working hard on presentations.

Lincoln said, “I think we’re looking really, really good. We did have a good conference in advance of our wish list and probably the most important one that we had on there was asking for our $10 million for the Florida Forever, and all the money we use for the Florida Keys and it’s in Governor DeSantis’s budget. So that’s always good news when you start out already with not having to have that big uphill lift and battle. Probably the other large one for Monroe County would be the initiative that we started last year asking if we could take some surplus towards development tax money that was just laying in a pot, approximately $25 million, it might be more than that now, and roll it over for workforce housing for our tourist related businesses. We’re always struggling for workforce housing and how expensive it is to build workforce housing. It would make a lot of sense for the tourist industry if they had a way to have more workforce housing for their employees. It would then provide a better service for the customer coming into a hotel and having everything that you need in a hotel to work efficiently and for a restaurant to be open seven days a week, instead of only three because they don’t have the employees that they need. So we’re very excited that the Florida Association of Counties is supporting this bill for Monroe County. Monroe County, and our lobbyists have been working with the team in Tallahassee to come up with the language that everyone might be comfortable with and we think we have done that with saying that this would be a one time transfer of revenues that would then be used specifically for providing and supporting workforce housing for employees in the tourist related business. So we think that that will make Tallahassee more comfortable with the language, it’ll make the Lodging Association more comfortable, and it will give us what we wanted, which was some revenue to help offset the expense of building workforce housing.”

Housing is such a huge issue in the Keys.

Lincoln said, “We have encouraged other businesses to add into their marketing plan and their business plan housing for their employees. We realize that as one of the largest employees of the county and needing to provide the level of service to our residents and our tourists and our visitors that we need to make sure we have quality employees working in the county and that they have a quality of life that makes them want to work in our county. So this is a project in Key Largo, that originally, we were going to partner with the Monroe County School District, and we still are open for that. However, they ran into some roadblocks and haven’t been able to get it approved on their end yet. So we don’t want to lose this opportunity to build 28 units. So we’re willing to do it on our own if need be, and/or include the school board later on, if they can find the resources and get through all of their legal issues that they have to go through. We’re pretty confident that we’ll be able to fill the 28 units with our employees, with school employees, with any first responders. We have our whole litany of different organizations that are governmental that we know need employs. So many of our agencies are struggling finding quality homes and places for their employees to live. So again, I just am very excited that we’re doing this project.”

The Stewardship Act is another avenue for funding.

Lincoln agreed, “It’s so nice to have Mayor Holly Raschein on the board with us and for her to be able to see her vision from 10 years ago that it’s still going strong and that relationship with Tallahassee is still in place. It’s definitely a win/win situation for everyone in the Florida Keys.”

Hurricane modeling has been another discussion point recently.

Lincoln said, “This was sort of a surprise that was delivered to us right around Thanksgiving, where we saw the different scenarios that the Department of Commerce presented to the Florida Keys. There were several different scenarios. We’ve had group meetings on Zoom with all the other municipalities. The county and the municipal attorneys have all been meeting, our County Administrator with the municipality administrators have been meeting. We want to be a unified front if we possibly can be. It makes it easier when we go to Tallahassee. What we’ve all agreed upon is in this year we would like for Key West, to be included in the 24 hour evacuation window that was presented in several of the scenarios. We want that. We also want the mobile home parks to remain in phase one evacuation. So we’ve all agreed upon that. At our last county commission meeting, we had a resolution that I presented that was approved unanimously by our board, presenting this to Tallahassee saying this is what we want, and that we also want us to have this legislative session, free of them making any other decisions for us, that we want us just to remain with this for this year and to allow all of us to have the opportunity now to drill down and to evaluate exactly where the vacant locks are, what our infrastructure is, are we able to meet the excess needs that would come from more units? To really give us a chance to evaluate this, to meet with our residents, and to hear from everybody in the community what they’re comfortable with, what we can truly handle and not have to make this decision by January 8th because it would have been impossible. So that’s kind of what we did in our resolution and that’s what we are going to present to Tallahassee for this legislative session.”

Is the potential for becoming a charter county still on the table?

“It is,” Lincoln confirmed. “I feel that we have so much on the table this year and going into next year. We did a workshop meeting in Key Largo last week with the residents of Twin Lakes and Stillwright Point. Those are two different communities that are habitually underwater due to king tides and sea level rising around them. Those price tags to do the full project ranged from $42 million for the one project and $20 million for the other neighborhood. The state of Florida has resiliency funds, but those are matching funds. So we need to come up with additional millions of dollars if we’re going to move forward on these projects. I think the one community said they want to hold off and maybe just do the raising the road a minimum and not doing the big project. But that’s still several million dollars and the only way we are seeing coming up with the funds that would be needed would be by adding some additional infrastructure sales tax. We’re all conservative Republicans, none of us want to add any tax to anybody, but we’re going to have these huge price tags. It made sense for us to do one that would involve our tourists also contributing to the fund since they impact our roads so much. This was the only way we were thinking. The charter would not change anything else, for the most part because we like our government the way it’s currently working. Again, we are now going to start doing more meetings. I know that our county attorney Bob and myself will be meeting with the city of Marathon in January. We’re going to attend one of their city council meetings to present this, let them know that this isn’t a power grab. We don’t want to preempt any of our municipalities and any of the rules they make. In fact, we would be sharing this infrastructure tax money with them for them to do the road improvement projects that they have in their own community and the bridge repair projects that they have in their municipalities as well. So again, we are still just out presenting this to different organizations and getting feedback from the community. This would go on a resolution, and it would have to be passed by the majority of our citizens to become a charter. So this is not something that the commissioners are just going to do on our own. It would involve the residents of our community wanting to do this and then if that does pass, it would take another two years before it would go on a resolution to create an infrastructure sales tax. So this is not something that’s going to be quick moving whatsoever, and it will continually need the support of the majority of the residents of Monroe County.”

Safety on US 1 is also a discussion that’s been ongoing.

Lincoln said, “Sheriff Ramsay and myself met with the Florida Department of Transportation, the project engineer for the road project that they’re doing at mile marker 21. I know the neighbors in Cudjoe Gardens have been very concerned about their ability to enter and exit US 1 highway right there where that construction project is taking place. So Sheriff Ramsay and I met with FDOT this week to just see if there was any way that they could illuminate that concrete barrier, if they could reduce the speed there from 45 to 35 and put out some extra barrels to let people start to shift into the new lane in advance, and also to have better signage. So far FDOT has already increased the amount of barrels that they have, and they’ve increased their signage. They assured us that they will be back with us by the end of this week, which will be tomorrow to let us know if they’re going to be able to somehow illuminate that concrete barrier at night so that people can see it better and if they can indeed reduce the speed right there at that intersection so that the residents can safely enter and exit US 1 highway. So this project right there will be in construction for five months, while they raise the road. This is part of their resiliency that they’re doing and they’re going to raise the road about a foot. After they finish this project, this is phase one, there are three more phases right in that general area. The other three are a little bit further north, but they’re going to be doing the same thing. So I think it was very timely of Sheriff Rick Ramsey and I meeting with FDOT to let them know what the concerns of the neighborhood are going to be while they are working on US 1.”