The Monroe County Commissioners are always hard at work

Holly Merrill Raschein, Mayor Pro Tem and Commisisoner for Monroe County, joined Good Moring Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about what’s been going on in the county.

The recent audit for the Tourist Development Council has been a topic of discussion.

Raschein said, “It’s something that’s required. There’s a tremendous amount of taxpayer resources, and not only local taxpayers, but it is the Tourist Development Council, so a number of the dollars that flow in come from our visitors, which is obviously, the pinnacle of our economy. We are a tourist based economy, and people come down here to enjoy our natural resources and all of our heritage and history and obviously our restaurants and the neat hotels that come with that, and everything that comes with that. So, when you have that much going on, and we are one of the top tourist destinations in Florida, for sure, and definitely the United States, we have visitors that come from all over the world. As the, I guess you could call us the oversight board, the Tourist Development Council, but they also have their own board of directors. I think that this document is going to really open some eyes on some certain areas that need improvement. I think more accountability doesn’t hurt anything, doesn’t hurt anyone. I think that folks like accountability in their government, certainly when tax dollars are at play. That’s something that we’re going to be discussing, I think at length, when we meet this Wednesday for our regular county commission meeting in Key West.”

The county administrator and county attorney met with the TDC yesterday for an initial discussion.

Raschein said, “I don’t think that it was done with malice at heart. I don’t think that there was any sort of issues committed on purpose, but ignorance isn’t necessarily an excuse. So, I think that’s what we’re going to take a look at, is there something that the county commission can do to help the TDC be a little more transparent? Is there something that that we should be doing or should have been doing? I don’t know. Again, this is the first time that I’ve been through this process, and it’s something that I think is going to be a learning process for many people. I hope that we’ll have some good improvements, some room for opportunities to make things better, be a little more transparent and accountable. I think that’s what people want. That’s certainly what I want and I think what the TDC ultimately needs. If you see a commercial, you see a poster, you see an ad in a newspaper or online, it’s got that banner, that Florida Keys and Key West, it came from the TDC. I think a lot of people come here because they’re like, wow, it’s freezing cold wherever I am, and I need some sunny happiness, and so they come to the Keys. But again, looking forward to having that discussion, ironing out some details, the wrinkles, and we’ll go from there.”

The Board of County Commissioners is looking to expand the eligible uses of the tourist development tax generated funds to include affordable workforce housing for tourism sector workers.

Raschein said, “This is something that might be a little bit more controversial. This issue, bubbles up from time to time in the legislature. Counties, communities across the state have, again, these resources that are available that aren’t necessarily being used. For example, we’ve got a rather large pot of money that’s just kind of sitting there that is unused. We’ve got a real need. There’s I think an argument to be made. Our hospitality industry folks are having a hard time finding housing. We’re just still under that real kind of crisis situation. It’s something that we’ve made a priority of at the commission, to try to get the statute changed at the state level to allow us to do that. I’m not going to mince words, it’s going to be an extremely uphill battle. It always is anytime you tinker with the TDC tax. It’s kind of very sacred funding source. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association is very powerful lobby up in Tallahassee. Tourism is our number one industry here in the state of Florida, followed by agriculture, and then the military. But I think it’s a conversation that needs to be had, I certainly was part of those conversations in my former days in the legislature, again, strong supporter of hospitality, and all that comes with that, but I feel kind of in my heart and my stomach, that the winds are changing. We while we are a tourism based economy, that there are other needs that are sort of rising to the top. I think that we need to have a very frank conversation. We need to get everybody to the table and say, what does this look like? How do we tailor it to be very specific with regard to whatever community is in need of housing? What’s helpful is there are other larger counties across our state looking at this. Hillsborough County, Orange County, Broward County, I wouldn’t doubt that Miami Dade County has been having these conversations. It’s a real thing. I feel a change coming. Will that be easy? No. Are we going to maybe have to have this conversation for multiple years? Probably. But I think it is worth discussing. It’s something to take a look at. We are unique. We’re in an era of critical state concern. We could carve ourselves out. No other community in our state is facing a housing shortage that we are a land shortage. You name it, we’ve we bring issues to the table. The voters did vote on this. I think it was back in the 80s. You know, Florida was a very different state back in the 80s. We weren’t as strong. We didn’t have the robust economy that we have now and that we’ve experienced for so many years and things change and change is hard. Having those discussions might be difficult, but I think they’re worth having.”

The top priority for legislative funding is to secure $25 million through the Florida Keys Stewardship Act.

Rashchein said, “That’s my prize piece of legislation. It’s one of the proudest accomplishments or achievements in my time in the legislature and something that it just warms my heart every year to see it come up and remain at the top of the list for us. It provides critical funding for two important things: land acquisition, making sure that we’re preserving our precious, we don’t have much left, our precious environmentally sensitive lands or lots. Then, of course, water projects. Storm water is important, resiliency projects, combating the flooding that is plaguing our community. Then, of course, canal restoration. We have dozens and dozens of canals that need to be restored, and will improve, continue to improve our near shore water quality. It’s one of those gifts that keeps on giving and it makes me very proud to see that.”

The discussion of becoming a charter county will continue on Monday morning in Marathon.

Raschein said, “If you’ve got an interest in this, if you’ve got some questions, if you want to hear that discussion, Bob Shillinger, our county attorney, has a wonderful PowerPoint presentation, I have a feeling he’s going to be presenting and then we’re going to be able to have that conversation. Is something that we want to do? My issues is what are we going to get out of it? We’re going to go through this whole big campaign, this whole big process. The details of establishing the charter government aren’t that different. My question is kind of is it worth going through this process? At the end of the day, it’s about increasing funding for critical infrastructure projects. I might bring to the table that we’ve done a tremendous job, our team, in identifying funds out there, and whether they’re federal grants, state grants, private grants, that can help communities out with these unique problems. So we’ve done a good job at that already. Our transportation director’s kicking butt in finding federal grants, mainly to help us with our new transit program. Let’s talk about that. So I’m interested to have that discussion on Monday. I think a lot of people think it’s the boogeyman like, we’re trying to shove this new thing down our community’s throat. That’s absolutely not the case. It couldn’t be further from the truth. We all have open door policies. Most people have our cell phones, we check our own emails. I just was so proud of our community. I was able to come down on Friday and walk in the local’s parade for Fantasy Fest. It’s my absolute favorite to see the locals come out and get dressed up and enjoy the festivities. It’s my one of my favorite events of the year. So that was super fun. It was relatively calm. People stayed safe. It’s a wonderful way to kick off our holiday season. It’s November. Thanksgiving will be right around the corner and we’re going to be welcoming our snowbirds back.”