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Former editor opposes January referendum

-- Guest Commentary --

January 18, 2012
By Carl Conley , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Voters should not approve the January referendum seeking authority for the Town of Fort Myers Beach to borrow $7 million by issuing bonds to build or buy a town hall building.

I agree with the recent letter signed by the Board of Directors of the Civic Association and widely circulated locally that we need to fix the water system and forego any talk of borrowing more money until that project is finished.

Why is it that those who want to spend our tax dollars seem to do so freely?

At a time when most families and businesses are downsizing to cope with general economic decline in America, it is a truly bad business decision to continue to borrow money to finance something we truly do not need. Our town is not growing, in fact, our population has, if anything shrank and certainly the number of businesses has as well. We simply don't need additional space and the argument advanced by our political and management personnel tries to strike an alarmist note by saying we don't know if the building currently housing local government will be "available" in two years.

This is a poor reason to give authority to borrow $7 million, particularly when we have already authorized borrowing to fix our dilapidated water system. When I was the owner and editor of the Sand Paper. I wrote an editorial urging residents to pass that referendum, arguing that the need for clean, available water is universal. The referendum passed by an overwhelming percentage (close to 90 percent in favor). This current referendum should fail by an equally wide percentage since the reasons that can be found against it are as numerous as the reasons to favor fixing our water delivery system.

Looking around, we see Americans hunkering down to survive a bad economy. We see businesses shuttering their doors and people unable to sell their homes or get loans. Most of these problems can be traced to years of overspending by governments and now, right in the middle of hugely uncertain times, our "leaders" want us to give them permission to borrow millions for something that really is just a wish list item.

There are other places to rent that would benefit local landlords, and it has even been suggested we can possibly acquire the current Town Hall (with all the additional space in the old Bank of America to go with it) by imminent domain. If we have two years remaining on the current lease shouldn't we explore that first and get a more concrete proposal before asking voters to approve "loose" funding for an unknown?

It is also a bit hypocritical that the some of our local "leaders" spent the last year chastising and attacking our local library for building a bigger building but now seek to have us pay for a similar project. The main difference is that the Library Board took years to plan and get the money together to build what is looking like a first-rate facility. The Town on the other hand has pushed this bonding referendum way too quickly without adequate safeguards on exactly what "they" will do with the money. One thing is for sure, $7 million is still a lot of money and when it comes time to award contracts and spend it there is a lot of "wiggle" room. I'm sure most of us would like to be able to spend that kind of money without worrying that we personally would have to repay it. It can sure make a person a lot of friends.

There is another point to consider as well interest on all the money the Town could borrow to both fix the water and get the wish for Town Hall could bring our total debt into the double digit millions, possibly as high as $20 million plus. This is ludicrous under current conditions. Remember, we don't know what the final cost of the water system will be until we get it dug up but, if we judge by past experience with cost overruns, it will be more than we anticipate. At the very least let's finish the water project first, get a final cost there and then determine the state of our local finances before launching into another hasty major project.

We have come to a time in America when we are all seeing that we must be better stewards of public finance. We must insist on greater accountability and responsibility and that includes from ourselves as voters. To vote yes for this referendum would fly in the face of our current realities and shirk our responsibility to reign in non-essential spending of taxpayer money. Vote against allowing bonds to be written to borrow the money. Vote no in January.

Carl Conley

(Mr. Conley worked locally for over a decade as a newspaper editor and publisher and served as the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in 2009. He is also a Fort Myers Beach commercial and residential property owner.)



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