Brent Batten: Mistrust lingers between clerk, commission

BRENT BATTEN

This could get ugly.

Relations between the Collier County Commission and its staff and Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock have never been what one would call convivial.

But since the rounds of litigation between the two ground to conclusion last year, there had been a slight warming of the atmosphere.

As last Tuesday's commission meeting got under way, it looked for a moment like the new spirit of cooperation might prevail, with Brock going out of his way to compliment the county staff on its cooperation and professionalism in meetings with auditors from his office analyzing the fiscal impact the town of Ave Maria has had on the county budget in its first five years of existence.

But things quickly took a turn in the other direction as Brock questioned the conclusion, accepted by the county staff and prepared by the county's go-to economist, that the fledgling community has had a positive fiscal impact on county revenues in the neighborhood of $10 million.

In doing so, Brock subtly alleged someone on the county side leaked his findings in advance of his presentation.

Further, he said if everything economist Hank Fishkind said in his own defense Tuesday is true, then someone in Brock's office lied to him. And Brock doesn't think his employees would lie to him, suggesting Fishkind may have spun Brock's employees' statements to suit his agenda.

The entire affair doesn't exactly convey a sense of trust and mutual respect.

In December of 2010, Fishkind, head of Fishkind and Associates out of Orlando, submitted a report on the net fiscal impact of Ave Maria on the county. Rather than accepting it at face value, Commissioner Tom Henning suggested Brock review the report and weigh in. The other commissioners agreed.

On Tuesday, Brock came back with his findings: "The Clerk's office does not concur with the outputs of the model that was submitted to the (commissioners) in 2010."

The model Brock is referring to is the Fiscal Impact Analysis Model developed by Fishkind and used by dozens of communities across the country to weigh the relative costs of providing government services against the revenue generated for those services. Fishkind literally wrote the book on such analysis, being commissioned by the Florida Department of Community Affairs to come up with a system for measuring the impact of development.

Intuitively, it is hard to believe Ave Maria has been a boon to Collier County coffers. Only a fraction of the homes projected to be built in its first five years of existence have been built. Property taxes and impact fees those unbuilt homes would have generated haven't materialized.

But the FIAM shows a positive impact. Fishkind stands by that finding. Moreover, he says the county staff and Brock's staff agree. "Only the Clerk seems not to know what the fiscal impact is after 14 months of study," Fishkind told commissioners.

Brock doesn't claim Ave Maria has been a fiscal drain on the county. He says he simply doesn't know if the town has had a positive or a negative impact. He questions the validity of the numbers fed into the model.

On Tuesday commissioners voted to have an independent third party look at the issue to try to resolve it. That will be a time-consuming task, requiring review of complex formulas for things like the value of donated road right of way and the number of car trips generated by homes of differing sizes.

But the setback to clerk-commission relations is immediate.

Defending his findings against Brock's questions, Fishkind showed a power point presentation refuting statements Brock had made just minutes earlier.

Brock said he gave commissioners a copy of his report on Friday before the Tuesday meeting with explicit instructions it was not to be shared with anyone else.

With mock incredulity, Brock wondered aloud how Fishkind could have known what he was going to say.

"Mr. Fishkind, do you have my presentation? That concerns me ladies and gentlemen. Did y'all give it to him?"

He cites section of Florida law that states an internal audit is only a public record once it is final and that, "An audit or investigation becomes final when the audit report or investigative report is presented to the unit of local government."

As to Fishkind's assessment that even Brock's staff agrees Ave Maria has had a positive impact on the county, Brock said he is poring through records and statements to see if that is true. If it is, then his staff lied to him, he said. So far, Brock says he has found nothing that leads him to believe his staff lied. Instead, Fishkind may have construed statements to suit him, Brock suggests. "The couple of issues I've looked at didn't quite turn our the way he (Fishkind) said it was," Brock said.

An argument can be made that a certain element of distrust between the county commission and the clerk of courts auditing its spending is a good thing, lest the two sides get too cozy..

If that's the case, Collier County residents have nothing to worry about.

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