Commentary by Victor Rios: Veterans Park plans and what you should know

Victor Rios
Member, Marco Island City Council

Over the last several weeks, there have been several press reports and letters on the issue. This really started as a result of what happened this year with the Florida Legislature.

Our Lobbyist, Ron Book, had made a request for $2.5 million for a Veterans Park building as well as funds for a drainage project and for the water-sewer utility. Contrary to what some have reported, Mr. Book had nothing to do with the $1.5 million for Marco Island beach nourishment provided by the legislature and approved by the governor. That money was the result of the country effort spearheaded, as he does every year, by Gary McAlpin, Collier County coastal management director, and strongly supported by Collier commissioner Donna Fiala, Sen. Garrett Richter and the county lobbyist. As a matter of fact, I wrote a commentary on that issue published in the Sun Times edition on July 16. Ultimately, lobbyist Book was able to get $100,000 for a drainage project in Marco and $400,000 for a utility project in Marco Shores.

This year, the city council held a special meeting to discuss various issues, one of which was what direction to give Mr. Book for the 2016 legislative session. Obviously, the $2.5 million was again discussed and as a result of that it appears that that will be one of the projects that will be pursued. There is always the issue of what happens if this money is obtained.

Well, it means that in order to proceed with the effort of building what has now being discussed as a “multi-purpose” building that would cost $7.5 million, the Marco island taxpayers would have to come up with the other $5 million. It is the proverbial issue that there is never a free lunch. When state funding of this type is received, for every $1 they provide, the city has to match it with $2. In other words, they only cover 1/3.

This is a lot of money. As we all know, this past year the city held a referendum for the new Mackle Park Community Center. The Marco voters approved the projected expenditure of $3.5 million. The original intention was for a 16,000-square-foot building to plan for the expected growth and needs of our citizens. However, cost projections show that with the $3.5 million, only a 12,000-square-foot building will be built and the city did not offer any additional borrowing to achieve the desired 16,000 square feet.

Now all of a sudden we see talk of yet another 12,000-square-foot building to be built in Veterans Park. Also, it has been said that this building will be multi-purpose and one of the uses that has been mentioned is to move the city council chambers for meetings to this building.

In other words, here we have yet another government building. It was also mentioned that borrowing another $5 million is not a big deal. This is ridiculous in light of what we were told almost two years ago when the City Manager proposed the “bucket system” to free the city of operating debt (nothing to do with the big water/sewer utility debt). This bucket system is nothing more than raising our taxes for the last two years, and the commitment to eliminate debt is yet another one of those government fantasies.

We all know that the more money government gets, the more money government spends and they always know that they can go to the taxpayers for more. I must remind you that I opposed the bucket system before I was elected to office, and have voted again against the increase this year. It is also somewhat upsetting that now a new need for community center space is being identified. Maybe the Mackle Park Community Center should be the originally desired/planned 16,000-aquare- foot building and probably could be done for a much smaller increment than spending $5 million of taxpayer’s money in a multi-purpose building that may not be the ideal facility, but designed and built because the state may provide 1/3 of the funding.

The magic of this process is that if we get the $2.5 million from the state to build a multi-purpose building in Veterans Park, requiring $5 million from the taxpayers is a great deal (not according to me). It reminds me of the Sunday Blondie comic strip. In one edition of this strip, Blondie comes home after spending thousands of dollars on new wardrobe and tell Dagwood, her husband: “Honey, look at all the money I saved you, I got all of these at a discount.” I’m sure you get the point.

At the city council special meeting, we did discuss other possibilities to obtain state money. There are the issues with the continued capital expenditures for the water/sewer utility to the tune of about $4.3 million every year. These are projects already planned, so we should really pursue such projects for state funding that would have a significant impact in reducing the money charged to the rate payers.

Then there is the issue of Marco Island’s natural assets, such as our beaches, wildlife water sports, boating etc. With the growth of the city, we are seeing larger storm drainage pipes being installed. The water from these drains eventually winds up in the Gulf of Mexico, with potential significant detrimental impact to the water quality, and the negative effect on our assets. A state/city effort to properly filter these waters would help maintain our assets in pristine conditions, which are critical to our economy. These are critical needs that could use financial help from the state legislature.

PRAC (Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee) has been having hearings about what is next for Veterans Park and they are really giving it a good try. However, the problem is that only a very small percentage of Marco island taxpayers is able to attend these meeting. Many of them work, take care of family members, cannot physically attend for health reasons and so on. In other words, there would be limited feedback from the people that will foot the bill for whatever is decided for Veteran Park.

The only effective way to get Marco Island taxpayers’ input into the process is via referendum, just like it was done for Mackle Park. Let’s do the right thing, rather than saddle the taxpayers with a $5 million debt, just because we may get $2.5 million from the state. We need to focus on critical needs and on what the taxpayers would want for Veterans Park.

A multi-purpose building in Veterans Park would result in some government functions moved there. Instead, why not keep all government functions in the Bald Eagle/San Marco Road campus for better efficiency and probably with lower costs.