So the state legislature went home without funding the purchase of Big Sugar property, the Fort Pierce city commission admitted it was only after the money when it annexed Sunrise Ford and other businesses along U.S.1. And State Sen. Joe Negron has vowed to bring back a bill that would limit the number of students who can get a four year degree at Indian River State College.
Talk about losing faith in the system.
The Republican-led legislature vehemently refused to set aside money to purchase the 46,000 acres of U.S. Sugar property that would have been used to divert polluted Lake Okeechobee water from the Indian River lagoon. Although there was plenty of money from the recently passed Amendment 1 that was supposed to go to such purchases, state legislators refused to even consider it. Apparently Negron had no clout with this issue—especially with Big Sugar spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on legislative campaigns.
Speaking of payoffs, the Fort Pierce city manager and city attorney met with the owner of Badcock Furniture when it looked like she could have held up the city’s plan to annex commercial businesses on U.S.1. south of Midway Road. They offered her $13,000 to sign an annexation agreement. If the Badcock property could not be annexed, the businesses south of Badcock, including Garber Buick, Sunrise Ford, Wallace Lincoln and Treasure Coast Kia could not be annexed. And commissioners had said they needed that “string of dealerships” as part of its plan to add $223,000 in tax revenue to the city coffers this year.
The city commission also directed the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority to threaten to shut off water to businesses who refused to sign annexation agreements. Although most businesses signed the agreements years ago to get city water, some businesses were overlooked and the city was desperate to those agreements signed. The city had to get the annexation done by July 1, 2015 or else it could not collect the$223,000 for another year.
The owner of Badcock, Debbie Rhodig, said she was upset about the strong arm tactics and initially refused to sign the agreement. But after meeting with the city attorney and city manager, she took the money and signed the paperwork. Although city officials thought the deal stipulated she keep quiet about the payoff and not oppose the annexation, she spoke against it at the June 1 city commission meeting. She also told the “Hometown News” that she “felt dirty” when she left the city manager’s office with the money.
Actually the entire process seemed dirty. Hush money, threats of cutting off water and an carefully orchestrated timeline to make the taxes retroactive certainly were not “business friendly. ‘
The commission intentionally targeted commercial businesses and left residential areas alone. Commissioner Eddie Becht said the city wanted “to bring in some value without increasing services.” Commissioner Reggie Sessions referred to the additional tax money as “cha ching” and scolded us for questioning the legality of the annexations.
Sunrise Ford and the other car dealers argued the annexation was discriminatory and unfair. Even though many of us signed the annexation agreements, we felt the city may have not complied with state statutes. We were also perturbed the city refused our request to delay imposing the taxes until 2016 so we could have more time to budget for the significant tax hike.
“I would much rather be welcomed into Fort Pierce with good wishes other than being ushered in at the point of a bayonet” Sunrise Ford Vice President Mike Wetzel told commissioners, shortly before they voted in favor of annexation.
One of the few bright spots in government news was that Negron’s bill that would have limited the number of students who could receive a Bachelor’s degree at Indian River State College did not pass. The bill would have only allowed five percent of the total enrollment of what was once a community college to apply for a bachelor’s degree program. IRSC President Edwin Massey, along other community college presidents, fought the measure, saying it would hinder the advanced education of working adults and others who could not afford to attend a state university.
IRSC now has approximately 4,000 students in baccalaureate programs, about 10 percent of the school’s enrollment. Under Negron’s bill, half of those students would have had to pack up and go elsewhere.
The bad news is that Negron, a Stuart Republican, is determined to bring the bill up again next year. Why he wants to alienate Massey and a good number of his constituents who just want to better their lives is beyond me. Hope he does as well with this bill as he did with getting money for the U.S. Sugar property.
As for the city of Fort Pierce, I hope it enjoys its extra “cha ching.” But know that it comes at a price. The city has lost the good will of the car dealers south of Midway Road for quite awhile.