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Tuesday, 25 August 2015 14:04

Editorial: Lee County, Florida

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During a recent luncheon hosted by the Tiger Bay Club at the Harbourside Convention Center in
downtown Fort Myers, County Manager Roger Desjarlais presented a two-year report on the
state of Lee County government.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Desjarlais spoke highly of the Lee County Commissioners he serves, and
suggested that "things began to change" with the addition of Commissioners Cecil Pendergrass,
Larry Kiker and Brian Hamman to the Board of County Commissioners. While Mr. Desjarlais
stated his view on how the voting majority of the three new Commissioners have purportedly
made the County better, readers of the Sun Bay Paper have suggested a far different story of what has really been going on in Lee
County Government since November 2012.
In their very first hearing on the 2013/14 FY Budget, and shortly before Commissioner Hamman
was appointed by Governor Scott to replace Commissioner Tammy Hall, Commissioners kiker
and Pendergrass championed a raid on the Conservation 2020 Trust Fund to balance the
County budget. A similar back door strategy used by the state Legislature during the 2015
legislative session to redirect Amendment 1 funds - intended by over 75% of the voters to
acquire environmentally sensitive lands - to balance the budget. In fact, the Conservation 2020
program was raided again to set the 2014/15 FY Budget and the designated funds to
maintain 2020 lands was absorbed in the County's General Fund Budget.
The success of Conservation 2020 over the years is what has contributed to setting Lee
County apart from other counties and other regions of the world. Lee County is unique
and distinct because over nineteen years ago our community realized the importance of
providing a balance between the natural and built environment. The investment under
Conservation 2020 has provided protection of critical drinking water supplies, open
space to sustain our quality of life and strengthen the foundation of our multibillion dollar
tourism and real estate industry that relies on a clean and healthy environment.
In what some perceive as an assault on taxpayers, Commissioners Kiker, Pendergrass and Hamman
supported an 85% reduction in impact fees costing the county and school board
precious funding (approximately $40 million over two years) for necessary
infrastructure. Furthermore impact fees equals jobs as the funds are used to pay the
labor workforce to build roads, parks and schools. The Commission recently adjusted
impact fees by 45%, but falls woefully short of money needed for critical infrastructure to
keep pace with population growth and new development. Reducing the impact fee
revenue stream shifts the financial burden for critical infrastructure onto the backs of
existing taxpayers. The argument that a reduction in impact fees was necessary to
stimulate economic growth is seen as baseless by some. They would compare other
counties and municipalities that refrained from lowering impact fees but still exhibited similar
trends in growth and development.
The same three Commissioners, who are working so well together, could also be viewed as systematically
undermining Lee County's land use regulations as evidenced by their support to
substantially increase density on the River Hall development in east Lee County,
revising the Pine Island Plan that will result in greater density on an island with
restricted road capacity for hurricane evacuation, and open up the environmentally
sensitive lands in southeast Lee County, known as the Density Reduction Groundwater
Resource area, for greater density and intensity of development jeopardizing public
water supplies and critical wildlife habitat.
Although, it is widely understood that the state should have used Amendment 1 funds to
purchase lands south of Lake Okeechobee to store, treat and convey water south to the
Everglades thereby, alleviating excessive releases of polluted water that is devastating
the estuaries on the west and east coast of south Florida, Commissioners Kiker and
Hammam voted against the Lee County resolution for the land purchase. Their votes
should not have been a surprise given the generous campaign funding support they
have received from U.S. Sugar Corporation.
For many years, Lee County has benefited from experienced department heads and a strong staff. Rumbling are now being aired that suggest a serious threat to the stability of Lee County government is at hand and that a
hostile work environment has resulted in the exodus of valued County employees.
Former Animal Services Director Donna Ward was terminated due to her commitment to
appropriate regulations and enforcement of deplorable activities including puppy mills
and tethering. Administration failed in providing Ms. Ward with the support necessary to
counter the growing number of animal cruelty cases in this area. Highly respected
Department Directors such as Mary Gibbs and Paul O'Conner, who were primarily
responsible in providing oversight over growth and development in Lee county, were
unable to perform their professional services with a majority of the Board and County
Manager capitulating to the pressure of relaxing land use regulations. County
employees are no longer empowered to carry out their responsibilities but labor under
the shadow of a heavy handed top down approach.
Furthermore, the majority on the Board failed in their responsibility to their constituents
when they gave up on the Community Sustainability Plan, a three year Community-wide
effort with established measurable goals that brought multiple parties together to
address social, economic and environmental issues. This lack of vision has now
caused additional valuable employees to leave and the few that are left are afraid to
speak out as they saw what happened to those that are innovators.
Short sighted and ill advised public policy pushed by the voting block of the three new
commissioners coupled with a rigid and dictatorial administration leaves the County
vulnerable to unsustainable growth and deterioration in our community's quality of life.

Read 1717 times Last modified on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 14:07

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