Controlling floods –more than $100 Million. Power line undergrounding? Millions more. The Village’s share of a federal beach project? Additional millions. Acquiring new playing fields? Unknown, but likely millions. Add to that the price of a potential plan to invest in a renovated Rickenbacker Causeway now being restarted by Miami-Dade County.
All that potential spending is on a collision course with Key Biscayne’s unique “debt cap,” a restriction that currently places a limit of $73.5 million on new borrowing, enacted 20 years ago.
Some members of the Village Charter Revision Commission said last week it’s time to revise or even eliminate the restriction contained in the Village Charter.
“We are facing an existential threat,” said Commission Member Jennifer Stearns Buttrick, who argued the debt cap was put into place “when people didn’t think we could afford a community center. They thought it would bankrupt this community.”
The cap, which limits indebtedness to 1% of the island’s tax base, was adopted in a special election held in December, 2001. The vote was 1,167 to 999, a margin of 168 votes.
Few other communities have a borrowing limitation as strict as Key Biscayne, officials said. Pinecrest has no debt limit; Bal Harbour’s debt limit is 25% of assessed value. The actual wording of the 2001 ballot did not contain the 1% figure.
But Commission Member Jud Kerlanchek, a former zoning official, said putting the debt cap on the ballot could be divisive.
“There is a great concern that if this goes on the ballot it’ll become the election issue,” stressing the word “the” for emphasis. “It will bring about doubt, in people’s minds, that the government should do this.”
Siding with Buttrick were Council Member Allison McCormick, the panel’s chair, and Marco Gomez. “We are a barrier island here, we are not Coral Gables, we are not Palmetto Bay. We have some unique challenges,” Gomez said.
But Joe Rasco, a former Key Biscayne mayor, joined Kurlanchek in sounding caution.
“This document needs to stand on its own,” saying that a change to the Charter should not be overly-dependent on specific projects. “Are we up against a wall here? No.”
“I agree that it might be polarizing. I don’t think that’s a reason not to do something,” Buttrick said, noting that the debate over the Community Center was negative and nasty.
The Commission will draft recommended changes to the Charter to the Village Council by March 31, which will then be put to Village voters..
The debt cap issue was one of several discussed. A related topic raised Thursday was a Charter provision banning Village participation in revenue sharing with other entities. Williamson has asked whether the provision might limit the Village’s ability to participate in a future Rickenbacker Causeway operation agreement.
Williamson’s administration is developing more details of capital projects, but the planning so far has already indicated a potential funding gap. Last week, he said the cost of new drainage systems to accommodate sea level rise will top more than $100 million, with more precise numbers still months away. The same is true for the utility undergrounding and beach projects.
This week, the Village kicks off a week of meetings dubbed “Speak Up Key Biscayne” to discuss urban planning goals including traffic, resiliency, recreation, education, and the future of the commercial district.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.