Ranger Ed and I headed to Fort Jefferson for our annual four days of pack-in-pack-out camping. There’s no cell service, no wifi. And, because I packed and cooked and juggled stuff instead of writing a column, well, you get this one from May 2020.
You know what’s scary? It’s been three years, nothing much has changed and we ought be raising taxes.
Good morning from the Covid-bound porch, my friends. Here we are, another week passed and, well, we’re hanging on. I think. So, what the heck: Let’s raise some taxes and fees.
Sounds like I’ve lost my morning marbles, huh? I mean, who likes paying taxes? Most of us prefer to grumble about wasteful spending, lazy government workers, services not delivered, political promises not met. It’s way more fun to gripe about “they ought to…. (fill in your blank) than it is to venture the opinion that Key West isn’t taxing its residents enough.
Let’s get two things out of the way:
- There’s always a horror story to offer up about government spending run amok or an employee sleeping on the job, selling drugs or generally in need of significantly better supervision — or maybe jail time. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t raise taxes.
- This is not a lesson on the Key West budget, although I’d be happy to walk you through the line items, Just not today.
When one cuts through the budget spreadsheets, Key West has kept tax rates flat for years. The reason our property taxes go up is because the school board and mosquito control folks have raised their rates — and because my house is worth more than it was in say, 2009. So, Key West keeps the tax rate flat and gets a bump in spending power as real estate values increase.
We’ll need to raise taxes
It’s not enough. If we want our wish lists filled, we’re going to have to be willing to increase the city’s tax rates, the county’s tax rates, and, for sure, the school district’s tax rates.
I’m willing. Here’s my wish list:
A clean city: The city has done a magnificent job during this Great Pandemic Pause toward that goal. But, lands, downtown is dirty. It stinks. Storefronts are dingy, windows are awful, trash is everywhere. And the smell of rotting trash cans and vomit when all the tourists are around makes me, well, throw up in my mouth. We do not have enough code enforcement staff and public works staff to keep things bright, clean, cheerful and welcoming. They do the best they can; but there aren’t enough of them. Hire more. Enforce the rules. Make landlords clean up and paint and maintain their sidewalks.
Pay the people who do the work: City and county employees do not make princely or princess-ly salaries. Ditto the teachers. They make less per hour than similar job descriptions in the private sector — and less than they’d be paid on the mainland. Roll in the cost of housing on the island and in the Lower Keys and it’s no wonder there are vacancies everywhere that aren’t going to get filled. The time is coming when this island will not have a middle class of teachers, doctors, lawyers, information specialists, cops, fire fighters, bus drivers, tour guides and department managers. The list is endless. And if the city’s taxpayers continue to short the paychecks of city workers, those folks are headed for the mainland. Make the pay rates competitive; make the rates cover the cost of living here. Then get rid of everyone who isn’t worth that money and hire the right people. Note: Mostly the people who work for the city are experienced, highly qualified and dedicated. Just because you have some beef with one or two, doesn’t mean the whole lot is worthless.
Hire more of them: For heaven’s sake, we added the Truman Waterfront Park maintenance and upkeep to the public works department and fail to staff it? Ditto code enforcement. Code remains too complaint driven because there aren’t enough bodies to pro-actively track down scofflaws. Those are just two examples; there are plenty more. That’s what happens when there are not enough people to go around. Add to the work list. Pile on the demands. Don’t hire people to do the work. And we wonder why things don’t get done.
Put more financial burden on tourists and those who benefit from the vacation rental business: Raise the hourly parking rates sky high, say $10 an hour, and give locals a “park for less” pass. Charge tourists for the Duval Loop bus. For crying out loud, most of those using the Loop — which is a wonderful thing, by the way — are tourists. Why are we Key West taxpayers footing the bill for a tourist’s free ride? Make the business tax receipt license for owners using their homes as a revenue stream somewhere in the astronomical range. Right now, that investment homeowner pays $20-$28 per unit annually to the city for a “license” to rent their home. Really? How about, oh, say, 20 percent of gross rentals? (And, yeah, I know these investment owners are supposed to pay a bed tax; I’m suggesting increasing the licensing fee.)
Hold off-island business owners and landlords accountable: See all of the above.
Put locals first: I’d pay higher taxes if I knew the city, county and school district leaders were committed to making Key West a home for locals. Put us first. If our quality of life is paradise perfect, the tourists will keep on coming. If we continue to put tourists and those who cater to and benefit directly from them first, we can kiss our island life farewell.
That’s my wish list. What’s yours?