The Key West Mystique

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bond referendum

Key West bond referendum | A $300 million tough sell

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


I’ve never met a bond referendum I didn’t like. Until Key West floated four of them totaling $300-million for a sackful of loosely defined projects, some of which make complete sense while a couple others made me scratch my head. One, an “enhancement” of the Coffee Butler Amphitheater, got a “Huh? Heck no.” More on that later.

On the General Election ballot Nov. 5, the City of Key West is expected to ask voters to approve four bond referendums, which would, over 30 years, pay for capital projects like hardening infrastructure to withstand hurricanes and flooding, rebuilding and elevating roads and doing something nice with the neglected Bayview Park and Martin Luther King Jr. Pool.

We’d get a lot done for what is estimated at $66 per year per $100,000 of your home’s assessed valuation. For Ranger Ed and me that would be about $330 annually. Not a bad price for a litany of improvements.

If I were my usual “I love bond referendums” self, I’d be encouraging you to vote for them. I’m ambivalent. The city has less than five months to convince me I’m not buying a pig in a poke.

Bond referendums are, hands down, the best way taxpayers can fund huge capital projects like building schools and fire and police stations. A bond is like taking out a home equity loan on your house to replace the roof. Maybe you toss in a kitchen remodel. Most of us don’t have that kind of cash for capital improvement projects, so paying off the loan over time makes sense.

Key West cannot afford the pay-it-all-at-once model. It needs access to huge amounts of cash to upgrade aging infrastructure against the vagaries of sea level rise and climate change. It doesn’t take much more than a walk around town to realize how tattered and worn our buildings, parks and streets have become. Fixing that to-do list probably means even $300 million in bonds won’t be enough.

These four bond referendums are pretty darn vague. Essentially voters are being asked to approve four pots of money — without specific projects mandated. Oh, each of the four includes a handful of projects that “could” be done, but the referendums themselves aren’t specific except for the total dollars.

Bond referendum
Public Safety Arch at Bayview Park. Bond funds could be used to mitigate this King Tide flooding.

Key West bond referendum | The four proposals

Let’s look at the four proposed bonds:

  • Adaptation — $99 million: “Mitigates the impact of stronger hurricanes, increased heat and rising sea levels through strategic investments in roads, buildings and infrastructure systems: Minimize flooding frequency, severity, duration and impact. Decrease damage from increased winds and storm surge. Create redundancies in energy and water resources. Protect critical infrastructure and high-use areas, reducing financial and economic vulnerability.”
  • Public Safety — $82 million: “Enhance the City’s ability to save lives and protect property while promoting the health and well-being of our citizens. Minimize fire and rescue response and recovery time. Improve response ability, facility resilience and community outreach.”
  • Parks & Recreation — $68 million: “Provide accessible innovative parks and cultural facilities to the residents of Key West: Restore capital assets past their useful life. Replace and renovate parks to be more innovative that will provide overall community health, strengthen local economies, create jobs, help with storm water run-off, improve air quality and much more.”
  • Transportation & Roadway Improvements — $51 million: “Provide a safe, convenient, effective, multi-modal roadway system which is coordinated with future land use and provides for the mobility of people and goods: Reduce streets in disrepair, provide a safe, effective, multi-modal roadway system coordinated with traffic plans, future land-use and resiliency solutions.”

I don’t disagree with a single one of those priorities. You probably don’t either. For a few hundreds bucks a year we get a long way down the road to preserving and enhancing Key West’s future.

The city promises, at least at the moment, not to spend bond money on a project unless that project is specifically approved by the City Commission. But there’s nothing in the referendum language so far to make that stick. Over the 30-year lifespan of the bonds, that’s giving a blank check for changing attitudes, elected officials, city managers, mayors and staff.

Which brings me to that one “heck no” item. It’s tucked under Parks & Recreation as an example of a project that could be done at Truman Waterfront Park: “Green Room, back of stage, restrooms, vendor facilities & special seating.”

Innocuous enough until you know that Rams Head Group, which manages the amphitheater for the city, is encouraging the City to spend $30 million to tear it down and build a new one. That proposal, which went before the City Commission on June 6, is worded so it sounds marvelous. More people (at least 500 more seats), more professional acts, VIP areas, shade, nicely turned areas for performers. Oh, and maybe the Tourist Development Council can fund it. And Rams Head Group, a for-profit company, gets a (re)venue of its dreams.

Maybe locals would like a brand-new amphitheater — or not. It is all of seven years old. But the way these $300 million bond referendums are worded, we just might not get a say.

I’ve got five months to decide how I’m going to vote. Getting me to “yes” will be a tough sell.

Learn more

From the Citizen: City Moves Ahead with $300 million bond referendum

Watch the City Commission discussion: How they voted on the referendums

From the Citizen: City Commission hears Rams Head proposal on amphitheater

From the City of Key West: Descriptions of each bond referendum with sample projects

From the City of Key West & Rams Head Group: Proposals for rebuilding the amphitheater

1 Comment

  1. Wynn Steinkamp

    Fix the horrible streets. They all need new surfaces. With maybe a few exceptions. Most of the residential streets are horrible and the main streets to get downtown. The rising cost of flood and wind insurance on homeowners, we don’t need to start raising cost through bonds and taxes. People are hurting from inflation. Yes I would like to see more detail on how the money would be appropriated.


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