WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Ocean-front views, fancy hors d'oeuvres, a full-service bar and luscious accommodations.
No, we are not describing a red-carpet Hollywood premier. It’s a public meeting, paid for with your tax dollars and one government watchdog is saying it’s sending a strange message.
“To the general public, who may have never stepped foot in one of these hotels in their lives, it sends a very strange message,” Daniel Ricker, publisher of the Watchdog Report, said.
One of the 12 commissioners for the Florida Inland Navigation District, F.I.N.D., the group organizing the meetings, says the locations make it easier for the group to meet. "It's much more efficient, we believe, I believe for the commissioners to stay in a place and be able to have their meeting in the same facility,” Donn Collee said. “It works out better that way." Collee is the Palm Beach County Commissioner for F.I.N.D.
The government group is a special taxing district that expects to collect $20.2 million in property taxes next year from homeowners as far south as Miami to just north of Fernandina Beach. Palm Beach County homeowners are expected to contribute $4.1 million and $1.4 million will be collected from homeowners in St. Lucie, Martin and Indian River counties.
"With that aggregated money we maintain waterways and also provide these waterway assistance projects,” Collee said. F.I.N.D. provides matching grants to communities, cities and other groups to help fund projects along the Intracoastal Waterway like the one in downtown West Palm Beach. F.I.N.D. spent close to $4 million to transform that waterway area, making it more pedestrian and boater friendly.
F.I.N.D. expects to spend $4 million of taxpayer money to help fund waterway dredging projects in and around the private Rybovich Marina, the Lockheed Martin facility and the public Riviera Beach Marina.
"The reason F.I.N.D. gets involved is because the mega-yacht industry brings tremendous amounts of economic growth to the area," Collee said.
David Roach, the Executive Director for F.I.N.D., says that without these dredging projects and matching grants the mega-yachts would not be able to travel down the Intracoastal Waterway like they can today.
"Right now you can go stand on the shore of the Intracoastal Waterway and watch yacht after yacht coming down from the northeast,” Roach said. “It's like a parade. That would not happen if F.I.N.D. did not contribute this money."
Roach says the money taxpayers invest in these projects is worth every penny because of the economic impact the mega-yacht industry has on local communities. Ricker is not so sure. “You're assisting a small, a very small segment of your populations," Ricker said. He has been keeping a close eye on government spending for more than a decade. His online publication is a weekly e-mail newsletter that covers government meetings and news in Florida.
"It's also a question of is there a better way to use those tax dollars rather than just for a very small subset of people," Ricker said.
Along with waterway assistance and dredging projects, F.I.N.D. also spends money on public meetings. Since 2007, tax payers have spent close to $100 thousand a year so commissioners and staff members can travel up and down the east coast of Florida and those costs continue to rise.
"It's a very small part of our budget,” Roach says. “We've got 12 commissioners who are unpaid to do this. We ask them and staff to travel every month. We think we handle it all very responsibly."
F.I.N.D. commissioners say they travel to raise public awareness about their projects and to meet publicly as a board. At the group’s last two meetings when the Contact 5 Investigators and our team at the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers where there, few if any members of the public showed up.
The meeting last month at One Ocean Resort in Atlantic Beach, near Jacksonville, cost taxpayers more than $1 thousand and included a cash bar.
Having meetings at resorts, like One Ocean is not rare. Often the meetings are held at similar resorts and high end hotel chains on waterfront property, something Ricker says can send the wrong message. (Click here to view a map of the meeting and event locations over the last two years.)
"The equation has changed since 2008 and anyone on public boards...that are working as volunteers has to realize that there's a perception the average public will have that not only are they not spending public dollars wisely but they're actually trying to feed at the troth,” Ricker said.
"Spaces like this just aren't available on roadside I-95 hotels," Roach said. When asked why the group does not meet in public buildings more often, he said it is a logistics issue.
"A lot of times when we do it at a council building or a city building we have some commissioners sitting on chairs like you're sitting on and we have others in the big plush chairs that are for the city council members,” Roach said. “It's just not a good fit."