LIBRARIES OF TOMORROW: COUNTY OFFICIALS DISCUSS FUTURE PROJECTS

A state-of-the-art Marathon library is spurring discussion on what the other county libraries could be in the Florida Keys. 

As Kimberly Matthews, senior director of strategic planning and libraries, told Mayor David Rice: “You don’t want to build yesterday’s library. You want to build tomorrow’s library.” 

Discussion brought forward by County Commissioner Holly Raschein during a March 16 meeting of the Board of County Commissioners at the Murray Nelson Government Center delved into some of the next steps for potential upgrades and development for other libraries. The new Marathon library is bringing discussion to possible improvements at libraries in Big Pine Key, Islamorada and Key Largo.

The $7.5-million library facility in Marathon opened to the public on June 26. Among the features are multiple meeting spaces, including four small, private conference rooms, couch with USB ports, activities center upstairs for yoga or science lab or Dungeon and Dragons games and a teen center equipped with video games. 

Matthews told the commissioners that conducting an analysis of the other facilities will take several months, including stakeholder meetings and gathering the necessary data. From there, recommendations would be presented to the commissioners. 

“Increased use in libraries is always important. It bodes well for the culture and health of community and engagement,” she said. 

Commissioner Michelle Coldiron said there’s a need for community space in her district in Big Pine Key, especially since the senior center is no longer viable. 

“Right now, we’re going to need you to work your magic up and down the county and come up with a strong strategic plan on what we’re going to do with all these spaces,” Coldiron told Matthews. 

Commissioner Craig Cates said the Key West library is “very old.”

“I don’t know if they want to replace it completely or restore it,” Cates said. “It’s elevated and is in the highest part of town. You have different options down there.”

County Administrator Roman Gastesi threw out the possibility of the Harris School as an option. Cates said it’s an opportunity that could be examined. 

Dottie Moses, president of the Island of Key Largo Federation of Homeowner Associations, said the library could use some technology upgrades. 

“Since COVID, technology has had to move forward. We’re finding the technology in that community room to be a little bit challenging to use,” she said. “It’s quite a setup actually; it takes 45 minutes to make it work.”

NO MORE COVID REPORTS

Monroe County commissioners and health and emergency officials agreed there’s no need for monthly situation reports with just five new COVID-19 cases in the Keys as of March 14. Shannon Weiner, county emergency management director, said there were no new cases among minors. Hospitalizations also remained at zero. 

In addition, Weiner said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control put Monroe County at a low level of community spread. Three metrics go into the level: hospital admissions, hospital beds occupied and new cases per day in a seven-day timeframe.

“Do we believe it’s time for us to put this item to bed and not do weekly and monthly reports and let you deal with more important issues?” said Commissioner Michelle Coldiron. “Bob (Eadie) and I have had discussion as we continue to monitor the situation. We both feel it is time.”

Eadie, the county’s top health official, touted Monroe County’s response throughout the pandemic. While cases remain low, he reminded commissioners that COVID isn’t over yet. 

“I don’t want us to be surprised. In China, their policy of lockdowns haven’t worked so well, the vaccine hasn’t worked so well and COVID has exploded,” he said. “The issue with that is you see more of the disease with different variants.”

LAND AUTHORITY MATTERS

County commissioners approved a resolution to extend services with Tetra Tech Inc. for assistance in the purchase of homes affected by Hurricane Irma through the CDBG-DR Voluntary Home Buyout Program. In March 2020, Monroe County received $15 million for the program. Christine Hurley, executive director of the county Land Development Authority, said people can still apply for funding if their homes suffered damage from Hurricane Irma and are interested in selling their home. It’s aimed for properties in high-risk flood areas. 

“We originally had about 60 applicants. We’ve probably gone to contract with 12-15, somewhere in there,” Hurley said. “We did recently get a lot of new applications, which is surprising because there are people that still haven’t been able to recover from Irma.”

Mayor David Rice. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Members of the county’s Land Authority Governing Board also approved the sale of 12 subdivision lots in the Lower Keys for scattered-site affordable housing development. The Land Authority is partnering with the Monroe County Housing Authority and the Florida Housing Finance Corporation to build 12 units of affordable rental housing by re-developing 12 ROGO-exempt lots on Big Pine Key and Little Torch Key, known as the Lower Keys Scattered Sites project. On July 18, 2019, the Land Authority entered into an agreement to sell the project sites to the Housing Authority for 1,353,989. 

Approval was also garnered for purchase of a 6.13-acre parcel on the corner of U.S. 1 and Samson Drive in Key Largo. The property owner has agreed to sell the property for $850,000. Hurley said there were two significant areas of encroachment discovered after the parcel was under contract. Staff is proposing each encroachment area be deeded to the adjacent parcel owners in order to decrease the risk and liability associated with these encroachments and historic use. 

EXTENDING INFRASTRUCTURE SURTAX

Discussion ensued over extending an infrastructure surtax that was initiated in 1990. Per County Administrator Roman Gastesi, that surtax will sunset in 2033. He said 65% of the surtax is paid by visitors. He recommended the commissioners consider placing a referendum on the November ballot to extend that further. Gastesi said it will allow the county to fund critical projects. 

Commissioner Craig Cates acknowledged his support for the surtax extension as long as possible. He said it’s important that the county has a long-term vision of projects that would be funded through the surtax.

“I think it will be very important for residents to see what we’re doing; it’s not whatever comes along on a whim,” he said. 

ADDRESSING VACATION RENTALS

Code Compliance Director Cynthia McPherson updated commissioners on vacation rental violations in unincorporated Monroe County, which has a 28-day minimum rental for units; rentals for less than 28 days must meet certain zoning requirements and must obtain a permit or exemption for the rentals. All rental properties, regardless of how long the property is rented, must obtain a local business tax receipt from the tax collector.

A total of 1,287 units have received exemptions (usually located within a gated community or multi-unit complex), and 109 annual permits for single-family residential units are approved as legal vacation rentals in unincorporated Monroe County. There are six properties on the vacation rental violation enforcement list in unincorporated Monroe County.

McPherson explained the fining structure, which now includes a weekly rental rate times four. For example, if an illegal vacation rental rents for $2,500 a week, the recommended fine to the special magistrate would be $10,000.

“The fine helped motivate many units to come into compliance, but some repeat violators see it as a cost of doing business,” McPherson said. “Repeat violators may be fined a maximum of $15,000 and then with two findings of fact by the special magistrate are then referred to the State Attorney’s office for criminal prosecution.”

HONORING PASCAL

Raschein read a proclamation declaring Feb. 2 in Monroe County as Pascal’s Day in honor of the late Pascal Weisberger, who was killed on May 7, 2020. A standout student at Ocean Studies Charter and Treasure Village Montessori schools, Weisberger worked countless community service hours in beach cleanups and helping with homeless pets at the Upper Keys Humane Society. Weisburger’s classmates and the community at large perform great acts of community service on this day annually in Pascal’s honor.

Commissioner Holly Raschein, pictured middle, proclaims Feb. 2 as Pascal’s Day. Family and friends attended the March 16 meeting to honor Pascal Weisberger, who would have turned 16 last February. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Joining the ceremony were friends and family of Pascal, who took a few moments to share their memories of the young boy: Sue Woltanski, school board member, Ari Poholek, Pascal’s father, and Ronald Weisberger, Pascal’s grandfather. 

KEY LIME PIE

State legislators in Tallahassee declared strawberry shortcake the official dessert of Florida this legislative session. As a result, Monroe County commissioners supported a proclamation in support of Key lime pie as the official dessert of the Florida Keys. 

On July 1, 2006, the Florida House and Senate passed legislation naming Key lime pie the official pie of the state. But state Rep. Lawrence McClure of Plant City this year filed House Bill 567, and Rep. Danny Burgess, of Tampa, filed Senate Bill 1006 designating strawberry shortcake as the official dessert.

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Jim McCarthy is a northerner who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since his graduation from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3 years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. Behind every community is resiliency and resolve in difficult times. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim serves as President of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. “It’s a group that lives by the motto ‘Service Above Self,’” he says. “We’ve done service projects at the Tavernier nursing home, sitting down and socializing with residents. “We’ve also supplied cameras to young students exploring the Keys ecosystem.” Jim loves sports, family and time exploring underneath the water depths.