Taxing district approved

BOCC: No-go on public referendum

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Public speakers came out in droves Wednesday to tell county commissioners they want a referendum in the Middle Keys’ new hospital taxing district, but they will not get it.

The board voted last month to move ahead with creating the 23-mile taxing district at 0.5 mills or less for a maximum of 10 years without a public referendum. Again, Wednesday, the board approved the taxing district unanimously.

It will cover properties between MMs 40 and 63, including Duck Key and Key Colony Beach, and will be reviewed each year by the BOCC.

“Because you had a 5-0 vote they are beginning to design a hospital like we talked about. The plans are being started,” Jay Hershoff, chairman of the Mariners and Fishermen’s Hospital Foundations, told commissioners.

There were two other options for commissioners to choose from in June. One was to put a referendum for the taxing district on the August primary election ballot, the proceeds of the tax then going to brick-and-mortar construction and the taxing district being in place for 10 years. The other was a bond referendum. Commissioners went with the option that did not require a referendum.

On a non-homesteaded property assessed at $500,000, the new hospital tax would mean a tax increase of about $250 a year.

“Delay is just not an acceptable factor for me,” said Mayor David Rice, echoing many of the speakers who said Marathon urgently needs a hospital built.

Baptist Health South Florida bought the hospital at MM 49 oceanside a year ago; it was destroyed by Hurricane Irma.

More than half of the roughly 30 public speakers Wednesday supported the taxing district. Most of the questions from opponents revolved around how much money Baptist already has in its coffers and whether the taxing district is necessary. “We want a referendum,” was repeated again and again.

The tax will be collected on the bills that come out next fall and the money raised by the tax must be used for indigent charity care.

“The next step is for the county to negotiate an agreement with Fishermen’s that says specifically you’re only eligible for the money if you do certain things.”—Cynthia Hall, assistant county attorney

In the meantime, a hard-sided inpatient temporary hospital will open any day now, and it came at a cost of $5 million.

Baptist managers have tasked the foundation with raising $15 million locally of the $40 million it will cost to build the hospital.

So far, $5.4 million has been raised, Leonard said Tuesday.

“By the end of the year, we expect to have $10 million raised,” said Mike Leonard, chairman of the Baptist Fishermen’s Foundation.

Hospital staff reports Fishermen’s has been losing about $33,000 a day, or $1 million a month, since Baptist bought the hospital. That’s on top of the $24 million in debt it incurred in buying the hospital.

“This is the process of basically setting up the bucket into which the tax dollars would be collected,” said Cynthia Hall, assistant county attorney. “The next step is for the county to negotiate an agreement with Fishermen’s that says specifically you’re only eligible for the money if you do certain things.”

Marathon City Council and Key Colony Beach must pass ordinances by December for the county’s taxing district ordinance to take effect.

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