About 60 island property owners recently called on our bridge authority to break a promise we, as a community, made to the state in 1995 and once again in 2000.
Who is responsible for operating, maintaining and replacing Boca Grande’s bridges and causeway? Based on that promise, we are. In 2000, the Florida Legislature passed an act re-creating the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority it had originally established in 1995. Most of the statute's language is technical. Not what you’d consider bedtime reading. But the rest is easy to comprehend for anyone interested in taking the time to understand what we told the Legislature we would do back in 1995 and again five years later.
“It is declared as a matter of legislative determination that the residents of Gasparilla Island and its neighboring islands have a vital interest in the operation and the continued maintenance and improvement of the bridge and causeway linking the islands to the mainland.” That’s what the statute creating the bridge authority says.
Those “neighboring islands” are described in the statute. They include Cole Island and Boca Grande Isles. They don’t include residents of Placida, Cape Haze, Rotonda, Charlotte and Lee counties, the State of Florida, the Western Hemisphere and beyond. When we petitioned the Legislature to create the bridge authority, our lawmakers wanted to make it very clear that we, the residents, have a “vital interest” in the bridges and the causeway. They were, in effect, warning us what we were getting ourselves into.
This warning was made even more clear in language found in the same section of the statute. “The residents of Gasparilla Island are the primary users of the bridge and pay the majority of tolls collected for its continued maintenance.” As a result, our lawmakers told us, there is a “continuing responsibility on the part of the residents of Gasparilla Island and surrounding islands for the operation, maintenance, repair, and reconstruction of the bridge and causeway.”
That’s the deal we made with the state. In essence, it's our bridge. We’ll pay for it. Not the “day trippers,” not the people who cross the bridge each day to their jobs in our restaurants, our shops, our school, our clinic, our community center, our newspaper and our homes. Not “others.” Not even “Hell’s Angels.” Us. “The residents of Gasparilla Island and surrounding islands.” It’s understandably troubling that some of our new neighbors now want us to shamelessly welch on the promise we made to the people of Florida when we asked them to let us buy a deteriorating half century-old bridge back in 1995.
That’s the message that was sent by 60 or so self-described residents who recently told the bridge authority a deal’s not a deal. That the people of Boca Grande really don’t have a “continuing responsibility” for the bridges and the causeway. That we should selfishly forget what we said we’d do back in 1995. That we should pass our responsibility on to the next guy in the form of outrageously expensive and exclusionary tolls that will have a devastating effect on our fragile island economy.
For the most part, they can be forgiven. Although the statute is online for the world to see, I doubt few if any of those 60 people bothered to take the time to read the promise they made to the Legislature and the people of Florida 17 years ago. Then again, most weren’t here 17 years ago. The promise was made by a different generation of Boca Grande residents. Residents whose investment in the community extended beyond a deed and a three-month winter vacation. They knew the bridge was scheduled to fall into the state’s hands in 2002, if it didn’t fall over first. They had endured nearly 50 years of contentious absentee ownership. Allowing title to stumble into the hands of the state, they feared, would mean more of the same. Boca Grande’s “vital interest,” they decided, could best be protected through local control of the bridge and causeway that links us to the mainland. And, in return, the mainland to us.
As it had in the past, the bridges and causeway would primarily be kept standing through tolls. But the legislature also correctly foresaw that the day would come when tolls wouldn’t be enough. Accordingly, and without objection from our generation-ago community, lawmakers included a provision permitting the authority to “assess and impose upon lands in the district ad valorem taxes of no greater than 2 mills of assessed value per year.” It seemed only fair considering we, the residents, had agreed the bridge was our “continuing responsibility.”
The Legislature set just two conditions. First, a majority of the island’s registered voters must ratify this taxing authority through a referendum. Not the amount of the tax, just the ability to tax as proscribed by the statute. Second, a tax could only be contemplated if “the authority determines that the bridge tolls being collected may be insufficient to repair, replace, or maintain the bridge and causeway.”
Read this last part in context with the “legislative intent” outlined in the statute. Especially the “continuing responsibility on the part of the residents of Gasparilla Island.” We promised the Legislature we’d step up to the plate if “tolls being collected are insufficient to repair, replace, or maintain the bridge and causeway.” That's where we are today. What we didn’t do, most probably because the Legislature would have killed the deal on the spot, is promise to jack tolls through the roof to replace our bridges and keep “other people” out.
The Legislature, in its own special way, reinforced this idea by noting “the creation of the authority and the carrying out of its purposes are in all respects for the benefit of the people of this state and the people of Lee and Charlotte Counties.”
I doubt the Legislature would have agreed that an exclusionary business-killing toll, the kind most of those who attended the last GIBA meeting seem to want, would be “in all respects for the benefit of the people of this state and the people of Lee and Charlotte Counties.” A toll that functions as a financial “no trespassing" sign doesn’t benefit anyone. It doesn’t benefit the people of Florida, it doesn’t benefit our island businesses, and it ultimately doesn’t benefit us as a community. Most clear-thinking Boca Grande residents see it for what it really is. It’s a death sentence.
We made a promise to the state 17 years ago. The Gang of Sixty doesn’t want us to keep it. The Gang of Sixty doesn’t even want us to vote on whether we keep it. They came dangerously close to having it their way.
A property tax referendum will appear on the November ballot. Nobody likes taxes. But the alternative means we risk losing the Boca Grande so many of us have fought for so many years to preserve. It means a downtown commercial district where real estate offices will take the place of Old Florida restaurants, shops and grocery stores. Or, as our “community panel” was warned many years ago, a soulless gated community. Maybe this is what the Gang of Sixty wants. I don’t. Do you?
There’s something else, of course. In 1995 we made a promise. We renewed it in 2000. We promised to operate the bridge “in all respects” for the benefit of everyone, not just the Gang of Sixty. It’s a promise I intend to keep.
Skip PerryBoca Grande
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