Off Islands

| August 1, 2014

By Rodger Skidmore 

“Oh, to be in England”

Thus starts one of Robert Brownian’s famous poems. “The full line is “Oh, to be in England now that April’s there”. Of course Browning did not write the poem while in England, he was off in a distant colonial land dreaming the dream of return – return to a land found only in his dreams, full of sun sparkled flowers with white puffy clouds drifting across blue skies. It was a lovely image, but one found only in his mind’s inner eye, as the real England of his youth was dreary, drizzly, dark and damp. Basically an island surrounded by water over which water continued to pour.

For those of us along the Gulf beaches of southwest Florida the poem might have been “Oh to be in Africa now that all the sand is there”. Between the Sahara, the Kalahari and the Namib deserts of Africa, the residents of Casey, Siesta, Lido, Bird, and Longboat Keys, along with those residents on Anna Maria Island would have all the sand they need for beach renourishment for the next million years.

However, getting the sand here to the west coast of Florida from Africa simply will not be feasible. Transporting it across the Atlantic would not be too difficult, it would just take something along the lines of the XL pipeline, just a tad longer. The real problem will be getting the final section of the pipeline built across I-75 near the University Parkway interchange, as that area will be tied up in construction projects for the foreseeable future.

The real problem is one of supply and demand. There is a finite amount of quartz crystal that was ground into sand up in the Adirondacks during the last glacial period and which then flowed down to Sarasota during that ice age’s final years. We have been re-cycling that same existing sand for the last few decades. Nature washes the sand from each beach, either to its south, or west further into the Gulf. Each key considers that the sand washed down to it from the key to its north to be its own and, when that sand drifts further south, wants to reclaim its lost bounty (as in Lido wanting the sand that has drifted south into Big Pass). Other keys set out onto the Gulf with barges laden with pipe and try to suck back what it had earlier lost. Unfortunately during each cycle some sand is scattered a bit too far for recovery and more is mixed into the course gray sand made from ground up rock and shell.

Perhaps geologists can map the original route of that river of quartz crystal and find large pockets in areas of Florida not too far to the north, which can be mined and that new sand transported down to our beaches. If we, as a nation, move away from fossil fuels this would give those displaced geologists gainful employment for the foreseeable future.

Spend money to make money

That is usually the sales pitch given by consultants to get one to attend seminars on how to do part time work to get full time pay – learn how to flip houses, sell on Amazon, address envelopes at home, etc. Spend money to save money is often the justification given by politicians to hire outside consultants when they don’t want the blame for a failed project placed on their doorstep – “The consultants said this would be the best way. How were we to know it wouldn’t work…and what was wrong with hiring my brother-in-law to do the work, anyway”?

Spend money to know how much money you will need to spend is an approach that has a lot more value. It is a known fact (to quote Donald Rumsfeld) that the south fire station on Longboat Key is substandard. While it is not too, too old, at 28, it has seen better days. Of course, back when it was built there were no female firefighters, so no need to build bathroom, changing and shower facilities for them. And the EIFS faux stucco exterior wall system had not been fully perfected at the time the station was built [an EIFS building rep said, in effect, that the exterior walls just needed exterior repairs – good to know].

With all these, and other (mold, excess exhaust fumes, etc.) problems, one has to wonder what it would cost to fix each problem individually and in the aggregate. As one can’t produce a budget without numbers, Longboat Town Manager Dave Bullock and the commission have set aside $25,000 for a study. Of course Fire Rescue Chief Paul Dizzy would like to see that budget morph into a totally new firehouse with community meeting space, medical facilities and, perhaps, an archery range (well, why not think big).

Relief is on the way

If your spouse ever uses the bathroom in which to change (and model) clothes, you know why they now build all houses with two bathrooms – things can get backed up. That has also been a problem at Coquina Beach and Manatee County Public Beach on Anna Maria Island, but help is now at hand. They are building and installing five beach changing cabanas to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, the use of the county restrooms as changing rooms.

It seems that everyone is happy with the first changing station, installed at Coquina Beach. The only reported controversy was that SueLynn, the mayor of Anna Maria and Jean Peelen, Holmes Beach Commissioner, would have liked muted colors for the cabanas while another Holmes Beach Commissioner, David Zaccagnini, preferred a bit more color. The result is one with turquoise walls and rust colored trim – coincidently the signature colors of Manatee County. And yes, a consultant chose those colors.

Once a trial period is over the number of changing stations could be expanded to 25 or 30, depending upon demand and community acceptance.

The power of numbers

3,000…100….3-4….25….80,000….6….12,225…..etc. The $3,000 is the value of one of the 100 bicycles allegedly stolen on Longboat Key in the last 3-4 months by 25-year-old Daniel Upton. And how was he apprehended? By the numbers on his license plate. Last year the town of Longboat Key instituted a license plate recognition program – basically a set of cameras at the bridges located at either end of the key. While it is similar to a police officer individually running a check on your plate while he sits behind you in traffic, this $80,000 camera system checks the plate on every car entering or leaving the key.

Longboat Key Police Chief Pete Cumming said the system is “a crime prevention tool” and it seems to be working well. In the first six months of this year cars with 12,225 expired tags were photographed. Also over 9,000 vehicles were photographed that were associated with people with expired drivers licenses, and over 18,000 associated with drivers with suspended licenses. A lot of numbers and a powerful system indeed.

That was then and this is now

Or, perhaps – How soon we forget.

Back in the dim, dark past, way back right after the bursting of the real estate bubble, our economy tanked. One of the direct consequences was the decreased return on pension funds here in the state of Florida. And not just Florida, state and city pension funds across the nation lost value. Remember Detroit? Their unfunded pension fund problems were partially to blame for that city going bankrupt.

The term unfunded simply meant that the money necessary to pay the pensions on a monthly basis wasn’t already in the bank, but that was OK as the return on what was there was high enough to cover everything and to keep the fund growing. Except it wasn’t. Fund managers that had been promising high returns were not able to deliver. They had been promising returns of 8 and 10% annually and were suddenly delivering only 3 and 4 %. As a result pensions could not be paid and people (as in “us”) lost out.

Now Longboat Key, in the process of combining all its pension funds, will have a combined unfunded pension liability of $23 million. Michael Seamon, a Police pension board member, has come up with a way to decrease the total amount that is unfunded. Since the funds have been getting better returns than anticipated for the last two years, just make believe that that high rate will continue forever and then the fund will no longer be unfunded to the same degree.

For some reason Firefighter pension Vice Chairman Armando Linde thought just the opposite should be done.  That reason might be that by looking at longer term trends, the actual returns have been lower than anticipated by a couple of percentage points. Of course this makes the unfunded amount look higher.

So, is the Longboat Key’s glass now half empty or is it half full? Pensioners will only find out when the glass runs dry.

Category: Columns

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