After Putnam County commissioners unanimously voted on February 25 to send the Better Place Plan renewal to the April 7 ballot, controversy broke out.
County residents are expressing their concern about changes in the plan’s wording and how soon the renewal would need to be voted on by the public.
The original Better Place Plan was created in 2002 in order to improve county roads, public facilities and recreation over the course of 15 years.
In order to pay for the improvements, a 1-cent infrastructure surtax was placed on the entirety of Putnam County. An oversight committee, which approves and tracks money spent on the project, consists of 15 citizens who don’t hold public office and live in different municipalities.
Putnam County has more dirt road miles than any other county in the state of Florida, according to Chris Evers, the past president of the American Public Works Association. Nicole Wiesenthal/WUFT News
About 160 miles of roads have been either paved or resurfaced since 2002. According to the Putnam County Land Development Code, road improvements are chosen based off of traffic volume, annual maintenance cost, road function and safety needs.
The plan also funds public works projects, such as the purchasing of soccer fields for the Triangle Recreation Facility and the creation of the Emergency Operations Center in Putnam.
If approved, the plan would be extended for another 15 years, but slight changes in the wording have residents like Tom Williams, an Interlachen car repair shop owner, unhappy.
Williams spoke out against the plan at a county commission meeting in February.
“Is Putnam County a better place?” Williams asked. “If you can answer that question legitimately, you’ve got to say ‘no.’”
There are two word changes in the plan’s renewal: one pertaining to the oversight committee’s power and the addition of a clause, which would allow the plan to “implement other public projects authorized by law.”
Karl Flagg, a Putnam County commissioner, said the added clause would only allow the county to use the money for grants.
“There are two key words there: ‘public’ and ‘authorized by law,’” Flagg said. “How can you be out of bounds with that? The language doesn’t alter anything that we have been doing, but it has given us the privilege, if a situation comes up and becomes a priority, to act on the emergency.”
Stan Owens, a member of the Putnam County Tea Party Patriots, said he knows many people who aren’t against the tax, but are against the changes in wording, specifically the one about the powers of the oversight committee.
“A lot of people who would be for the tax, they’re really against how they changed the wording, so there’d be little or no oversight as to how the spending is going to be done,” Owens said. “We’re more concerned about the lack of transparency and the way it is going to be handled.”
Ron Jones, the chairman of the Better Place Plan oversight committee, said the new wording wouldn’t change the oversight committee’s job.
“Nothing in the language prohibits it from doing what it’s been doing for the last several years,” he said. “The language taken out was not entirely clear or meaningful and didn’t contribute to what we were doing. The language put in said the committee will continue what it’s been doing for the last 12 years.”
Another matter that bothered both Williams and Owens was the April 7 voting date.
Owens said he had a problem with how the county seemed to be rushing the voting by putting it on a ballot that only had one other election on it: a new District 6 senator.
Bardin Ranchette Road in Putnam County was paved with money from the Better Place Plan. Yvonne Parish/WUFT News
“Our concern is that the way it is being put across, they’re trying to have it voted on at an election which is expected to have a small turnout,” Owens said. “They’re going to slip it in without educating the public.”
Flagg, however, said he sees more benefits in having the renewal on the April 7 ballot.
“The difference between this time and the previous time is the previous time you were trying to sell the unknown and make some promises,” he said. “This time around we have a track record of what we have done.”
He said the commissioners wanted to save the county from a ballot that was lengthy and from the issue becoming a stand-alone, which would lead to problems with cost and turnout.
Even without the plan changes, some people like Craig Sherar, from East Palatka, said the plan is useless without a clear path.
“Why are we paving roads that we’ve abandoned?” he asked. “You need to come up with some kind of objective standard so we know the mistakes in the past won’t be repeated.”
But Ben Bates, a Putnam County business owner, said all the changes he’s seen from the plan have been positive.
“It’s one of the few (plans) that the government has implemented that every penny has been spent exactly the way that it has promised to have been spent,” he said. “It’s been a big boost for our county, and it has allowed the county to make some improvements that otherwise haven’t been made without it.”