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Lee County commissioners need to allow for more input into allocation plans

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Pile of Money

What would you do with 150 million dollars?  

Lee County will receive $150 million from the federal government as a result the American Rescue Plan Act Recovery and Residual Plan. This money will be used over the next seven year. This is certainly a windfall, but as one county commissioner explained, it would take two commissioners to spend all of it.  In total, our county has received $377 million since the pandemic’s onset.  

Where would you spend it again?  A plan has been presented by county officials for commissioners to review.  Although it is an interesting start, the vision is a little lacking.  

It is worth reaching out to residents for their opinions on where the funds should go.  Unfortunately, the county’s commitment to public participation is not well-known.  Other counties have public task forces and hold hearings that are not part of the board meetings. They also solicit input from residents and welcome contributions from citizens.  Lee County doesn’t do this.    

Charlotte Newton

There are many reasons citizens might feel discouraged from taking part.  In 2013, for example, a Florida statute required public comment at government meetings. Our new County Attorney decided that public comment was unnecessary in workshops when there was an opportunity to provide input.  Consequently, today, in order to comment on a workshop topic, you must speak up at the Commission’s morning meeting prior to the discussion in the afternoon workshop.  This is a clever way to circumvent the requirement for public comments.  

Learn more:U.S.COVID-19 helps Lee County reach $377M; the county has a measured plan for spending

Remember the commissioners’ strategic planning meeting last February?  I do not.  It was held with public notice being given retroactively, and, upon being reminded that the county had failed to subsequently post a video on its website, it turned out it had not even been recorded — and what had been posted was last year’s session!  More recently, community leaders testified before the BoCC in support of establishing a citizens’ advisory committee on redistricting.  Our county commissioners did not even have the opportunity to consider their suggestion after the testimony.  Just silence — and a motion to adjourn.  Does this make it possible to run a country?    

Our commissioners reply by saying that they are open for constituents. That generally is true.  However, one-on-1 meetings, with no record of conversations or public commitments, are far removed from organized groups of residents working with the county to create programs, exchange ideas, and work together on solutions to county problems.  

The county administrators proposed a spending program for $150 million. It should be an initial point of reference for all residents and not just the five men in the courtroom.  It is difficult to assess the dollar amounts against broad categories by looking only at them.  The proposal includes $5 million for rental and technical assistance for small businesses.  A further $5 million will be used to provide job training assistance.  Are these enough?  What are the likely outcomes?  Who will receive these funds?   

All this must be worked out — certainly a huge undertaking and one that will shape Lee County’s future.  

It is crucial that the county seeks out input from citizens.  A citizens’ task force or advisory committee reflecting the diverse population and economic interests in the county would bring fresh ideas and important insights to the planning process — as well as develop the support critical to successful implementation.   

These are our tax dollars being returned.  Lee County residents should be able to have a voice in the allocation of their tax dollars, not just five men on our county commission.  

Fort Myers resident Charlotte Newton wrote this column on behalf of Women For a Better Lee.

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