The TC Palm : Will bond issue listen to Treasure coast comments on All Aboard Florida?
Posted on April 15, 2015
Treasure Coast residents could seize a hard-fought opportunity Monday and speak out against state-issued, tax-exempt funding for All Aboard Florida.
Whether anyone will listen is another story.
The Florida Development Finance Corp., the potential bond issuer, will accept comments from all members of the public. But issues related to regions outside those specified in All Aboard Florida’s bond application — including the Treasure Coast — are beyond the corporation’s authority, according to Bill Spivey, executive director.
Treasure Coast issues related to the $3 billion project such as safety, zoning, development and land use are beyond the authority of the finance corporation. The quasi-governmental agency has “nothing to do with anything other than financing,” Spivey said in an earlier interview.
In fact, by planning to use the bond proceeds in five of the eight counties along its route — but not Martin, St. Lucie or Indian River — All Aboard Florida, in its bond application, was able to avoid mentioning any opposition.
The application asked, “Are you aware of any reason why any local government unit (city, county, special district, etc.) would not want Florida Development Finance Corp. to issue bonds in connection with this transaction?” All Aboard Florida marked “No,” adding: “AAF has received clear and consistent support from each county in which proceeds from the private activity bond will be invested.”
All Aboard Florida in September 2013 requested $1.75 billion of tax-exempt bonds to purchase equipment and pay for construction along much of the 235-mile corridor, where it would run 32 high-speed passenger train trips a day. The finance corporation in August tentatively agreed to issue the bonds, but four months later, its board was determined to be improper — members never were appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, as required by law — and its August decision was invalidated.
Last week — to the delight of many Treasure Coast leaders — the finance corporation agreed to revisit the bond issue at a public meeting Monday in Tallahassee.
Finance corporation leaders failed to mention, however, that its board members won’t attend.
Local All Aboard-opponents on Tuesday called a staff-only meeting unacceptable, and Martin and Indian River counties asked to have the meeting postponed until the board can attend, according to Dylan Reingold, Indian River County attorney.
Reingold also wants the corporation to change the meeting format, which, for now, could have a “chilling effect” on public participation, he said in an email Tuesday.
“Speakers who make the seven- to 14-hour round-trip drive from the areas impacted by these bonds will only have three minutes to testify,” he said. “In fact, they may not have an opportunity to speak at all, as the meeting is scheduled for two hours.” The public cannot call into the meeting, according to Reingold.
Members of CARE-FL, a citizen group that has helped organize a letter-writing campaign and a bus trip to the meeting, are unhappy but undeterred, said Brent Hanlon, treasurer.
“(CARE) members are really upset the board won’t be there, but we are still prepared to make the journey to Tallahassee to speak our concerns,” Hanlon said. “Our wish and desire is that the board does its due diligence.”
It’s unclear however, if the board has any obligation to consider Treasure Coast concerns since the region wouldn’t see any bond proceeds spent here.
All Aboard Florida would use the $1.75 billion in bond proceeds for work only in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Brevard and Orange counties, according to its application to the finance corporation.
Work on the Treasure Coast, an estimated $387 million, would be paid for by parent company Florida East Coast Industries, leaving no direct connection between the finance corporation and Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties.
The finance corporation intentionally issued no public-meeting notices in Treasure Coast counties, according to Beth Frady, spokeswoman.
Still, all comments will be considered, she emphasized.
“(The finance corporation) will encourage persons who wish to speak at the hearing to focus their comments on the noticed issues in order to provide the greatest number of people an opportunity to speak,” Frady said.
Borrowing through private-activity bonds was All Aboard Florida’s second choice for financing.
The company in March 2013 applied for a $1.6 billion federal loan through the Federal Railroad Administration, a request that became a rallying point for opponents who criticized the private company for seeking public money.
The company switched direction in August and applied for the bond financing, which could “replace or substantially reduce” the federal loan, according to Lynn Martenstein, All Aboard Florida spokeswoman. The federal loan application remains on the table, said Michael Cole, Federal Railroad Administration spokesman.
All Aboard Florida plans to begin service from Miami to West Palm Beach by the end of next year, and through the Treasure Coast to Orlando International Airport in early 2017.