The TC Palm: Analysis: Finite funds, ongoing battle for counties fighting All Aboard Florida

Posted on July 27, 2015

Lisa Broadt

Martin County would run out of cash in six months and Indian River County in about one year if they continue spending their All Aboard Florida war chests at their current paces.

All Aboard Florida, meanwhile, may be holding a blank check.

In the six months since the counties approved a combined $4.2 million for the All Aboard Florida legal battle, they have spent about $1.5 million to secure a string of small victories.

But they have failed to strike a critical blow, and there appear to be few opportunities on the horizon to do so.

Rather, the counties may be settling into a war of attrition against the $3 billion, Miami-to-Orlando passenger railroad that is under the umbrella of Fortress Investment Group, a multibillion-dollar global investment firm.

Indian River County by Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year, expects to spend close to 30 percent of its dedicated $2.7 million.

Martin County expects to spend about half of its $1.5 million.

This money has bought the counties basic but crucial knowledge about All Aboard Florida, including more about who the company is, what it’s after and what Martin County is up against, according to County Commissioner Doug Smith.

Martin County is a “quantum leap” ahead of where it was six months ago, when Martin and Indian River counties filed lawsuits against the rail project — they argued a violation of federal environmental law — and attempted to block All Aboard Florida’s access to certain tax-free financing, according to Smith.

“It was like landing in a foreign country and having no knowledge of the language or culture,” Smith said about the overwhelming and multifaceted legal conflict.

Martin County’s remaining legal money will afford it the information it needs to refine its strategy.

“I think in six months we will have a better idea about whether we can win this,” Smith said. “The commission as a whole will have to look at the next steps — what is the possibility of winning and would more money alone be enough?”

Martin County Commission Chairman Ed Fielding said it’s too early to talk about more money, emphasizing that past spending does not necessarily predict the future.

The startup costs of “various activities,” such as the county’s studies of grade crossings or the St. Lucie River train bridge, were one-time costs the county will not face again.

“It’s not something where it’s an expected amount every week. It probably wouldn’t lend itself to that type of analysis,” Fielding said about using spending up to now to estimate future needs.

But the counties’ single-largest cost is ongoing and relatively predictable: Outside counsel accounts for most of their spending.

Martin County has paid, or has pending, $445,800 to outside counsel and holds regular strategy sessions during County Commission meetings.

Indian River County has spent $720,000 on outside counsel this year, according to county records.

And there’s likely to be at least one short-term but costly project.

The yet-to-be-released final environmental impact report looms as a one-time cost that could take a healthy portion of each county’s budget. Indian River County, for example, spent $53,000 preparing for and studying the draft report, county records show.

County Commissioner Bob Solari — Indian River County’s most vocal critic of All Aboard Florida — said he is open to allocating more money down the road.

“I don’t believe we need to add more money at the present time,” Solari said last week. “When the time arises, and we need to consider allocating more money, I would certainly consider it.”

Solari admits the Treasure Coast may be locked in a protracted battle, but says “thousands” of residents remain supportive and possibly in favor of spending more money.

“I think people understand that this is going to be long and arduous … We went into the fight knowing that,” Solari said. “It won’t be this fiscal year or next fiscal year. I wouldn’t be surprised if it still was not done by September 2017.”

The town of Jupiter Island is not directly involved with the two counties’ lawsuits but has spent about $30,000 on outside legal services related to All Aboard Florida. About half went to issues related to the draft environmental impact statement, according to town records.

All Aboard Florida plans to begin service through the Treasure Coast by late 2017.

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