Lee County Commissioners looked into saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by withdrawing from the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council during their meeting on Tuesday.
The council is one of 10 that the state of Florida created to coordinate development between counties. State law mandates that the counties be members of the councils, but staff informed the commissioners that the organization’s interlocal agreement allows members to stop paying assessment fees as long as the county gives a 12-month notice that it intends to withdraw funding. Sarasota County has already given its notice that it intends to withdraw from the council.
Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass said that in his experience the council has had most of its power removed by the state and that the money being contributed to it would be better spent elsewhere.
“For me sitting there as a policy maker for two or three hours making a decision on [a council] that has no authority, it was very disheartening that we had no impact in the region or anywhere else,” said Pendergrass. “I don’t see how it’s going to impact us like $425,000. When we have kids going to bed hungry, that money could be used better in Lee County. That’s a lot of money.”
The county has paid $425,576 in assessment fees to the council over the last three years.
Lee is apparently not the only county that is looking to follow Sarasota’s lead. According to Commissioner Larry Kiker, officials from Charlotte, Hendry, and Glades have all expressed to him an interest in withdrawing from the council.
“I think some of them became aware for the first time that they could do what Sarasota did,” said Kiker. “I think they were just finding out that was an option.”
County Manager Roger Desjarlais agreed that a number of counties were also evaluating the option.
“Charlotte County seems to be the next county that will send the letter to the RPC, the one year notice,” said Desjarlais. “I had a conversation with their county manager two or three weeks ago about that topic”
Commissioner Brian Hamman asked the county’s attorney Richard Wesch if Sarasota’s withdrawal had any legal ramifications. Wesch assured him that while the county was required to stay a member of the council, the option to stop paying assessment fees was a legal one as long as the requirement of the 12-monthnotice was met.
The commission directed county staff to draw up a proposal on how the process would work so that they could evaluate it at a future meeting.
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