Sally Swartz: Customs facility at Witham Field 'fails at the starting gate'


A controversial $1.6 million customs facility business owners wanted Martin County to build and operate at Witham Field is dead.

The facility would have allowed aircraft and boat owners to pay to clear customs at Martin’s airport instead of checking in for free at federal facilities in West Palm Beach or Fort Pierce.

Last week, Commissioner Anne Scott, once again the swing vote on an issue that has been before commissioners eight times, listened to residents who were worried about construction costs.

The lowest bid for building the customs facility came in $200,000 over budget. Airport Manager George Stokus tried to reduce the total cost by suggesting shingles instead of a metal roof and giving up a private staff bathroom for public restrooms. It wasn’t enough.

Scott, who has voted both for and against the project in the past, turned the decision into a cliff-hanger. After residents and airport businessmen had their turns at the public microphone, she asked “to take a break for deliberation.”

The 10-minute recess let Scott set the stage for what could be an eventual bid for a second commission term in 2016. Many who voted for her in 2012 let her know how unhappy they were last August when she voted to approve the facility.

Her reasons for her eventual “no” vote show this commission now knows how it wants things to work. A previous commission approved the plan earlier, when the 3,200-square-foot facility would have cost $800,000.

But neither that commission nor the new majority elected in 2012, Scott said, ever met to “decide we need a customs facility.”  At no point did the commission discuss “the propriety of undertaking the project.”

Instead, airport businessmen and others floated the idea as a way to make Witham Field more competitive, using “unreliable data to persuade the (commission) to put a customs facility” in Martin’s capital improvement plan.

But financial realities, Scott said, made the new commission cautious “about committing public funds for private interests.”

She praised supporters of the customs facility for finally putting together “a proper business plan.” But, she said, “unfortunately that plan, and the basic assumption of what it would cost to build (the customs facility), proved untrue.”

The lowest bid was $350,000 lower than the highest bid, she said, and she questioned whether “the lowest bid, if not improbable, is questionable.”

If All Aboard Florida goes through as planned, Scott said, fewer boaters will be able to travel easily to and from the Bahamas. That would mean less revenue for the customs facility, which would have relied heavily on boater participation.

The project, she said, “fails at the starting gate and I will not vote for it.”

Commissioner Sarah Heard and Chairman Ed Fielding, who always have opposed the facility, joined her in the “no” vote, with Commissioners John Haddox and Doug Smith voting for it.  Haddox, like Scott, promised to oppose it before they were elected.

Most residents who spoke were opposed, and businessmen who packed the room supported it. Airport neighbors fear an increase in airport noise and traffic and an end to the hope that Witham Field, in the heart of Stuart, can be community-friendly.

Hobe Sound resident Jeff Wittman called the customs facility “corporate welfare for a few and a convenience for the wealthy who have jets.”

Palm City resident Donna Melzer said the failure last August of a proposed sales tax to cover needed road repairs shows residents are “looking for conservative budgeting.”

Proponent Ike Crumpler told commissioners the facility would mean “only a modest increase in airport traffic” and urged them to honor a petition supporting it.

Opponents scarcely could believe the proposal they fought for so many years really is dead. Unless a commissioner who voted against it asks for a redo at the next meeting – which Scott did once but doesn’t seem likely to do again – the customs facility is dead. Even better, Scott and the commission majority showed they’re firmly in charge.

A future commission with a different majority could bring it up again. But they’d have to start from scratch.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Post Editorial Board. Find her blog posts and others at The Palm Beach Post Opinion Zone. Column courtesy of Context Florida. 

Sally Swartz


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