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Lee Hinkle: Freshmen city commissioners need to earn public trust before proposing costly projects

“It’s important to listen and watch closely the early work of our new officials.”

Last year’s elections transformed government at all levels — federal, state and local — and now new elected leaders are trying to find their footing, even as they deal with important political and policy decisions that significantly impact taxpayers. We’re seeing this reality take shape in the nation’s capital, and right here in our own capital city.

It’s important to listen and watch closely the early work of our new officials. I find that particularly true in the city of Tallahassee, where three of the five commissioners — Jeremy Matlow, Elaine Bryant and Dianne Williams-Cox — form a majority, even as they are brand-new to the job.

While we’re always grateful for the willingness of people to serve us in public office, it takes more than a few weeks for newly elected officials to get beyond the steep learning curve. They should exercise caution during that learning period — out of respect for the weighty responsibilities they have just been elected or appointed to shoulder — rather than display easy comfort floating proposals for expensive new programs and policies.

All of us who care about the value of every tax dollar should have deep concerns about an idea being energetically pushed by Commissioner Matlow for the city to get into the broadband/high-speed internet business — at a staggering cost that could approach $300 million in tax dollars. As Mayor John Dailey properly observed, that price tag is the equivalent to one-third of the total city budget.

Mr. Matlow has built a successful pizza parlor business here. But proposing a highly questionable, costly new utility isn’t as simple as throwing some sauce and cheese onto a pie. Quite the contrary — this $300 million plan burns and chokes any concerned taxpayer for its sheer crustiness. A reasonable view concludes this bad idea would become a terrible reality that offends logic and sensibility.

Diverse broadband services already exist here, offered by a number of private sector providers. It makes no sense for the city to go into competition with businesses that create jobs and pay taxes.

If customer service is a problem, let free enterprise create the appropriate market pressures to expand, enhance and extend broadband service and improve customer relations, rather than have our city become an expensive competing startup. A mammoth investment of public dollars for such purpose also risks wasting them if — or when — that technology is rendered obsolete by even newer breakthroughs within the next decade.

It’s ironic that Mr. Matlow rejected the idea for a needed, in-demand parking garage for the popular and growing Midtown region by making the odd point that the private sector should respond to any such need. Now, this same freshman commissioner is proposing our city embark on a journey of financial folly that amounts to a giant tax increase and a hard slap to the private sector that has worked hard in this space for decades.

Surely, we want our elected officials — especially new ones — to learn their jobs and earn our trust by good works and wise decisions. Pushing an agenda to create an expensive new public utility under the guise of modernizing our infrastructure is an offense against taxpayers, logic and today’s economic realities.

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Lee Hinkle is a director of the Florida Alliance for Consumers and Taxpayers. She is a former vice president of University Relations at Florida State University, former senior vice president of Governmental Affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and former member of the Florida Commission on Ethics.

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