Residents get earful at ‘State of the Island’ community forum

 BY PRU SOWERS

NEWS WRITER

When it comes to the state of this island, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

So said several speakers at the second KonkLife “State of the Island” community forum Tuesday night, as they presented what they thought were the most important challenges facing Key West and its residents. Many of the items on the list were familiar: Homelessness, drug and alcohol use, protecting Key West’s natural beauty. Police Chief Doni Lee said his officers had over 14,000 contacts – incidents – with homeless individuals in 2012.

“It certainly isn’t getting better. It’s getting worse,” he said. “We have to find a better way to manage vagrancy and homelessness. What we’re doing now isn’t working.”

But while the speakers succinctly outlined the challenges, it wasn’t all bad news. Robert Cintron, chairman of the Truman Waterfront Advisory Board, said the just-approved Truman Waterfront Park plan is “tremendous” and will be “a centerpiece” of the city. Mayor Craig Cates, who is running for reelection this fall, was also optimistic. He said the Key West economy is stable, crime is down and property values are increasing. However, he did acknowledge that some of these successes have created their own challenges. In particular, he pointed to the lack of affordable housing on the island.

“We’re a victim of our own success when it comes to rents for our workers. Affordable housing has to be one of our priorities now,” he said.

That opinion was shared by another speaker, Scott Pridgen, Executive Director of AIDS Health and Chairman of Monroe County Homeless Services of Continuum Care. Using statistics of average household income and housing costs of 30 percent of income, he said Key West should have rental housing costing between $414 and $888 a month. Those figures drew wry laughter from the audience.

“That is not seen here in the Keys,” Pridgen acknowledged, referring to the monthly rent figures. He said one solution was to create tax credit programs for developers who build affordable housing units. Not only will that help the homeless problem in Key West, it will help any resident who is at risk of losing their existing home, he said.

While each speaker talked about a specific challenge to Key West, Bob Eadie, Administrator of the Monroe County Health Department, said all of the challenges have a ripple effect that can hurt the overall physical health of the community. When the tourism industry suffers a decline, less money flows to local workers who may then make unhealthy food choices based on their diminished budget. Promoting Key West as a vacation destination also leads to heavy drug and alcohol use on the part of tourists. As a result, Eadie said, Key West has double or triple the national average of drunk driving incidents, which cost local taxpayers money for the arrests and trials.

“It’s our community, our health and our choice. Often the choice is to do nothing,” Eadie said. “It’s a matter of will to make the choices rather than kick the can down the road.”

Identifying the challenges is often just as important as finding solutions, according to several of the forum speakers. Knowing what lies ahead gives officials and residents more time to develop a solution.

“Our planning horizon isn’t 10 years. It isn’t 25 years. It’s the next 50 to 75 years,” said Key West City Planner Don Craig, talking about how the city is looking at the rising sea level caused by global warming.

However, there were some topics raised that were very immediate. Resident Louise Weithas, who has lived in Key West for 32 years, took the microphone to complain about Fantasy Fest and the nudity and drinking that has increasingly accompanied the October event.

“Where do you people see that going?” she asked the community forum speakers. “Is it going down further in depravity or do we pull it up?”

No one on the dais volunteered an opinion.