Gateway Sun

Since we let the public know about one Supervisor’s plan to take up to $500,000 worth of public money and spend it to benefit a private business, several emails and messages have been written about our story.

For the benefit of those who had not read the original piece, the business involved is The Club at Gateway golf course, and the expenditure would be to repair five out-of-service wells that feed emergency irrigation water to the privately-owned golf course.

In one of the emails that was written, The Club’s leadership wrote to its members and praised our story’s accuracy while at the same time telling their members that at no time had they made a proposal to have $500,000 spent on fixing publicly-owned wells. On behalf of this publication, I would like to echo that sentiment. At no time has anyone made any official “proposals” to fix anything. But it’s important to note one simple fact: we never said they did.

What we said was that The Club’s management and one Supervisor are saying the spending is necessary, and they’re putting pressure on the Gateway District to spend that money. We also said the other four Supervisors aren’t thrilled with the idea at all.

So why The Club worded their letter to make it sound like we said things had reached such formal stages… is something you’ll have to ask them. But it’s things like this that add to the level of mistrust regarding this situation and that company in particular.

Another email about this situation, which is the main focus of this story, was from Supervisor Ed Tinkle written to us here at the Gateway Sun.

Well, we were in the “To:” field… but the “cc:” field had about 50 people on it, including candidates for the Board of Supervisors Delores Linscott and Jim Brann. Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergress was also included, as was Gateway’s District Manager Chris Shoemaker. The rest of the list appeared to be club members or staff. Cleary, Tinkle’s email was intended for mass consumption.

Tinkle is the Gateway public official who is advocating for public funds to be spent to benefit the private golf club. Tinkle is a member of The Club, and Tinkle lives in the community where the golf club is located.

While The Club sent out a letter applauding our efforts and admiring our dedication to informing the public about issues in Gateway, Tinkle called our article “fiction” and “inflammatory”.

Perhaps The Club and Tinkle should get on the same page and decide whether we suck, or that we’re doing a great job. We’d love to know.

Anyway, Tinkle wanted to make two main points in his email. The first is that the people of Gateway own the wells and thus are responsible for paying to repair them. The second was that The Club pays beaucoup bucks in GSCDD assessment dollars, and he’d like to know what The Club is getting for that money.

Let’s begin with Tinkle’s first point.

On July 19, Tinkle wrote: “According to a former Westinghouse Gateway Communities (WGC) official, in 1986 WGC, who at that time not only owned the Country Club but had controlling interests of the CDD, elected to install the five (5) irrigation wells and the 8″ irrigation distribution main from the wells to Pond 118 immediately west of the Clubhouse. This is the pond from which the Country Club, pursuant to a SFWMD Permit, draws its golf course irrigation water and pumps it into the irrigation system. This water is not used for any other residential or common area purposes. WGC’s intent of furnishing this system was twofold. First, it was to assure that a source of water was available to “grow-in” the golf course and secondly, to provide the Club with a long term back-up water supply in the event of a prolonged drought. WGC was of the opinion that the Club’s success was instrumental to the growth and development of the entire Gateway Community. Many of us in Gateway are still of the belief that this is true.”

Let’s unpack this.

Tinkle complains that we’ve failed to tell the whole story, and then writes us and … fails to tell the whole story.

That’s not his fault, or ours, because it’s a very long and very complicated story that’s hard to tell in one article.

But we’ll bottom line it for you.

As Tinkle notes, Westinghouse had complete control over the Gateway Services CDD way back then, just as all developers do when they begin building out a community that will have a CDD. So basically you have a real estate developer in control of an entity that will become a local government in the future, in Gateway’s case the GSCDD.

But the developer doesn’t care about structuring a CDD properly – they care about selling houses and making money. The CDD is merely an annoyance to them, but on occasion they find ways to use it as a tool.

To that point, the way they were selling houses in Gateway back then was to use the golf course as the centerpiece of the marketing strategy. I’m sure you can envision it, some guys in sharp 1986-style suits handing out brochures of the community, prominently featuring the golf course as a selling point.

Well guess what… Their little jewel, the golf course, needed irrigation wells… so by gosh, they were going to get irrigation wells. They’ve got houses to sell, don’t you know?

Westinghouse knew it was way easier for a CDD to get permits for wells than trying to have the golf course do it, especially since the wells will pump water from ponds owned by the district. So they ordered the GSCDD (which again they had complete control over at the time) to get permits for publicly-owned wells for their privately-owned golf club.

Take special note of this sentence from the email:

“This water is not used for any other residential or common area purposes,” said Tinkle. The wells are for the sole benefit of the golf course.

So when Gateway was developed enough for the GSCDD to be turned over to publicly elected officials, the Board of Supervisors inherited responsibility for a well system that uses public money to benefit a private business. Awesome.

But it’s not as if elected officials that the residents of Gateway put in office made a boneheaded decision and agreed to build the wells. If that was the case an argument could be made that ultimately the people of Gateway were responsible, because they voted the Supervisors in office.

This decision for these wells was made by a real estate developer, to benefit only themselves, and stick the public with the bill. And when the day came that the public realized what was happening, they’d be long gone. And indeed they are – the developer went bankrupt.

So there is a moral and ethical question, which is: are the people of Gateway financially responsible for an irrigation system… that was forced upon them three decades ago … by a defunct entity… who made that decision for their own benefit and profit … which does not (and never did) serve any benefit to the very people of Gateway who are expected to pick up the tab?

Put another way: The GSCDD (and therefore you) do own the wells. But you own them not because your elected representatives made a mistake, but because a corporate entity had official control of the local government at that point in time, and forced the people into a financially detrimental situation to benefit their own business interests.

What all this means is that the Supervisors must choose whether to honor the three decade old wishes of the real estate developer and use public funds to benefit the privately-owned golf course, or whether the board members will (as they have done in the past) scoff at decisions made long-ago by the developer-controlled GSCDD board that harmed the public interest.

Now on to Tinkle’s second point. The Club pays a lot of money in GSCDD assessments, and Tinkle questions whether they’re receiving fair value for that money.

Said Tinkle: “Your article fails to present or point out the fact that the Gateway Golf Club has paid and continues to pay to the CDD an annual assessment equivalent of 227 ERUs. At the current (2017) assessment rate of $535 per ERU, this equates to an annual assessment of over $120,000 paid by the Club to the CDD coffers …. What has the Club and its members received from the CDD for this very significant investment?”

You mean aside from an irrigation well system they probably didn’t deserve?

But the first thing off the top of my head? How about the very pond system that provides The Club with its entire irrigation water supply? How bout that?

Or a little thing called “Gateway Boulevard” so people can get to and from The Club? Yes, we know Lee County owns it now but it was built and maintained by the residents of Gateway for about 30 years.

The list of benefits the GSCDD provides to the entire community of Gateway is a mile long.

There would BE NO GOLF CLUB if it were not for the GSCDD. That’s a fact.

No GSCDD means NO WATER. Of any kind.

What a baffling question from Tinkle.

Is he seriously suggesting the The Club receives no benefit for its assessment dollars? It only adds to the confusion when you consider that Tinkle is one of five people who oversees the very funds he’s talking about. You would think that Tinkle, of all people, would know what benefits to the community the GSCDD’s assessment dollars provide.

Look, we don’t know what Tinkle is up to here. Because it wasn’t all that long ago that The Club wanted Tinkle’s head on a platter. And conversely, Tinkle had some pretty interesting things to say to us about the golf club’s new owners that were all on the record.

I’m glad Tinkle has mended fences with The Club’s management, but Tinkle’s responsibility when he sits down in that chair as a member of the Board of Supervisors is to the residents of Gateway, not to the owners and members of The Club.

And Tinkle’s official position – in his official capacity as a Supervisor – is that using public money to benefit a private company is necessary because the health of the lawn at The Club directly affects property values in Bristol Parc, Stoneybrook and Pinecrest.

So far the other four Supervisors don’t seem to agree with Tinkle about that.

However, the GSCDD has agreed to investigate the problem with the wells, and presumably will determine a cost estimate to fix it.

Once that cost is determined, the Board of Supervisors will need to decide if the residents of Gateway are bound by the developer’s self-serving actions from the 1980s. They’ll have to decide whether or not to use your public money to benefit a private company.

About Jeff Kuntz

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Editor of the Gateway Sun and owner of restaurant delivery service Florida Food Runner.

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