ATLANTA - Brevard County, Fla., commissioners on Tuesday said they are determined to push forward a referendum on a certificates of deposit issue.
At their first meeting after all being elected to office Nov. 3. all but one of Brevard's five commissioners said they want to put before voters a referendum on whether the county should cease lease payments on a $23.9 million COPs deal sold in 1989, said county commissioner Karen Andreas. Proceeds from the financing have funded the construction of a controversial government operations center in Viera.
"Four out of five commissioners clearly expressed. for the public record, their strong commitment to having a referendum." Andreas said yesterday in an interview. "And unless there are any legal obstacles to holding it, I'm confident it will take place this spring."
With a referendum on the Brevard County Cops issue seemingly inevitable, concern about its impact on the municipal securities market is growing, said Steven Nelli, an associate director at Standard & Poor's Corp.
"If the Brevard County deal is voted down, it would be a very major event in the market for COPs because a default there was almost impossible to foresee using traditional credit analysts," said Steven Nelli, a vice president at Standard & Poor's Corp. "this is for a financing that the market expected to be paid, because all the credit factors were positive."
Last fall, the commissioners considered calling for a referendum on the COPs issue. That provoked a firestorm of protest from municipal market participants, who warned that the county's ability to tap the bond market would be impaired by a referendum. Several weeks later, the commissioners decided on a 3-to-2 vote not to hold the referendum.
Andreas yesterday noted that the discussion Tuesday did not constitute a formal commission vote on whether the referendum would be held. She said such a vote would not come until after a public workshop on the referendum is held Dec. 9. The next regularly scheduled meeting of the commission after the workshop is Dec. 15.
Andreas also said that before commissioners can formally approve calling for a referendum, they must determine the legality of holding it as a stand-alone election.
Supporters of the referendum are eager to hold it as early as possible, she said. Andreas added that they would prefer holding the referendum by April, and at least well before the next regularly scheduled election in the county to take place in November 1993.
The problem with holding a stand-alone election, Andreas said, is a Florida law requiring that it be legally binding. This poses difficulties because the commissioners have the power, without consulting voters, to decide whether the lease appropriations should be continued.
"There is a very technical issue here about whether a binding vote would interfere with the authority of commissioners," Andreas said. "But I'm pretty confident we can work out."
Andreas said the commissioners in favor of holding the referendum had planned for it to be legally nonbinding, vowing to abide by the wishes of the voters in a subsequent vote on whether to default on the building lease.
Commissioner Nancy Higgs noted two reasons why the commissioners who support holding the referendum are eager to proceed as quickly as possible.
First, she said, an early date for the election is important because many residents in the county are only part-year residents and live elsewhere between April and October.
In addition, she said, a vote early in the year is crucial in order to give county officials time to deal this fiscal year with the financial impact of moving the government operation center if voters decide to void its lease. Brevard County's 1993 fiscal year ends Sept. 30, 1993.
In September, county administrator Tom N. Jenkins presented an estimate of the fiscal effect of relocating from the Government Center.
Jenkins estimated that depending on how the county relocated its operations, the one-time costs of such a move would range from $4.9 million to $7.7 million. Recurring annual costs, he said, would range from $239,543 to $951,567.
"We want to have a chance to take another look at all these figures," said Higgs.
Andreas, who chairs the commission, said that newly elected commissioners Higgs and Scott Ellis joined her and commissioner Truman Scarborough Tuesday in support of the referendum. Only Sue Schmitt-Kirwan, the fifth commissioner, withheld support for holding the referendum.
Schmitt-Kirwan indicated she was awaiting polling information from her district before expressing an opinion on the matter, Andreas said.
Ellis and Higgs, who were sworn in Monday, each replaced commissioners who had opposed holding the referendum.
The government operations center funded by the COPs financing has been a source of controversy since the county decided in 1988 to consolidate operations in a central location.
Residents in North Brevard were the first to protest, objecting to a location that moved operations away from Titusville, which had long been the center of government. And many residents throughout the county were unhappy with the center project because they objected to funding a facility that was not approved by voters.