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How Key Biscayne became a pawn to secure $3 million for Hispanic chamber

Man sits at a dais
Tony Winton
KBI Photo
Key Biscayne Manager Steve Williamson listens at a Village Council Meeting, May 10, 2022.

Key Biscayne didn’t ask for the money. It didn’t ask for the project – a storm water technology pilot program. Still, it was name dropped in order to secure $3 million in taxpayer dollars from the state budget.

Now the recipient of the money, the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says it was all an honest mistake. But the $3 million budget allocation is an example of how state dollars can be gobbled up by under-the-radar groups with the right endorsement and the right lobbyist – and maybe a little white lie.

Questions about the $3 million were first raised last week by the Orlando Sentinel, reporting that State House Rep. Carolina Amesty claimed in a February request form that Village Manager Steve Williamson wrote the letter of support.

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That was news to Williamson, who said neither the lawmaker nor the chamber contacted the Village. “We wrote no letter of support,” he said this week. “They didn’t ask us for one nor did we give one.”

So how did Key Biscayne get connected to Amesty, who represents Windermere, 240 miles from Key Biscayne? How did it get connected to the Hispanic chamber, which is based in Wellington, Fla.?

Turns out there are two Key Biscayne connections.

Sen. Alexis Calatayud, whose district includes the island and much of Miami, sponsored a companion appropriation request. The Hispanic chamber endorsed Calatayud, a freshman Republican.

The other connection? Key Biscayne lobbyist Jonathan Kilman was working to obtain the funding – even though Williamson directed him not to pursue it.

Neither Calatayud nor Kilman returned calls for comment. Amesty told the Sentinel she outsourced her job and let the Hispanic chamber write the request form that cited Williamson.

Julio Fuentes, the Hispanic chamber’s CEO, said the Williamson letter was included in the funding request by mistake. “We determined the letter was not necessary to the process in either the House or Senate, but unfortunately inadvertently submitted the draft that included the outdated language,” he said.

Calatayud’s budget form did not include the reference to the Williamson letter.

Fuentes didn’t exactly answer why the group – which promotes Hispanic businesses and entrepreneurship – would be interested in municipal flooding. “Stormwater is just one area of interest for our water innovation initiative,” he said.

Profile of a woman
(Photo provided)
State Rep. Vicki Lopez, whose district includes Key Biscayne, said she was surprised to hear about a $3 million budget allocation for the island.

Rep. Vicki Lopez, whose district includes Key Biscayne, said she was blindsided when she heard about the $3 million budget allocation.

“If, in fact, a municipality in my district is mentioned in an appropriation that I am not supporting, like I’m not the sponsor, I would have liked to have known that,” Lopez said.

The $3 million got folded into the $117 billion budget passed with bipartisan support in both chambers.

Williamson told the Independent he became aware of the appropriation effort in January from Kilman. He told the lobbyist to pursue other priorities: beach restoration, immediate flood control, special needs programming and a new library – all of which were successful.

Williamson said Kilman then contacted the Village during the legislative session to say that the $3 million appropriations request would be approved. Williamson said he again told the lobbyist to focus on the Village’s legislative priorities.

“I don’t want to take up the bandwidth, or the political capability, of any one of our legislators to be working on other appropriations,” Williamson said.

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A company associated with the project reached out in August to the Village about the pilot project. Shortly thereafter, the Sentinel contacted Williamson about the letter of support – the first time he had ever heard his name had been used to secure the money.

The Sentinel reported about how the Hispanic chamber had its tax-exempt status revoked. Fuentes said it’s been restored.

The state agency that would allocate the $3 million – the Department of Environmental Protection – also hadn’t been contacted and no independent supporting the project had been conducted, the newspaper found.

Fuentes said he spoke with Amesty, Calatayud, as well as Kilman about the project. He said Killman told him it wasn’t a priority for the Village. “Instead, if the Chamber was successful independently in securing the project, Key Biscayne would just serve as a community that benefits from the project outcome,” he said.

The Hispanic chamber, though, said it still plans to install its stormwater sensor technology on the island. Williamson, though, said he has not heard back from anyone since August about the project.

“To be honest, it’s really not necessary,” he said.

This story was originally published in the Key Biscayne Independent, a WLRN News partner.

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