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It was a tough decade for Florida

By early 2006, Harold and Barbara Polsky were paying $8,000 a year in taxes and insurance alone on their home in Port Richey, on the Pasco County coast — more than their mortgage payment.

To make matters worse, they were still fighting their insurance company over water damage from the 2004 storms. They had become citizen activists, even joining a protest trip to Tallahassee.

But in the end, they'd had enough. They were able to sell their house, and Harold was lucky enough to get a job transfer to the Roanoke, Va., area, where they live today.

"There are certain aspects of Florida that I really, really miss," Barbara Polsky says. "But this is a nice area. The people are nice. The scenery is beautiful." Deer play in their back yard.

Does she regret leaving Florida? Would she make the same decision all over again?

She does not hesitate. "Given the same conditions? Oh, yeah."

• • •

It's fair to say that the Aughts, or whatever we end up calling the first 10 years of this century, was not exactly the happiest decade in Florida and Tampa Bay history.

Actually, it's fair to say that this decade knocked some of the bloom off Florida's orange blossom.

We careened from the disastrous and embarrassing 2000 election to the effects of terrorism and war.

We were hit by storm after storm in 2004, the terrible foursome of Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. For an encore, the 2005 storm season used up the whole alphabet and we had to resort to Greek letters.

We lost our homeowners insurance or paid through the nose for it, even as property tax collections skyrocketed across the state — a double whammy that led to voter revolt and a series of quick-fix political solutions that didn't work, despite the governor's famous promise that rates would "drop like a rock."

Last — from the frying pan to the fire! — the national housing and financial bust hit especially hard in Florida, a state uniquely dependent upon construction and growth. We went upside-down on our mortgages; we couldn't sell our way out of it — and by decade's end, Florida had 10 percent-plus unemployment, its highest in 34 years.

Inexorably, the population and migration numbers started to turn. By 2007, the growth trend was definitely slowing. By 2008, newspapers were running articles with advice on how to choose a mover to go back north. Growth was at its lowest rate in 30 years.

Finally, in August 2009, the University of Florida announced what a lot of people had been suspecting: For the first time in 62 years, the state actually lost population for the year. That estimate was for just a sliver of a loss, 58,000 people, but it still represented a historic, once-unthinkable reversal.

To recap: tough decade.

• • •

A little perspective, please.

The sun continued to rise over Florida the whole decade long. The weather was still spectacular. The sand was white. Now and then a fish was caught. Mickey Mouse did not go out of business. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a Super Bowl; the Tampa Bay Lightning won a Stanley Cup; the Tampa Bay Rays were in the World Series.

Really, except for little things like botched elections and wars, Florida and the Tampa Bay area had it pretty good through the middle of the decade. A 2003 article talked about the burst of growth reaching up from Tampa into central Pasco, even to Wesley Chapel. Downtown St. Petersburg was lined with new condo towers on top of coffee shops; downtown Tampa was finally getting some action, too. In 2005, they held a lottery in Clearwater for the right to buy 100 new condominiums at up to $1.5 million a pop. There were 800 entrants.

Tampa traded the last of its old-time, glad-handing mayors in Dick Greco (with his blind eye to the Steve LaBrake scandal) for the all-business Pam Iorio, who cleaned house and figured out how to pay the bills. St. Petersburg thrived and its downtown blossomed under Mayor Rick Baker, that definitely "strong" mayor who was always cooking up some deal or another.

In contrast, the Hillsborough County government was dominated for much of the decade by dysfunctional do-nothingness, distracted by pressing matters such as displays by gay authors in the library. This seems to be changing now with a turnover in membership; in fact it is the Hillsborough commission that is leading the Tampa Bay area on mass transit. Even Pinellas County, which always prided itself on being better than the Hillsborough folks, stumbled into a scandal over buying a piece of land from the county's property appraiser, Jim Smith.

The governor at the beginning of the decade, Jeb Bush, clearly succeeded in his campaign to impose "accountability" (think standardized tests) on Florida's K-12 education, and that's why today we talk about "A schools" and prepare for the FCAT. Both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties moved away from traditional, desegregation-based school districts. But the state's higher-education system spent much of the decade roiled in politics about control — the Legislature even abolished the university system; the voters passed a measure that re-established it.

In the public arena, it seemed that Florida spent a lot of the decade careening from crisis to crisis. After Gov. Charlie Crist took over we seemed to specialize in the quick fix, and the Legislature met time and again to throw ideas against the property-tax and insurance crises — though neither Florida's structure nor its insurance problem are much better. The governor and Legislature even cited the recession in repealing part of Florida's 25-year-old laws on trying to manage growth. And by decade's end, the once-taboo subject of allowing oil drilling off Florida's coast was being seriously pushed in Tallahassee.

It was not exactly a decade for solving tough problems.

• • •

The Florida and Tampa Bay decade in review, mini-version:

Elian Gonzalez, Dale Earnhardt, plane hitting a Tampa skyscraper, Ted Williams' head, sit-ins in Gov. Jeb Bush's office ("kick their a---- out"), Sami Al-Arian, Johnnie Byrd, Terri Schiavo, boars castrated on the radio, the West Nile virus, the class-size amendment, Albert Whitted Airport, religious-free school calendars, paper trails, tax revolt, insurance crisis, Debra Lafave, Jennifer Porter, water restrictions, cracked reservoirs, Lex Salisbury zoo scandals, economic collapse, Buddy Johnson, Carolina Panther cheerleaders in restrooms, Hulk Hogan …

Enough! With respect for the good that we lost, and good riddance to the bad that we put up with, time now to turn from one decade to the next.

• • •

Ironically, Florida's most pressing question at the end of this challenging 10 years is not whether its best days are behind it, but whether it's ready for the future. Experts point out we're on the verge of the biggest retirement wave in history.

Are we ready for this? Or are we doomed to repeat the last half of the 20th century? Are we determined to be something more than a service economy? Are our schools and universities ready? Are our roads and transportation systems ready? Are our environmental safeguards ready? Are our public services and governments ready?

These are the right questions to ask at the turn of a decade.

(Sure, you can argue the technical point that the new decade really begins in 2011, just as the new century didn't begin until 2001. But your celebration probably won't be as big as everybody else's.)

Bring on the Teens.

It was a tough decade for Florida 12/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 7:46pm]
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