A proposal to create a domestic registry in Pinellas County passed on Tuesday, giving unmarried couples — gay or straight — legal recognition of their relationships.
The law will allow couples to register as domestic partners, granting them the right to visit each other in hospitals, make medical decisions for each other in a crisis and, depending on their employers, share health insurance coverage. The Pinellas County Commission passed it by a 6-1 vote, with Commissioner Norm Roche dissenting.
County officials estimate they will need about 90 days to build the public database and create the required forms. There will be a $50 fee to register.
Ian Taylor, 62, and his longtime partner, George Olds, 61, attended Tuesday's meeting to show their support.
They married in Canada, where they live most of the year.
"I commend you," Taylor told commissioners after the vote.
Each year, when Taylor and Olds fly to Clearwater for the winter, they lose their status as a married couple as the state's Constitution bans gay marriage. So far, they have encountered few problems. When Taylor had to be hospitalized in St. Petersburg, Olds waved his Toronto marriage license and was ushered in. And like many gay couples, they have power of attorney.
Still, Taylor said, "It is not enough."
"We find it rather weird that people have to pay a fee to be treated equally, or treated as human beings," Olds said. "Be prepared for legally married couples to want to be protected equally when they come down to Florida to winter."
Critics of the law called it unnecessary, saying it confers many of the same rights that can be obtained by giving someone power of attorney.
"This has no legal merit," Roche said, adding that if a couple has a medical emergency in a county that does not recognize partnerships, they're out of luck.
"I don't believe we should be using our authority to make political statements," he said. "The real tool in this situation is a power of attorney."
But getting that tool can be costly. Myra Hickman and her partner Ann Nagelschmidt, who live in Clearwater, said they spent $1,600 on the document, which authorizes them to make decisions on each other's behalf.
"We have legal provisions in place, but not everyone does," Hickman, 60, said.
Several commissioners said that though the ordinance was a small step, and will only protect couples in parts of Florida that recognize domestic partnerships, it would build on the registries' surge in popularity. Currently, Broward, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach and Volusia counties offer domestic registries.
"Would I prefer that the Florida Legislature take the lead and do this? Yeah," said Commissioner Charlie Justice.
But the commission's vote "will build a certain amount of momentum to where the Legislature will say, 'You know what, maybe it is time.' "
The commission's decision to take up the issue came after three Pinellas cities passed domestic registry laws. Gulfport, which has a large gay and lesbian population, was first last May. St. Petersburg and Clearwater followed.
Elected officials in Dunedin and Largo have debated whether to create registries, but ultimately decided to wait and support a countywide law. Treasure Island officials took an unusual step in August, approving a policy that allows domestic partners to register but does not give them any additional rights.
For residents of Gulfport, St. Petersburg and Clearwater who have registered as domestic partners in their cities, the fee will be reduced so they pay only the difference between their city's fee and the county's fee.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.