Saturday, March 24, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas leaders unveil legislative wish list for 2014

More money to house the homeless, a solution to ballooning flood insurance costs, and changes to the Penny for Pinellas tax — all made Pinellas County's legislative wish list for 2014.

More than 20 items long, the list is largely a repeat from years past with recycled requests for more money and more flexibility that often go unanswered. But at a meeting Tuesday of county commissioners and local state legislators, the latter offered details on bills they plan to propose this spring to address some of the county's most pressing needs.

High on the list: A state-level fix for flood insurance costs, which increased dramatically across the country in October when the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act took effect. Bounded by water on three sides, Pinellas has 51,000 homeowners with federal flood insurance policies, many of whom have seen their premiums increase beyond what they can afford.

Two private flood insurance companies already have announced plans to offer policies in Florida. And state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he will propose legislation that would open the state to more. State Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said he will sponsor a similar bill in the House.

"There are people that want to come into here, there is capital that wants to flow in," Brandes said Tuesday. "This bill will try to streamline the process."

His proposal met with skepticism from some of his Democratic colleagues, including state Reps. Carl Zimmerman of Dunedin and Dwight Dudley of St. Petersburg.

Private insurers "might come in and do 20,000 policies, that's good, that helps those 20,000, but that's not a complete fix," Dudley said. "We've got to come up with other solutions."

The group also discussed a proposal by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, to modify the county's penny tax for infrastructure projects — known as the Penny for Pinellas — so that the money collected can be used for maintenance as well as construction.

"Why build things just to keep spending money when you can't afford to maintain what you've already built?" Latvala said. Similar proposals in years past have failed.

Latvala also plans to introduce a bill next year that would replace what he has referred to as a "hodgepodge" system of funding nonprofits and homeless shelters.

Latvala has previously said lawmakers need to create an organized approach to combatting homelessness, and not leave it entirely up to individual counties and cities to decide whether to spend taxpayer money to help the homeless, he said.

It's unclear where the funding would come from, but earlier he mentioned tapping into revenue from the documentary stamp tax, which gives the state a small cut of every real estate transaction and promissory note in Florida.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri urged a bit of caution Tuesday. According to the Homeless Leadership Board, Pinellas groups receive upwards of $40 million a year to aid the homeless, he said, with little oversight.

"I see a lot of duplication, a lot of redundancy," he said

The meeting ended with tensions within the local Republican delegation on public display.

Before a room full of elected officials and aides, Latvala cross-examined Commissioner Norm Roche over a proposal he introduced to repeal the property tax that funds the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. Doing so would pave the way for county leaders to replace the property tax with a sales tax, if voters approve the swap in 2014.

It was an unusual suggestion coming from a commissioner who has been vocal in his opposition to PSTA's plans for a mass transit expansion and Latvala jumped on it.

Two years ago, the senator supported a similar bill that passed both the House and the Senate, but was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

"A lot of your friends were the ones that got the governor to veto it, so it's kind of a puzzling turnabout," Latvala said, referring to Roche's support within the tea party. "Where were you then?"

Roche responded that he had not supported the bill then, but couldn't understand why it wasn't on the agenda now. The bill is effectively dead, Latvala countered, because it needs the full support of all state senators from Pinellas and Brandes opposes it.

After a few minutes of strained debate, Roche walked out of the meeting. "It was clear that some people had a plan of attack," he said afterward.


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