Thursday, September 20, 2018
Politics

Fighting City Hall: Push for more state control angers cities and counties

TALLAHASSEE — You can fight City Hall. The state Legislature does it all the time.

That's what Florida cities and counties are saying as they battle legislators who want to limit the power of local government, led by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

"Our founders got it right," Corcoran says. "When they set up a Constitution, they basically said that the federal government exists with these enumerated powers. What's not enumerated, all of it, belongs to the states. Every bit of it."

Various proposals before the Legislature would limit the power of cities to allow wireless facilities in public rights-of-way; prevent cities from raising taxes unless they first spend cash reserves; and restrict anti-blight agencies that offer tax incentives to rejuvenate downtowns.

Cities also are up in arms over a bill that would block them from specifically regulating vacation rentals of private homes.

The most far-reaching bill, HB 17, would force cities to seek legislative approval for new laws affecting businesses.

"It's a naked power grab," says St. Petersburg-based Progress Florida, a liberal advocacy group that launched a statewide petition drive to kill the idea.

But Corcoran said it's cities and counties that grab too much power. "You can't have runaway regulations," he says.

Supporters include business groups such as the Florida Retail Federation and Associated Industries of Florida and Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers that is a strong ally of Corcoran.

Cities say lawmakers are trampling on home rule power in the state Constitution and micro-managing them with a top-down mentality that Tallahassee knows best.

"It's a direct assault on our autonomy," says lobbyist Scott Dudley of the Florida League of Cities.

Dudley said the idea that cities are an arm of the state is "preposterous" and noted that cities, notably Pensacola and St. Augustine, existed long before Florida became a state in 1845.

Since 1885, Florida's Constitution has said that cities "may exercise any power for municipal purposes except as otherwise provided by law."

That phrase is at the root of the current tension between the state, its 412 cities and 67 counties.

"I'm always amazed when politicians go to Tallahassee and forget how important it is for local government to have control over local issues," said Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos. "For the state to be trying to impose its legislative authority on us is a little unfair."

On taxes, lawmakers want to give voters the chance to increase the homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000.

The idea would be popular on a 2018 election-year ballot, but would take an estimated $700 million in property tax revenue from cities, counties and special districts, and could wreak havoc on rural counties where many residents are so poor, they already pay little or no property taxes.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said the "burden" of taxation falls too heavily on property owners, but that he's willing to minimize the effects on rural counties.

In another case of what counties call Tallahassee's "one size fits all" mentality, Republicans want Miami-Dade to elect its sheriff as other counties do.

The bill sponsor is a freshman from Jacksonville, Rep. Jason Fischer, whose proposal would override a sordid chapter of Miami-Dade history.

County voters changed to an appointed police chief in the 1960s after a grand jury exposed the corrupt reign of Sheriff "Tal" Buchanan, including the practice of criminals paying deputies to protect illegal gambling, prostitution, burglary and other crimes.

At the direction of Dade State Attorney Richard Gerstein, the grand jury said the way to fight corruption was to professionalize the agency and make it part of county government.

When county lobbyist Jess McCarty cited that as the reason why it got rid of an elected sheriff, lawmakers and law enforcement experts scoffed.

"The chief law enforcement officer of every community should be accountable directly to the people," Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told members of the House Judiciary Committee which passed the bill on a 13-5 vote.

Other Florida sheriffs are elected by each county's voters, but Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez reports to County Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

That "causes some confusion," said Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, who voted for the bill (HB 721), which would require approval by three-fifths of both houses of the Legislature and 60 percent of voters statewide.

That means Miami-Dade could have an elected sheriff even if the county's own voters rejected it.

"What has happened to the words, 'home rule?'" asked Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, an opponent. "Somehow we just don't hear that anymore."

Many mayors are lobbying against a bill (SB 188) filed by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, to prevent cities from passing ordinances to specifically regulate the renting of private homes.

The trend is growing in popularity because of Airbnb, HomeAway and other online vacation rental services, and emotions on both sides became more heated after Miami Beach approved $20,000 fines for violations -- the stiffest penalty of its kind in the country.

Testifying before a Senate committee, Connie Leon-Kreps, mayor of North Bay Village, a tiny, densely-populated island community of 8,000 residents between Miami and Miami Beach, said vacation rentals are out of control and that local regulation is badly needed.

"Obscenities. Parties at 3, 4, 5 o'clock in the morning. Pool parties next to you," the mayor said, before senators passed the bill, sponsored by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, by a 7-3 vote.

Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, says the vacation rental issue is a crisis in Madeira Beach, Redington Beach and other North Pinellas beach towns and that officials and residents aren't making enough noise about the problem.

"This is a quality of life issue," said Peters, a former mayor of South Pasadena who adamantly opposes the House rental bill (HB 425) that's being heard Tuesday. "If I voted for it, they would make darn sure I didn't get re-elected."

Carol McCormack, mayor of Palm Shores and president of the Florida League of Mayors, said that meddling lawmakers are ignoring a basic principle of democracy.

"The best government is the government closest to the people," McCormack said.

Times staff writers Tracey McManus and Kathryn Varn contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] and follow @stevebousquet.

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