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Tampa keeps wary eye on imperiled home rule in Tallahassee

The state has preempted the city’s power over trees and coronavirus rules. Will lawmakers threaten another Tampa initiative?
Nearly three dozen trees were cut down at a half-abandoned trailer park along Gandy Boulevard in 2019, enraging tree advocates and sparking another battle between the city of Tampa and a new state law that removes local government authority over tree removal. The Legislature has been eroding the ability of cities and counties to manage their own affairs, and that trend could continue this year.
Nearly three dozen trees were cut down at a half-abandoned trailer park along Gandy Boulevard in 2019, enraging tree advocates and sparking another battle between the city of Tampa and a new state law that removes local government authority over tree removal. The Legislature has been eroding the ability of cities and counties to manage their own affairs, and that trend could continue this year.
Published Jan. 22

TAMPA — Home rule has been a rallying cry in Tampa for years, as it has in cities and counties across Florida.

But it’s mostly been a yelp in the wilderness as state lawmakers in Tallahassee have steadily chipped away at the ability of municipalities to manage their own affairs.

In Tampa, the flashpoints have been high profile. In early 2019, the state largely gutted the nearly five-decade-old city tree code, which had just been revamped after builders and tree advocates reached a hard-fought compromise.

Last year, Mayor Jane Castor was an early and vocal supporter of coronavirus restrictions, including closing bars and replacing owner’s lost revenue with federal relief dollars. Then she and other local leaders were overruled by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order last summer to largely reopen the state.

Related: Tampa tree code preempted by state

Most recently, the City Council advanced a proposed ordinance that would require 12 percent of hours worked on city projects over $1 million to be performed by apprenticeships. Shortly after, state Rep. Nick DiCeglie, an Indian Rocks Beach Republican, filed House Bill 53, that would gut the proposal. It is currently in committee.

Tampa City Council member Luis Viera.
Tampa City Council member Luis Viera. [ Times ]

Council member Luis Viera, who worked on the ordinance for over a year, has continued negotiating with builders and contractors in the hopes of finding a compromise. He’s inserted a clause that allows businesses to be exempt if they make a good faith effort to find eligible apprentices. He’s amended his effort to include breaks for small businesses. And he’s exploring a further enticement to allow businesses to get back some of the retainage — money held back by the city until the project is done — early if they meet the requirements.

The ordinance is scheduled to come back before the council for a final reading on Feb. 18.

“For me, the important part is to have a collaborative process where I hear everybody out,” Viera said.

Related: Tampa seeks to require apprenticeships on large city projects

Viera’s efforts could moot if DiCeglie’s bill becomes law in this year’s legislative session, which starts March 2. That bill, Viera said, doesn’t take into account his efforts to find middle ground. He’s hoping Tallahassee has the “wisdom and discernment” to take his approach into account.

“It’s acting like a hammer that sees all local government as a nail,” Viera said. “It treats all municipalities the same even if they’re collaborative and start from the center the way we’ve done it.”

DiCeglie said his legislation wasn’t aimed at Tampa’s proposal or a similar program in St. Petersburg. Nor does he oppose apprenticeship programs — as long as they are operated by the private sector.

State Rep. Nick DiCeglie.
State Rep. Nick DiCeglie. [ DiCeglie campaign ]

What concerns him, he said, is government mandates that he fears will “erode the free market.”

DiCeglie said he’s open to finding common ground. “My door is always open.”

Council chairman Guido Maniscalco is frustrated by DiCeglie’s legislation. He’s seen the tree ordinance scuttled by the state and fears the same might happen to the apprenticeship idea.

“Idea after idea gets shut down,” Maniscalco said. “What is our purpose beyond zoning and passing or not passing the mayor’s budget?”

The demise of the tree code particularly irritated Maniscalco. The compromise between builders and advocates took years to arrive. Within months, it was preempted by a state law.

“We did all this work and then the state decides to cut us off,” he said. “Anything that we try to do when it comes to ordinances, Tallahassee steps in and says ‘Lassiez faire, hands off, you’re not allowed to.’ ”

Frustration among council members is widespread. Joseph Citro frequently reminds upset residents from the dais to complain to the state about issues that have been preempted. John Dingfelder has proposed seeking a regional compact to fight against state encroachment.

But state preemption of local home rule doesn’t always impede cities. Sometimes, it can help bolster local officials’ goals.

Case in point: Tampa’s plan to reuse wastewater to replenish the Hillsborough River during droughts. The controversial proposal was temporarily delayed recently after Castor decided to continue educating the public, skeptical environmentalists and council members about the idea.

Related: Tampa renews push for wastewater reuse

But Senate Bill 64, filed by Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican, would ban cities from discharging wastewater into surface waters within five years. Tampa’s wastewater plan, dubbed PURE (for Purify Usable Resources for the Environment), already does that. The proposal would divert about 50 million gallons of highly-treated wastewater currently legally discharged into Tampa Bay each day to the river.

Castor has developed a good relationship with Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, who the mayor said strongly backs the Senate bill. That’s good for Tampa, Castor told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month.

“One of the focuses of Sen. Simpson is the appropriate use of reclaimed water,” Castor said. “I believe, very, very strongly that water is going to be the most significant commodity in the entire world moving forward. We have to do all that we can to conserve water, and to provide clean drinking water for all of our residents.”