Florida condo owners get more clarity on safety inspections | Editorial
Also in this week’s roundup highs and lows across Tampa Bay and Florida: A bad financial decision, a good Hillsborough schools decision, and a Largo whistleblower does the right thing.
Part of the 12- story oceanfront Champlain Towers South Condo, with more than 100 units in Surfside collapsed in 2021.
Part of the 12- story oceanfront Champlain Towers South Condo, with more than 100 units in Surfside collapsed in 2021.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published April 22

Florida condo safety. How can Florida make condominiums safer without pricing these residents out of their homes? That’s at the heart of legislation this year that eases some of the reforms state lawmakers adopted after the deadly 2021 collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside. One change would allow buildings within 3 miles of the coastline to be inspected for their structural integrity after 30 years, instead of 25, though local officials could move sooner. That’s not ideal, but other changes seem sensible, such as expanding the types of professionals who could inspect buildings, which seems necessary to address the backlog. Any reform with such a massive, statewide impact should be expected to be a work in progress. On that score, lawmakers, to their credit, have not backtracked from their primary focus on safety. SB 154, which the Senate passed this month, and which will shape the House legislation, provides more clarity for residents, regulators, condo associations and potential buyers. Lawmakers need to work next year to find more ways for residents to finance these costly, structural repairs.

Senselessly hurting Wimauma. Bad judgment, bad decision, bad optics. Nothing else describes the Hillsborough County Commission rejecting funds for a job-development center run by the nonprofit Enterprising Latinas in south county. The Wimauma Opportunity Center is a much-needed resource, offering counseling and training programs to boost incomes and economic activity in this rural, poor area. But the commission deadlocked 3-3 on funding facility improvements, with all three Democrats in support, and three newly-elected Republican commissioners — Donna Cameron Cepeda, Joshua Wostal and Michael Owen — opposed. (Chairperson Ken Hagan had left the dais.) Cameron Cepeda called the $931,318 maximum price “exorbitant” and said the money could be better used for safety projects, like fire stations. Fire stations are great, but this is federal money specifically designated for redeveloping hard-hit areas. And what’s “exorbitant” about paved parking and water lines for bathrooms? This vote showed no appreciation for the good work Enterprising Latinas has done, no grasp of how public-private partnerships work and no appreciation for how hard this heavily-Hispanic community has struggled for years.

Blowing the whistle. The world is a better place thanks to the whistleblowers. Richard Mushaben, for example, feared for months that the city of Largo was selling fertilizer tainted with a toxic element that can cause cancer at high concentrations. Mushaben is an operator at the city’s wastewater reclamation facility, where human sewage is converted into fertilizer products. He alleged in a January 2022 letter to state and federal environmental regulators that the city was selling fertilizer contaminated with cadmium. More than a year after Mushaben raised red flags, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Florida environment regulators are penalizing the city after an investigation proved the city illegally sold more than 1,000 tons of contaminated fertilizer. The city now faces more than $100,000 in fines, the Times recently reported. “We all have a responsibility for public safety and health,” Mushaben told the Times. “This went on for months and months.” High exposures to cadmium can cause cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute, and low exposures over time can lead to kidney disease. Because of the violations, the city is now testing more frequently for cadmium. This episode underscores why whistleblowers are important, and why authorities need to take them seriously.

Hillsborough’s hard choices. Nobody takes pride in closing a school, but four Hillsborough County School Board members did their duty this week by voting to close Just Elementary School in West Tampa. The school has been half-full for years; it’s the district’s only F-graded school, and hundreds of children assigned there (not surprisingly) have opted to go elsewhere. Board members Stacy Hahn, Nadia Combs, Patti Rendon and Lynn Gray voted to close Just, agreeing with Superintendent Addison Davis that those students deserved better, and that the resources could be put to better use. The school district has agonized for months over a broader plan that includes more school closures and student reassignments, with the goal of maximizing space and controlling the budget. It’s time to make more tough decisions. More than one-third of Hillsborough’s schools — 83 in total — operate at or below 70% capacity. Hillsborough has fewer students today (189,700) in traditional public schools than it did in the 2018-19 school year (195,000). And state funding for private school vouchers is poised to explode. That reality needs to set in during the coming weeks as the board considers a larger reassignment plan and braces for the public backlash.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.