A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:
Tampa Bay Times — Governor Phony
Fourteen months from the next election, Gov. Rick Scott’s sales pitch is clear. He portrays himself as the education governor, the defender of the environment and the advocate for open records. He’s the jobs governor, and he has empathy for Floridians without health coverage. Don’t be fooled by the packaging. It’s a facade that hides reality, and Florida deserves better.
Scott organized a three-day summit last week to tackle controversies over the coming Common Core State Standards and the discredited school accountability system now in place. He promotes the $1 billion in new money public schools received this year and his effort to give teachers raises.
The reality is Scott failed to show up at his own summit to listen to the concerns of school superintendents and others. Instead he ate dinner privately with former Gov. Jeb Bush, whose passion for education is unquestioned even if some of his views are controversial.
This year’s per student funding is the highest of Scott’s three years as governor. But it is still lower than each of the five previous years under his predecessors, Charlie Crist and Bush. Scott also signed into law the legislation that siphons off school construction money to privately run charter schools. And the governor’s last two hand-picked education commissioners have shown more interest in advocating for charter schools and expanding voucher programs than in creating successful public schools.
Now there is another interim education commissioner, and the revolving door in Tallahassee leaves local school districts without clear direction from the state. Will Scott fold on Common Core and the student assessments needed to make them work?
The Bradenton Herald — Manatee County in good position with budget
Manatee County commissioners are sitting in an enviable position as governments across Florida put the finishing touches on budgets for fiscal year 2014 — many struggling with deep spending cuts or property tax increases to cover revenue shortfalls. But not here.
In early August, Manatee commissioners approved a tentative millage identical to the property tax rate from the past six years.
With property values up an average of 4 percent this year, the county will pocket an additional $1.2 million — already earmarked for additional deputies for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.
This is a welcome bonus that Sheriff Brad Steube estimates will pay for 12 to 13 new employees, down from his request for 20 positions. Still, he expressed gratitude for the new spending during austere times.
This stands in stark contrast with Okeechobee County, where a $2 million cut in the sheriff’s budget will cost 38 employees their jobs. The Broward County sheriff is also looking at layoffs. Hernando County commissioners are debating a budget blueprint that carries the highest property tax hike in years. Similar difficulties are playing out elsewhere.
Over the past seven years, Manatee County has managed to survive an $82 million drop in property tax revenue while cutting spending $142 million. Under smaller government, some greater efficiencies were achieved despite the loss of 277 positions.
Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker proposed trimming property taxes an additional $26 million for fiscal 2014 but that was contingent upon voter approval of a half-cent sales tax increase to primarily pay for indigent health care.
He then abandoned his recommendation that the county implement a franchise fee on electric utilities, common in other counties and municipalities.
Those changes in the county’s revenue stream would have resulted in city property owners no longer paying for a portion of sheriff’s road patrols. That, too, is off the table.
Otherwise, Hunzeker’s recommendations on expenditures remain the same as first proposed in May. There is no growth in tax-supported programs, no new positions and no new programs.
Even with this austerity, the downside is county revenues are still not covering expenses, and the county will continue to dip into reserves for several years to balance the budget and maintain current operations, Hunzeker informed commissioners.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Incentives must attract high-paying jobs
Deltona is determined to expand its employer base, and for good reason. The city is behind the state and nation in terms of job growth.
Yet the $4 million in incentives the city government is preparing to attract a call center carries the limited benefit of adding below-standard wage jobs for workers.
In fact, the $19,860 in pay, per worker, per year, is so low as an annual wage that the proposed call center doesn’t qualify for incentives from Volusia County. That indicates just how much catching up Deltona leaders feel they have to do.
Deltona needs more major employers, and this potential employer promises as many as 500 jobs. So it’s understandable why Deltona wants the call center to locate in the old Winn-Dixie building at 1220 Deltona Boulevard.
The awarding of this level of incentives to low-paying employers should not, however, become standard practice. As a general rule, incentives should be reserved for jobs that pay wages above the regional level. In Volusia County, average per capita income was $23,726 in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The idea underlying incentives is that they can help an area expand its employment and tax base. They make less sense when they are used to invite jobs that don’t help lift income levels.
The city is still ironing out the incentive plan. Despite policy concerns, the call center represents an important stride for Deltona.
The Florida Times Union — New algal blooms point to the needs of the St. Johns River
Mousing around the news of the day … click.
While the latest annual report on the health of the St. Johns River shows improvements in some areas, much still needs to be done.
Particularly encouraging is the finding that the amount of nutrients in the river is being reduced.
The Lakeland Ledger — Womack’s Easy Road for Lehman
Lt. Hans Lehman was in charge of internal investigations for the Lakeland Police Department until July 16. That’s when State Attorney Jerry Hill released an investigative report that started as an inquiry into courtroom problems with Officer David Edds and Sgt. Ray Lloyd.
The report also drew in Lehman, accusing him of interfering with the investigation.
Before the end of July 16, Police Chief Lisa Womack had removed Lehman as head of internal investigations. He is under investigation by the department.
However, unlike so many others who have run afoul of Hill’s investigations and have been placed on administrative leave, Lehman remains on duty.
Special treatment for Lehman, and slippery answers about him from Womack, have shaken confidence in the step-by-step investigative process the police chief has touted over the months of scandal in the department.
Her crumbling go-slow approach diminishes confidence in her to the point that a formal vote on the matter is needed.
“In looking into the Officer Edds and Sgt. Lloyd matter, my investigators reached out to Lt. Hans Lehman for assistance in obtaining the necessary documents and computer information,” Hill said in his cover letter for the investigative report.
The Miami Herald — Culture of corruption
Homestead’s Steve Bateman is now the third mayor of a Miami-Dade municipality snared in a corruption scandal in one month. Embarrassing? You bet, but don’t shrug it off as local politics as usual and walk away. The cases illustrate why a culture of corruption flourishes in South Florida (Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach counties are not immune) and how it may be brought under control.
The common denominator in the case of Bateman, Sweetwater’s Manuel “Manny” Maroño and Miami Lakes’ Michael Pizzi, is money, allegedly obtained illicitly. A judge and jury will decide culpability, but their tales of wrongful behavior deserve a closer look.
Part of the problem requires toughening ethics laws. Pizzi was mayor in one city and city attorney for another, which by itself seems wrong. Bateman was hired at $125 an hour to act as “advisor and construction manager” for a nonprofit that needed help with certain permits from his city and the county. Maroño and Pizzi allegedly took money under the table to champion federal grant applications to their various cities.
Double-dipping on public jobs should be banned. Public officials acting as “consultants” should be required to disclose any such connection to the public or face a stiff penalty. Mayors and other elected officials should not be allowed to peddle their wares to other governments for a fee, period.
Companies have an obligation to keep the system clean, too.
Lobbyists serve a useful purpose in helping public officials understand complex issues. Their advocacy is protected by the First Amendment. But really — don’t company executives know it’s plainly wrong to hire a public official “to make the wheels turns faster”? That’s the allegation in the case of Bateman.
Voters have a responsibility, too. Bateman’s nine years in office were marked by police investigations, at least one other arrest and a bar fight with a predecessor.
He yelled at staff in public and often came across as a bully. All of this should have been a sign that he was unfit for office. Yet he was twice elected mayor and thinks he can run for reelection.
The larger problem is public apathy. When local elections are decided by 16 percent of registered voters, the result is a feeling that the public doesn’t care, which leads to a lack of accountability.
Ultimately, the remedy for greed and hubris among public officials is greater public scrutiny of their activities. Pizzi and Maroño were caught in an FBI sting operation. Bateman was reeled in by local prosecutors from the office of State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
Prosecutors should keep at it. There’s a long way to go in cleaning up public corruption in Florida and, as these cases amply and sadly demonstrate, we seem to be going in the wrong direction.
The Orlando Sentinel — Don’t sell valuable green parcels just to buy more
More than two decades ago, Florida launched a visionary and ambitious effort to buy environmentally valuable land for conservation. State lawmakers poured up to $300 million a year into those programs. About three million acres were acquired, but money dried up in recent years.
In this year’s budget, lawmakers ordered a fresh infusion of funding for land buying — $70 million — but there’s a catch: $50 million of the total will have to be raised by selling off other publicly owned parcels.
This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, provided the land put on the auction block doesn’t really need to remain under public protection. There are certainly pieces of property in Florida, for example, that aren’t ecologically critical, but are owned by the state because they were included with other, more valuable acreage in larger purchases.
But is the state’s lead environmental agency capable of separating the wheat from the chaff? There are good reasons to be skeptical.
Last month, the Department of Environmental Protection released a list of 169 publicly owned parcels that it is considering selling. The preliminary list encompasses 5,331 acres from state parks, forests and wildlife areas. There are more than a few startling entries, including:
•Two parcels, totaling 345 acres, from the 1,584-acre Neighborhood Lakes property that straddles the Orange and Lake County lines. The state purchased the land in 2006, under orders from lawmakers, to protect theWekiva River.
•More than 2,500 acres in the Green Swamp, an extensive wetlands system that recharges the aquifer in Central Florida and sustains hundreds of species of wildlife. Lawmakers named the Green Swamp an “area of critical concern” in 1974, and the state has been buying, not selling, land there since then to protect it.
•More than 150 acres of barrier island property in Indian River Lagoon Preserve State Park. The lagoon is in desperate need of more protection these days, with record deaths among its manatees, dolphins and pelicans.
•Some 150 acres of mangrove wetlands in the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve. Audubon Florida says the land “serves as an important estuarine nursery ground.”
DEP officials are planning to hold public meetings later this month and next month to consider comments about parcels on the list. They insist a lengthy process lies ahead before any property is sold. We can only hope.
Of course, state government wouldn’t be under pressure to dump public lands if lawmakers came up with more direct funding for new purchases. With state revenues growing along with the economy, there should be additional dollars available for that purpose in next year’s budget.
Until then, the DEP needs to take a listen to the many knowledgeable critics of this year’s list, then take a serious, second look.
The Tampa Tribune — Hillsborough poised to lead way in job growth this Labor Day
This Labor Day weekend is one to celebrate what appears to be promising economic news, to take stock of how fragile the economic recovery remains, and reflect on ways to build a durable and diverse economy.
Unemployment in the state sits at 7.1 percent, slightly below the 7.4 percent national average. That’s a far cry from the state’s 11.4 percent unemployment rate from December 2009 through March 2011, the worst period for Florida’s jobless crisis.
The Tampa Bay market’s unemployment rate, which typically exceeds the state’s, has remained at 7.3 percent throughout the summer. On the bright side, state economists say nearly 42,000 jobs were added to the market so far this year. On top of that, hundreds of good-paying jobs are possibly headed for Hillsborough County.
In July, it was learned pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb plans to open a center serving its marketing, technology and business services. As many as 600 jobs paying an average of $65,000 are expected. Also that month, it was learned online retailer Amazon might build a warehouse in Ruskin that could lead to 1,000 jobs averaging $50,000 a year in pay.
National retailers such as Bass Pro Shops, Gander Mountain and Trader Joe’s are setting up shop here, and record tourist numbers are boosting hospitality jobs. The housing market is stirring to life, bringing construction jobs.
But it would be premature to say the tough economic times are at an end. A report by the state Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research makes that clear.
As usual, Florida’s average annual wage in 2012 was below the national average. What is alarming is that the annual wage showed further declines last year, dropping to 87.7 percent of the national average, down from 89 percent two years ago.
It’s no surprise then that personal income levels in the state dropped 1.5 percent in the first quarter of 2013, compared with the last quarter of 2012. Losses in net earnings and property income accounted for the drop.
Although the unemployment rate remains below the national average, the reason has a lot to do with what is known as a declining participation rate. That is, a significant number of people are no longer counted as unemployed because they quit looking for work or have delayed seeking employment. If those people were counted, the unemployment rate would be 8.2 percent in Florida.
The Palm Beach Post — Corruption conviction can help change culture of Palm Beach County
It started four years ago, with charges against a Palm Beach town employee for taking kickbacks. It mostly ended 10 days ago with the conviction of a business owner. The effect of that one case, though, needs to linger.
In 2009, when the anti-corruption campaign in Palm Beach County began in earnest, the fight was less against certain individuals than against a culture. Within that culture, business ran on favors. The five guilty pleas by elected officials — three county commissioners and two city commissioners in West Palm Beach — got deserved publicity, but corruption can take many forms, and at all levels of government.