A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:
Tampa Bay Times — Expanded gambling a bad bet
Less than five months before the Florida legislative session opens, state lawmakers are again thinking about expanding gambling. But a new study finds it isn’t worth the gamble: Florida wouldn’t necessarily add much state revenue or create significantly more jobs, and money would likely be siphoned from existing businesses. The state should not encourage an industry that makes money by taking advantage of its residents and creates all sorts of social drawbacks.
Twenty months after a pair of casino companies failed to win legislative approval to build destination casinos in South Florida, gambling interests of all stripes are again making a full-court press to change Florida’s gambling regulations. Big contributions from gambling interests inside and outside the state are already flowing into next year’s political campaigns. And the first of four Senate hearings last week underscored the special interest activity. Even antigambling lawmakers have bought the industry spin that new regulation could mean a consolidated industry. That would be a first.
Genting and Sands, the two big casino concerns that took center stage in the 2012 session, are now open to plans that might involve them buying up parimutuel licenses in exchange for the ability to open destination casinos. Parimutuels are looking for their own ways to expand offerings. And the timing is ripe. Florida’s contract with the Seminole Indian Tribe, which gives the tribe exclusive rights to offer card games like blackjack in exchange for $1 billion in total payments, expires in 2015. (The tribe’s exclusive right to slot machines outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties continues for 25 years.)
All this is set against a backdrop in which Florida has already expanded gambling through lax regulation. The most obvious case involved Internet cafes, which operated for years before lawmakers finally shut them down after a major operator in Jacksonville faced federal racketeering charges. That case ultimately tainted then-Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who had done public relations work for the company. But less noticed is how some parimutuels have been exploiting ambiguities in state law to expand their operations. And some Internet cafe owners are reopening their doors, claiming they reprogrammed their machines to comply with Florida law.
The Bradenton Herald —A sad, cautionary tale about exploitation of the elderly
The elderly are all too easy prey in a society rife with smooth-talking liars and despicable con artists. But the story of 90-year-old Ruby Young is particularly unsettling.
As her cautionary tale played out in a Bradenton courtroom this month, we learned Young guarded her finances well. In retirement, she purchased a home with an apartment that she leased out.
She did the right thing in vetting potential tenants. Late payments would bring eviction. And Young kept “meticulous” bank account records, a very wise practice for one and all but especially important in uncovering theft.
Tenant Nathain L. Moyer wormed his way into her good graces. He told Young he needed medicine and took her to an ATM numerous times in 2011 and 2012 to get money.
Moyer also “borrowed” money from her in an age-old scam perpetrated around the globe: He had to pay legal fees in order to secure an inheritance. Another big lie. He shorted his landlord on rent payments. In proving to be a complete scoundrel, he also stole blank checks.
Young’s son-in-law, Mark Clark, testified that her bank even noticed the suspicious ATM withdrawals and checks — more than 200 instances. Almost $30,000 went missing from Young’s bank accounts. Yet bank officials failed to inform Young’s family, even with her daughter’s standing as a joint account holder.
But last month several federal and state agencies launched new guidelines so banks and other institutions can report illegal or suspicious activity. Federal law provides exceptions to privacy rules to allow financial institutions to report suspected fraud and unauthorized transactions — a necessity in this age of instant digital banking.
Moyer pleaded no contest to exploitation of an elderly person and check forgery. In handing down a stiff five-year prison sentence to Moyer and ordering restitution, Judge John Lakin admonished the defendant in words very appropriate for this case: “I find the conduct to be horrific.”
Young’s losses forced her to drain her retirement accounts to stabilize her finances and pay daily living expenses.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Local teachers getting overdue raises
Teachers in Volusia and Flagler are getting raises that will help them regain some of the ground they lost during the long economic downturn. The Legislature and local school boards deserve credit for recognizing the need to lift the level of teacher pay.
Flagler County teachers are set to receive raises of about 6 percent, as a result of a tentative contract agreement between the Flagler County School Board and the Flagler County Educators Association. When the agreement is finalized, more than 800 teachers and school-based administrators will receive raises ranging from $1,900 to $2,200.
In August the Volusia County School Board tentatively agreed on pay raises for teachers that will average 5.3 percent. The School Board raised starting pay for teachers from an average of $34,010 annually to $36,000. This should improve young teachers’ salaries in relation to private sector salaries, and enable the Volusia district to compete more effectively with neighboring school districts.
Earlier this year, the Legislature allocated $480 million for teacher pay increases. Gov. Rick Scott wanted the money used for a $2,500 across-the-board pay hike for teachers, but lawmakers decided to give the school districts discretion on how to distribute the raises.
It appears that the Volusia and Flagler school districts are coming close to the $2,500 recommendation of the governor. In the wake of some lean budget years and the law requiring teachers and state employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to the state’s pension fund, this should provide a needed morale boost for teachers.
The Florida Times-Union — Time is overdue to change name of Forrest High School
Numerous opinions are being expressed on the propriety of having a Jacksonville high school named after Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
It’s incredibly insensitive to African-Americans to have a high school named after a man credited with helping start the Ku Klux Klan and accused by some of being involved in a massacre of black soldiers and civilians at Fort Pillow, Tenn.
We can argue until the cows come home about what the purpose of the Klan was when Forrest was involved and about how many blacks were killed and in what fashion at Fort Pillow.
The Gainesville Sun – A tax’s local toll
Most Americans likely had never heard of the medical device tax before the recent government shutdown.
A repeal of the tax, one of the funding sources for the Affordable Care Act, was one of the demands made by Republicans to end the shutdown.
It didn’t make the final deal. But the medical device industry, including companies based in Alachua County, is still pushing for a repeal.
The Advanced Medical Technology Association projects the tax will cost the industry 43,000 U.S. jobs. Groups such as the nonprofit Center on Budget Policy and Priorities oppose the tax’s repeal, suggesting that industry lobbyists distort its impact.
The 2.3 percent tax applies to the sale of medical devices by manufacturers and importers. Gainesville-based Exactech, which makes makes bone and joint replacements, is leading the opposition locally against the tax
Exactech estimates the tax will cost the company, which had a $12.7 million profit in 2012, about $1.6 million this year. The company’s chief financial officer told The Sun that it will hire about 20 workers this year instead or a planned 45.
Officials at other local companies, including AxoGen and RTI Surgical of Alachua, have also raised concerns about the tax. Given the growth of the local biotechnology industry, any measure that could stifle innovation here is a major concern.
The Lakeland Ledger — Winter Haven City Commission Seat 5: Winter Haven Stuck on Landings
City Commission Seat 5 is the only item on the Winter Haven ballot Nov. 5.
Audio podcast of the Editorial Board’s full interview with Steven M. Hunnicutt and Debra “Debbie-O” Ogzewalla, candidates for Winter Haven City Commission Seat 5. Time: 48:41.
Debra “Debbie-O” Ogzewalla is challenging Steven M. Hunnicutt. He is completing his first four-year term as a city commissioner. This is Ogzewalla’s third campaign for a commission seat.
Hunnicutt, 51, works in code enforcement for Haines City. A retired police officer, Hunnicutt has police certification from the Ohio Police Officer Academy.
Ogzewalla, 59, and her daughter run the U Sold It Shop in Winter Haven. She has held tourism and marketing positions in Central Florida. She attended Chatfield College in Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky University and the University of Cincinnati.
For more than two years, a single issue has dominated City Commission discussion: selling the city’s prized Chain O’ Lakes Complex, which once hosted Major League spring training baseball, to a private developer for creation of a lakeside mall of sorts called The Landings.
The property is on the southeast corner of U.S. 17 and Cypress Gardens Boulevard, and looks over Lake Lulu. Besides the ballfields, now used for a substantial portion of the annual RussMatt college-baseball tournament in spring, the complex is home to the Rowdy Gaines Olympic Pool, a recreation center and Theatre Winter Haven.
The Landings was to include an IMAX theater, hotels, restaurants and shops.
The Winter Haven City Commission approved sale of the property in March 2011 to the company of Birmingham, Ala., financier Taylor Pursell.
The Miami Herald — Living in harm’s way
Major changes in the reform of the national flood insurance program passed by Congress in 2012 are just now taking effect, provoking a fierce backlash from affected policyholders and real estate interests. Most homeowners with flood insurance have little to worry about, though. At least not yet.
The law made a host of changes in the program designed to accurately reflect the level of risk. The most important change mandates an end to subsidized rates for selected properties in flood zones.
That may be the most important point to keep in mind as the debate over new flood insurance rates heats up: Severe increases will be the exception rather than the rule.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than 80 percent of policyholders across the country do not pay subsidized rates. That means 4.48 million of the 5.6 million policies in force across the nation are in the clear. They already pay full-risk premiums and will not see large premium increases.
Even among the remaining 20 percent of policyholders, only one in four will see immediate increases to their premiums. Those involve subsidized policies covering non-primary residences, businesses, and severe repetitive loss properties.
For Florida, these changes are a big deal. The state has more than 2 million of the nation’s flood insurance policies and is by far the biggest contributor to the federal program. Some 269,000 property owners in the state, about 13 percent of those with flood insurance, are affected by the early changes, and some of the hikes are indeed steep.
According to the Florida Keys Keynoter, policies for some ground-level homes in the Keys’ flood insurance program that cost $2,000 to $3,000 a year suddenly cost $30,000 a year or more.
That’s outrageous. Congress should find a way to ameliorate these steep increases. But any changes should be narrowly targeted to help those who need it, including primary homeowners. People should not be priced out of their homes because of sudden insurance increases, particularly middle-class property owners who have lived in their homes for decades.
In addition, the law calls for “affordability” in flood insurance rates, but doesn’t spell out what that means. It would make sense to delay severe hikes until FEMA can define affordability and ensure that its rates meet that standard.
But calls for Congress to make wholesale changes in the law or delay implementation are misplaced. The program is $24 billion in the red and getting worse every year. Anyone owning property in areas prone to flooding should be prepared to pay premiums that reflect that risk — especially in Florida, a state with an extensive coastline development and many homes built at or below what FEMA calls “base flood elevation.”
In the coming years and decades, climate change is expected to bring rising ocean levels that will further endanger coastal properties. Political leaders in Tallahassee and elsewhere in the state may turn a blind eye to the costs of over-development along our coasts, but the federal insurance program — ultimately backed by taxpayers — cannot afford to maintain subsidized flood insurance rates for anyone who wants to live on the water in a home at low elevation. Choosing to live in harm’s way comes with a price tag.
Higher flood insurance rates are an inevitable result of ignoring the dangers posed by climate change. Continuing to ignore the risk will only make the price higher in coming years.
The Orlando Sentinel — Champ & Chump: Banana George Blair and Alan Grayson
Banana George Blair — The saying goes, “Age is nothing but a number.” Whomever coined it may have been watching Blair do his thing. And his thing was water skiing, which he did with style adorned in a banana-yellow wetsuit as a Cypress Gardens performer, and continued for years, earning the record as America’s oldest barefoot skier at 91. But Blair, who was 98 when he died last week, was more than a consummate showman. He was a Guinness record holder, having skied on all seven continents. He was a business whiz. Most of all, he was glowing proof that one is as young as one feels.
Alan Grayson — Another adage notes a tiger can’t change its stripes. Evidently, that goes for Orlando’s political paper tiger. After a first term marked by bombast, Grayson largely had holstered his bluster-buss. But when it came to the tea party, he couldn’t resist. During a recent interview, he compared the tea party to the Klan. To put a fine point on it, he dispatched a campaign email that used a burning cross as the “T” in tea party. “Now you know what the ‘T’ stands for” read the caption. And with his outrageous broad-brush slur, we know what the “A” in his first name often stands for — asinine.
The Ocala StarBanner — Bring the Harvest Home once again
The news that the shelves at Ocala/Marion County’s leading food banks are empty is alarming. And with only 34 days until Thanksgiving and 61 days until Christmas, the timing could not be worse.
Thankfully, our community has been here before, just two years ago, and it rallied in an unexpected and impressive manner to collect 80,000 pounds — that’s 40 tons — of food that replenished local food pantry shelves for months. Churches, businesses, schools and individuals came together in common cause throughout three weeks, donating cans, boxes, bags and, in some cases, truckloads of food during the 2011 Bring the Harvest Home food drive. It was a smashing success and a genuine feel-good moment that accentuated the charitable spirit that is a hallmark of Ocala/Marion County.
We did it once, now it is time we do it again. Together. As a community.
Officials for Interfaith Emergency Services, the Salvation Army and Brothers Keeper, the community’s largest service providers to the homeless and the hungry, told the Star-Banner in a front-page article Thursday that donations of both food and cash are down from last year, while demand for food and personal hygiene products is not waning.
“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it — at least since 2008,” said Thomas Curtis, Interfaith’s food pantry warehouse manager. Interfaith officials said the agency feeds about 1,200 families a month, requiring some 48,000 pounds of food to do so.
The Pensacola News-Journal — May we stay forever Young
On Thursday, as thousands flocked to Bay Pines National Cemetery in Largo, Florida, the fiercely opposed forces of Washington politics stood in rare, and solemn agreement on one thing at least: That Rep. C.W. Bill Young had been the very best among them. How humbling that it took the death of a man whose career was built on pragmatism, cooperation and effectiveness to bring about such a moment, at an hour in history when our country has been so bitterly and foolishly divided.
Young died last Friday in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., after refusing a risky surgery several days earlier. He was surrounded by family and friends and more than 50 years of his well-earned legacy.
As reported by the Tampa Bay Times, one of the final phone calls the congressman took from his hospital bed was from former President George W. Bush. Former aide to Rep. Young, David Jolly, was present for the call and said, “In a moment that I will never forget, the congressman concluded that phone call by very graciously and very sweetly saying, ‘Mr. President, we’re going to be gone. But hopefully they won’t forget us too soon.'”
We hope not, congressman. Our country can’t afford to.
Juxtaposed to the government shutdown and partisan fighting and perpetual do-nothingness that we, the people, have become so accustomed to suffering at the feckless hands of our elected representatives, Rep. Young’s decades of service stand as an example of when the system worked.
A lifelong Republican, some have eulogized him as founder of the modern Republican Party in Florida. But his life’s work always transcended any partisan labels or expectations. He fought for water standards against Nixon’s wishes and opposed drilling in Florida waters when his fellow Florida GOPers were crying “Drill, baby, drill!” And he was among the first Republicans to call for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
And perhaps more than any other priority of his career, were our men and women of the military. Rep. Jeff Miller said last week that, “America’s veterans knew no greater advocate than Rep. Bill Young. During his time in public office, Bill was a tireless supporter of veterans as well as America’s service men and women.” By all accounts, there was little else that took precedent for Rep. Young over doing right by those who put their lives on the line for this country.
The Palm Beach Post — Despite problems, don’t delay Affordable Care Act
Even though shutting down the government to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act cost the economy $24 billion and 120,000 jobs, some lawmakers are still making that fight.
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., filed a bill last week that would delay the entire law for a year. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla has said he will file legislation to delay the individual mandate because of problems with HealthCare.gov. Some Democrats also favor delaying the mandate. “It’s unfair to punish people,” Sen. Rubio told Fox & Friends, “for not purchasing a product that they can’t purchase right now because the technology that’s in place…is not working.”
The Panama City News-Herald — Spay or pay
Bay County’s animal shelter is chasing its tail when it comes to pet adoptions.
The facility on Bayline Drive is a way station for stray and unwanted cats and dogs. Its goal is to find homes for as many animals as it can, but space limitations force the euthanization of thousands of potential pets every year. The available spots at the shelter are overwhelmed by the number of animals that are brought in — a reflection of the county’s abundant population of domestic animals caused by overbreeding
The math is basic: Reducing the number of cats and dogs that reproduce will decrease the number of animals that enter the shelter.
Achieving that solution isn’t so simple.
That’s illustrated by the shelter’s struggle to encourage adoption while ensuring that the animals will be spayed or neutered (under state law, pets adopted from animal control have to be sterilized). Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the pet that goes out the door doesn’t create more offspring that will show up at the shelter later.
The county drops fees to as low as $25 to make adoption more appealing. However, owners are required to pay a $100 deposit to have the animal sterilized. Because the shelter does not perform sterilizations on the animals before sending them home, and manpower shortages limit the number shelter personnel can transport offsite to be spayed or neutered by veterinarians, the shelter instead issues vouchers. Owners have 30 days to provide proof that they got their animals fixed, in which case they get their $100 deposit back.
Not everyone complies, either because they aren’t really interested in sterilizing their pets or they just never get around to doing it. The shelter doesn’t have the resources to track down everyone who fails to comply, and the county says it doesn’t have data on how many shelter animals never get spayed or neutered.
Clearly, though, there’s a conundrum. The cheaper the fee, the more pets will be adopted, which is preferable to destroying them. But that makes it easier for some owners to absorb the sterilization deposit and forgo the procedure. For every one unsterilized pet that goes out, how many from its litters come back? And does the $100 deposit the shelter keeps come remotely close to defraying the costs of the offspring?
The Tallahassee Democrat – On the trail toward ad dollars
At first blush, it sounds like a horrible idea: Advertising signs on Florida’s seven scenic trails.
And certainly, opponents screamed bloody murder in 2011 when the Florida Legislature passed the bill.
But state officials insist the reality of the signs will not be offensive and that they will offer the state some added revenue — albeit minor — in a time of financial constraints.
“They’ll be just another sign in the parking areas,” said Doug Alderson, assistant chief of the state’s Office of Greenways and Trails. “Those are not the areas I gauge my trail experience by, and I hope most people will feel the same way.”
The Legislature passed the “John Anthony Wilson Bicycle Safety Act” in 2011, but it has taken more than a year to wend its way through the oversight, planning and bid processes of state government.
The bill allows two sizes of square signs at the seven designated Florida Scenic Trails, all of which are paved, pedestrian/bicycle paths along former railroad beds. The 16-mile St. Marks Trail, south of Tallahassee, is one of the seven.
Each sign will have a uniform message on the order of “This trail sponsored by the Acme Corporation.” The state will approve all sponsors and messages.
“There won’t be any slogans, such as ‘Eat at Joe’s,’ ” Alderson said. “They have to be family-friendly, noncontroversial. Nothing sponsoring cigarettes or alcohol; hopefully, companies with a relationship to sports or outdoor activities.”
There was only one bidder for the contract, a New York-based company, Bikepath Country, which is responsible for contracting sponsors and erecting signs. Bikepath Country will give the state 30 percent of all revenues after expenses (with 15 percent of that amount deducted for two of state safety education funds).
The first signs are expected to go up early in 2014.
Sponsors of the bill thought the program would raise “seven figures” of revenue for the state, and thus defray if not eliminate the $1 million the state spends each year, in salary and expenses, to maintain the trails.
The Tampa Tribune — A project too big and a vote too soon
Clearwater voters will have a chance Nov. 5 to decide whether a plan to build a 200,000-square-foot aquarium on prime downtown property should move forward or be halted in its tracks.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium wants to capitalize on the phenomenal popularity of Winter the dolphin by building a three-story facility along the bluff where City Hall now sits.
The plan’s backers say as many as 2 million people may visit annually, and they promise to give the city $7.5 million to build a new City Hall. The risk to Clearwater’s taxpayers is being mitigated with federal and state grants, tourist bed-tax dollars, special taxing district revenues, and private donations to cover the estimated $160 million cost. No city funds are being committed.
But first, voters must give their blessing for the city to lease public land for use as an aquarium site.
We think voters should reject the request. We support expanding the marina, which focuses on marine life rescue, but we find the plan to be overly ambitious and overly optimistic. And we don’t understand why voters are being rushed to make a key vote before a feasibility study is completed.
Supporters like to point out that a successful vote Nov. 5 does not signal a green light to build. There would remain significant financial hurdles to overcome, and the City Council would have the final say.
But Nov. 5 is the only chance the public has to vote on a project that will define downtown Clearwater for generations. Stripped to its core, the plan is staking the city’s downtown future on the star power of a dolphin and on the chance that appeal will endure for decades beyond its eventual death.
The plan’s primary backers — former Clearwater mayor Frank Hibbard and Clearwater Marine Aquarium executives Frank Dame and David Yates — should be applauded for crafting a plan that minimizes the city’s financial exposure. Understandably, they want to strike while a sequel to the feature film about Winter is in the works, and a possible animated TV series is under consideration.
Winter’s story of triumph over long odds turned the moribund Clearwater Marine Aquarium into a tourist destination that drew about 750,000 visitors last year, up from about 250,000 before Winter. There were more visitors than could be accommodated in the former sewage treatment plant on Island Estates where the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has operated for decades.
But consistently drawing even the 1 million visitors a year needed for the proposed aquarium to break even seems implausible, considering the 18-year-old Florida Aquarium in Tampa has never drawn that many and will continue to operate in direct competition with the new aquarium.
Without question, Winter deserves a home that maximizes revenues. A new or expanded facility is needed, one that emphasizes the unique rescue, rehabilitation and release aspect that has been the aquarium’s primary mission from the start. If that’s not possible on the current site and the City Hall land is wanted for a scaled-down version of the current plan, aquarium officials should return in a year with financial commitments and a feasibility study in hand.
Downtown Clearwater struggles with its identity as a Church of Scientology headquarters. The allure of building a centerpiece attraction that could change that identity and promote commerce is appealing.
But the proposed aquarium is too large, and its long-term success is far from assured.
The plan’s backers have put together a thoughtful proposal with the best of intentions. But we find the project too ambitious and the vote premature. We recommend a “no” vote.