A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:
Tampa Bay Times — A better way to regulate taxis
Hillsborough County needs a better way to regulate the taxicab industry, and a solution finally is on the table. Two Tampa Bay area legislators have committed to push a bill in the 2014 Legislature that would clear the way to abolish Hillsborough’s Public Transportation Commission, the agency that oversees taxis, ambulances and other for-hire vehicles. Disbanding this stand-alone agency and handing its job to county government would be good for taxpayers and consumers. The Hillsborough legislative delegation should make this bill a priority.
The anticipated legislation by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, would place a question on the 2014 ballot allowing Hillsborough voters to decide whether the PTC should continue to operate. The agency is the only one of its kind in the state, created by the Legislature in 1976 to regulate the for-hire vehicle industry. Staff members conduct criminal background checks on drivers and ensure that vehicles are safe and in good condition. If voters disband the PTC, its job would be handed over to county government, as is the case in other jurisdictions across the state.
Brandes is right that the PTC is archaic and anti-consumer. Its outdated rules have artificially limited competition, kept new on-command taxi services from the market and served to protect the big cab companies. The PTC also has a history of going rogue; its most recent director resigned after Tampa Bay Times reports that he was moonlighting while payroll records showed he was on the agency clock or out sick. And a prior chairman, former County Commissioner Kevin White, is in federal prison for bribery connected to his duties at the agency.
Local elected officials who serve on the PTC board say they are reforming the agency to make it more responsive and in tune with the marketplace. But previous boards have said the same thing. And what agency needs a seven-member board overseeing a 10-member staff? Folding the investigators under the county would be more efficient, and it would bring a new level of public scrutiny to the operation. Moving to the county could cut overhead and staffing costs, savings that could be passed on to the industry and consumers in the form of lower permitting fees.
The public has a legitimate interest in ensuring that taxis are safe and reliable. But there’s no need for a special agency to do the job. And there’s no sense in continuing to wait for the PTC to clean up its act. The legislative delegation should support this proposed legislation and work hard next session to pass it.
The Bradenton Herald — Scourge of heroin rears its ugly head
Just as the state of Florida douses one fire, another one breaks out. When the blaze is fueled by drug abuse and addiction, that outcome is entirely predictable. Addicts will feed their habit one way or another.
As Herald police reporter Jessica de Leon chronicled earlier this month, Manatee County is witnessing a spike in heroin use in the wake of the state’s crackdown on pill mills and fraudulent prescription drug purchases.
After adopting tighter laws governing the dispensing, sale and purchase of legal narcotics — by clamping down on illegitimate doctors and pharmacies posing as pain clinics — Florida celebrated a steep drop in illicit prescription drug abuse.
In September, the state’s top law enforcement officials released a report entitled “Drugs Identified in Deceased Persons.” Composed by Florida medical examiners, the findings showed Oxycodone-caused deaths plummeted 41 percent and overall prescription drug fatalities dropped 9.9 percent. The total number of deaths — 8,330 — represents the lowest since the state began compiling figures in 2008, Herald editor Terry O’Connor reported.
While that victory is significant, another battle looms. In the 12th Judicial District, which encompasses Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, the number of deaths caused by cocaine rose from 54 two years ago to 60 in 2012. Heroin deaths grew from two to eight.
But O’Connor reported last week that over the seven-day period that ended on Nov. 5, 13 overdoses led to at least eight deaths in Manatee County, as outlined by two longtime emergency medical service personnel. Whether heroin is to blame is unknown.
“It’s disturbing,” Capt. Larry Luh, the public safety acting chief of Manatee County Emergency Medical Service, stated when recounting the recent seven-day string of overdoses. “It’s kind of mind-boggling, to tell you the truth.”
Still, this year’s recent string of heroin-related overdose fatalities in Manatee County alone could indicate a troubling trend here — a trend already established across the nation.
Heroin, cheaper than cocaine and prescription drugs, is no longer taboo. Heroin use has skyrocketed 79 percent over the past five years — to the highest level since the 1970s, Bloomberg News reported last week. Users do not fit the old ghetto stereotype either, with younger, more affluent Americans likely from suburbs and small towns.
Worse yet, today’s heroin is more potent than decades ago — increasing the odds of an overdose and death. The medical examiners’ 2012 report lists heroin as the most harmful drug.
Manatee County medical professionals are rightly concerned about the uptick in heroin deaths. Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski told O’Connor that his narcotics officers are reporting an increase in heroin on the street.
Manatee Glens, the county’s premier mental health caregiver for children and adults with behavioral, addiction and other issues, is experiencing a significant increase in the number of patients linked to heroin use. That’s actually a good thing.
The idea that drug abusers are morally weak and simply lack the willpower to change their behavior and quit is misguided.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal — The county should proceed with Waverly investigation
The public image and credibility of the Volusia County Council will be on the unofficial agenda when the council meets this week and debates whether to move forward with an internal probe of the county’s dealings with Waverly Media.
Waverly’s owner, Ramara Garrett, and her boyfriend, Jimmy Sotolongo, are facing trial in federal court in connection with an alleged mortgage fraud scheme. James Brown, the former manager of the bus-bench advertising company, has pleaded no contest to violating state campaign laws.
And the County Council, which contracted with Waverly Media for bus-bench advertising, finds itself dogged by questions and suspicions surrounding the scandal.
Two council members received Waverly-related in-kind campaign contributions; one of them, Josh Wagner, was involved in business ventures with Garrett and has described Garrett and Sotolongo as friends. In 2010, Wagner intervened in the writing of a request for proposals to seek a bus bench advertising contract, raising the question of whether the councilman was attempting to help his friends, Garrett and Sotolongo.
People connected to Waverly Media made thousands of dollars in in-kind campaign contributions to candidates seeking county offices. The State Attorney’s Office continues to examine those contributions, which may have involved fraud. Brown was charged in this probe of in-kind contributions of political ads on the Waverly bus benches.
The Waverly scandal unfolded over a period of more than six months before the County Council showed any concern about its relationship with the troubled company. But in October, Councilman Doug Daniels spoke up, calling for the council to hire an independent investigator to look into the county’s connections to Waverly. The council approved the probe and ended its relationship with Waverly, but quickly fell into infighting over whether the county charter gives it the authority to investigate, and whether such an investigation would be good for the county’s “image.”
At its meeting this week, the council is expected to decide how to proceed on the Waverly issue. Basically, it’s a black-and-white question: Should the County Council take decisive steps to remove the taint of scandal from county government?
The Florida Times-Union — Stadium upgrades show city is ready for the big time
Last week was quite a week.
On Tuesday, the City Council, at the urging of the Mayor’s Office, approved making $63 million worth of improvements to EverBank Field that will turn the stadium into a top-notch facility for Jaguars games and other sporting and entertainment events.
It was the exact message that Jacksonville needed to send, that we are ready for the big time and will no longer be satisfied being a city of unfulfilled potential.
The Gainesville Sun – Reject incentives
University Corners would be a worthy addition to Gainesville, but that doesn’t mean developers should get a nearly $49 million property tax rebate.
The development would include 500 apartments or condos, a 250-room hotel, restaurants, retail and a more than 1,100-space parking garage. City commissioners are expected to vote Monday on incentives that would allow developers to keep 90 percent of the property tax revenue that the project generates for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency over 20 years.
The project would be built at University Avenue and 13th Street, perhaps the most prominent intersection in the city. Putting the development next to the University of Florida would mean more people walk and bike to attend classes, work and visit there, rather than add cars to congested roads.
It would benefit the city to have a signature project rather than an empty lot at the location. But the site also works against the case for a whopping 90 percent tax rebate, well above the CRA program’s usual limits.
The rebate amounts to $48.8 million over 20 years. Such incentives seem unnecessary and unfair for a project at such a prime spot that would compete with existing housing, hotels and retail.
Sure, University Corners still would generate the full amount of taxes for entities such as schools, libraries and the water management district. But another commercial project on the site also would bring money to those entities and perhaps more in city taxes.
The Lakeland Ledger — Lakeland Government Network: Spread Sunshine On TV
Lakeland residents who revere President Abraham Lincoln’s declaration that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth” have a way to track the actions of city boards that could not have been imagined 150 years ago, at the time of the Gettysburg Address.
The city televises many of its board meetings — but, unfortunately, not all. The meetings are shown live on Brighthouse cable-television Channel 615 and Verizon FiOS Channel 43, as well as on the Internet at www.lakelandgov.net/lgn.aspx. The coverage is produced by the city’s Lakeland Government Network.
Those who would rather not to go to City Hall for meetings, or are unable, can follow the actions of elected and appointed officials wherever they have access to one of the cable-TV channels or to an online computer, or tablet or smartphone.
The Internet version of the Lakeland Government Network provides the greatest access.
That’s because Internet viewers can watch on-demand — whenever they want — once a show is posted to the network’s online archive. Shows often are archived within a day. This is particularly valuable for people researching an issue.
These benefits often go blank, however, when a city board meets in a room other than the camera-and-microphone equipped City Commission chambers.
INTO THE DARK
Most veiled — in light of Lincoln’s of-the-people standard and Florida’s history of government in the sunshine — is Lakeland’s practice of not televising the City Commission agenda-study meetings. They are held on the Fridays before the twice-per-month formal Monday meetings.
The agenda-study meetings are held in the commission’s narrow conference room, around a long table. Staff members run through agenda points, explain them and answer commissioners’ questions.
The Miami Herald — The trolley debacle
The rush to build a trolley garage in West Coconut Grove drew a stinging rebuke last week from the U.S. Department of Transportation that calls into question the competence and judgment of just about everyone at the local level involved in this embarrassing debacle.
DOT acted after local officials failed to take into account the harmful impact that the decision to build a trolley garage in a historically black neighborhood would have on the residents, an apparent violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This amounts to a failure of due diligence that could have profound consequences elsewhere in the county because it may not be an isolated instance.
A series of mistakes led up to the federal government’s intervention, including a failure to heed warnings that the site did not meet zoning standards. But the initial error from which everything else flows was the failure to get a buy-in from the residents of one of Miami’s oldest, historically black neighborhoods.
The essential facts are not in dispute. Astor Development brokered a deal with Coral Gables to build the city a new garage in exchange for land where the garage now stands within the City Beautiful. Common sense would suggest that a new site could be found in Coral Gables, where the trolleys operate, but nothing about what followed seems logical.
The developer found land in the West Grove, a residential neighborhood in Miami, not Coral Gables. This convenient solution satisfied Commissioner Marc Sarnoff and all the parties — except the people in the affected area! They would be obliged to suffer the consequences of “environmental concerns, unsafe streets, excessive noise, increase in traffic, potential health concerns and possible reduction in property values,” the federal government noted.
No matter. The city of Miami threw the residents under the bus instead of protecting them. The required notification was limited to an online posting, where it was likely to go unnoticed. Other than that, the federal government noted, the city failed to solicit community input or otherwise evaluate the impact of the site selection.
Enter the federal government, which was involved in the deal because it provided transportation grants to Miami-Dade County that were used to buy the trolley cars. The online posting was not enough to satisfy the requirements of the 1964 CRA, whose Title VI mandates genuine outreach to the community and what federal rules call an “equity analysis,” including the possibility of finding alternative sites or taking actions to mitigate harm to residents.
Most appalling, the letter from DOT noted that “none of the relevant city (of Miami) staff appeared to be aware of their Title VI obligations and Miami has no Title VI compliance program in effect.” It boggles the mind that the city’s staffers, presumably including its attorneys, were clueless about the city’s obligations under the Civil Rights Act, and it raises a troubling question: Are other federally funded projects here now in jeopardy?
What happens next is anyone’s guess. The county, which is supposed to enforce the rules, says it does not believe other projects are in trouble. The developer and the city of Coral Gables are pointing fingers at each other and the city is suing the developer. And officials in Miami are ducking questions.
No doubt, some effort will be forthcoming to salvage the project, because the garage is nearly finished. But by this point it should be evident that any attempt to keep the trolley depot in the West Grove over the objections of its residents won’t succeed. Been there, done that — and it didn’t work.
The Orlando Sentinel — Job 1 for lawmakers: Meet needs
There might be nothing more irresistible to a politician running for re-election than a tax cut. So when Gov. Rick Scott called in August for the Legislature to reduce state revenues by $500 million next year, it was not a tough sell. Since then, lawmakers have proposed numerous ways to hit the governor’s target.
But even if it won’t play as well on the campaign trail, lawmakers should put their first priority on meeting needs they’ve neglected, or responding to new imperatives, as they eye a projected $840 million surplus.
Here’s only a partial list of neglected needs and new imperatives:
•Over the past decade, lawmakers have reduced annual funding for the state’s public universities by more than $1 billion. It’s hard to offer the first-class university system that Scott has promised by starving it of state funding. A $300 million increase this year simply made up for a similar cut the year before.
•In Scott’s first year as governor, he and lawmakers cut $1.3 billion in funding for the state’s public schools. They’ve increased funding since then by some $2 billion, but spending per pupil remains below its level in 2008. Money isn’t the sole answer to improving education, but it’s not insignificant, either.
•Funding for the state to buy and protect environmentally sensitive land has plummeted from a high of $300 million a year in the past decade to just $70 million in this year’s budget, and that assumes $50 million of the total will come from selling other state-owned land.
•Florida’s regional water districts have outlined a $120 million plan to stop an alarming decline in the state’s natural springs, but lawmakers cried poor mouth this year. They put up just $15 million for the job.
•This month a Senate committee said it would take more than $220 million to reduce polluted water discharges from Lake Okeechobee that are destroying the health of fragile coastal environments on both sides of the peninsula.
•More than 20,000 developmentally disabled people are on the waiting list for Florida’s program to provide them with home or community-based care.
•After a rash of deaths among children under state supervision, more money is needed for advocates and better protective measures.
Lawmakers could respond to these needs and cut taxes if they would carry out some of the recommendations for more than $4 billion in savings issued this month by Florida TaxWatch, a business-backed think tank. For example, replacing the state’s outmoded accounting system alone could save $350 million a year — more than enough to cover the $240 million rollback in vehicle fees that many lawmakers support.
Making up for the needs they’ve neglected, and finding savings in other parts of the budget, would be harder for lawmakers than just showing up next year in Tallahassee to cut taxes. But their constituents deserve no less.
The Ocala StarBanner — Giving mental illness its due
A major victory has been achieved in the long battle to get mental illness covered by health insurance like other medical conditions, but the fight isn’t over.
The Obama administration earlier this month issued regulations requiring insurers to cover mental health and addiction in the same way as physical illnesses.
Individuals with mental illnesses have long had to jump through hoops to prove they have an illness deserving of treatment, often failing to get the treatment they need because they simply could not afford the out-of-pocket costs.
Though the fight to shed the public perception that mental illnesses are not equal in severity to physcial illnesses continues, the new regulations are a major step in reaching parity in private coverage. The regulations put into effect a law passed in 2008, giving an indication of what a long struggle the issue has been.
The law includes the private plans offered under the Affordable Care Act. It doesn’t apply to Medicare or the health plans that manage care for millions of low-income people on Medicaid, The New York Times reported. The administration has previously issued guidance to state health officials saying the Medicaid plans should still meet the law’s requirements.
That will require a bigger investment in states such as Florida, which currently ranks 49th in the country in per-capita funding for mental and behavioral health — $39 per person in Florida compared with a national average of $120. It’s a disgraceful distinction the state needs to address, and we have said so before.
The Pensacola News-Journal — Our rising seas are speaking
Our beaches change. Most of the time, that change is imperceptible – the natural erosion that scrapes grains of precious sugar-white sand from the shore. Day and night, the relentless waves take their toll on paradise.
At other times, the change is not a whisper, but a roar: A tropical storm or hurricane lashes the coast with wind and a storm surge, blasting away the sand. During the expensive cleanup, the sand is replaced, only temporarily.
Couple that with rising tides and it’s easy to see keeping our beloved shores is a fight that will always be fought with an ever-increasing pricetag.
Today, on Page 1A beach reporter Kimberly Blair explores the impact of climate change and the threat to Santa Rosa and Escambia counties. She points out there are predictions our shorelines will be underwater by the 22nd century. Further inland, wetlands and marshes will be affected by climate change. Some scientists and government offices say seas are expected to rise 12 to 18 more inches by 2100, Blair reported.
We don’t need a crystal ball to look at the Emerald Coast in 2100. We are seeing signs now. Even modest amounts of rain quickly reveal problem areas in the two-county area, particularly sections of Warrington as well as downtown Pensacola.
When the Gulf Islands National Seashore’s Fort Pickens Road is swamped during a storm, the effect is apparent.
“People who want to see climate change just need to walk this seashore, and then come back in six months.” said Rick Clark, chief of science and resources management at Gulf Islands National Seashore.
That’s why the time to act is now, not pass the problem off to the next generation of residents.
“If you’re not also thinking about alternative solutions long-term to try to hold the shoreline in place, then I think you’re failing your local communities,” Robert Young, director of program studies of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University, said in Blair’s story. “That does not mean abandoning the coast and the coastal economy.”
The Palm Beach Post — Obama issued wrong apology, offered wrong solution
President Barack Obama owes Americans an apology not for insurance companies cancelling policies but for the ineptitude he and his administration have shown in trying to implement the Affordable Care Act. And the remedy he offered last week — letting insurers sell inferior policies for another year — will do more harm than good.
Reforming health care comes with a cost. Many Americans got their share in the form of higher premiums for new policies they didn’t ask for. Had the president been honest about that four years ago, instead of promising people they could keep polices they like — period — he wouldn’t have to undermine the law to appease a small segment of the population.
The Tallahassee Democrat – Good neighbor
The Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., who is celebrating 27 years as pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, has long had a vision of the church reaching beyond the walls of its West Tennessee Street sanctuary.
As a result, the church has embarked on several endeavors, including a retail center to provide jobs, a restaurant to build on nearby economic development, a charter school to help address disparities in education, a Family Life Center to create a sense of community and the Carolina Oaks development to create housing for families and to help rebrand Frenchtown.
A common denominator in those endeavors is the dream of creating a stronger community within the church’s shadow and to provide symbols of hope and possibilities, especially in the minds of the neighborhood’s youth.
The endeavors are getting attention, because those committed to strengthening families and improving neighborhoods are looking at what the church has accomplished and want to share this Tallahassee success story with others.
Bethel is showing how faith-based initiatives can play an integral part in building foundations, and ultimately strengthening families and saving children.
Last week, the church’s work was the focus of a daylong summit along with the Department of Children and Families and the Casey Families Program. It was billed as Bethel Community of Hope, the third such event in Florida. Similar initiatives are under way in Jacksonville and Gainesville, with Bethel becoming Tallahassee’s model.
The church’s outreach is important to DCF as a model to building a better community and addressing the issue of children in foster care. The Casey Family Program is a national movement dedicated to reducing the need for foster care and creating hope for children and families.
The Tallahassee summit was held so the attendees from around the state as well as DCF’s Community-Based Care partners could identify steps that could be duplicated in cities throughout Florida by partnering with faith-based programs.
“I think what we are seeing by the services (offered), Rev. Holmes has put together a community of hope in strengthening and sustaining families,” said Vicki Abrams, a DCF regional managing director for northwest Florida. She noted how the church built a community of hope by providing housing for families and seniors, economic opportunities, a counseling center and educational facilities.
It serves Tallahassee well that, through its partnerships, the church is playing an integral part in providing hope for at-risk families and youth within its own neighborhood.
The Panama City News-Herald — Plethora of vices
Judging by some public comments, you would think that Florida was considering dipping its toe into the tainted waters of state-sanctioned gambling — when it’s already up to its neck in gaming.
Pensacola was the site Thursday for the third of four scheduled public hearings held around the state by the Senate Gaming Committee. Private citizens and law enforcement officials spoke up about expanding gaming to include resort-style casinos. The Legislature is expected to take up comprehensive gambling legislation during the 2014 session.
Most of the approximately 40 people who publicly commented were opposed to casinos (although some, including a few local residents, spoke in favor of allowing slot machines at Ebro Greyhound Park). For example, one person said gambling “is a de facto tax disproportionately leveled on the poor.” A retired Presbyterian minister said gambling negatively affects local businesses and generates revenue by exploiting society’s most vulnerable.
“I find it troubling that the state would consider aligning itself with an industry that does that,” he said.
The state already does. For years it has allowed betting on horse and dog racing, jai alai, bingo, poker rooms at pari-mutuels and, of course, it heavily promotes its own Florida Lottery. It also has an exclusive contract with the Seminole Tribe to operate seven casinos.
Indeed, the contract’s scheduled expiration in 2015 is why lawmakers are addressing the issue of gaming next year. They will consider whether to renew the Seminole deal or scrap it or renegotiate it to allow other casinos to operate. If the latter, then the state will have to overhaul its gambling laws to account for casino licensing and regulation, and where the resorts will be located.
Regardless of which path the Legislature chooses, none lead to a significant reduction or elimination of gambling. Those who are “vulnerable” to the demon of wagering still will have plenty of temptation and multiple avenues to place their bets. That includes driving a short distance to casinos in Alabama and Mississippi. One Pensacola attorney who spoke in favor of expanded gambling at Thursday’s hearing said that “32 percent of the gamers in Biloxi come from the Pensacola area.”
The Tampa Tribune — Obamacare: a state of chaos
President Barack Obama’s temporary fix to his health care law doesn’t really fix much at all. In fact, it will certainly lead to more chaos and may very well result in higher premiums for all consumers.
Obama declared Thursday that millions of Americans who received cancellation notices because of provisions in his health care law will now be allowed to renew those policies, provided their insurance companies and state insurance regulators agree.
Insurers and some regulators, who according to The New York Times were not consulted in advance of Obama’s announcement, immediately reacted with dire warnings.
“This decision continues different rules for different policies and threatens to undermine the new market and may lead to higher premiums and market disruption in 2014 and beyond,” said Jim Donelon, Louisiana’s insurance regulator.
His frustration is understandable. The industry has been preparing for the law for years and has been implementing new plans that comply with its provisions.
But this is what happens when a president with an exclusionary management style boxes himself into a corner with flawed legislation and empty promises.
Obama was right to honor his promise to let all Americans keep their existing policies. In fact, he had no choice politically as insurgents within his own party were threatening to support Republican legislation that undermines the entire health care law.
However tempting the law’s collapse may sound, that’s not what is needed now, as indicated by the insurance industry’s reaction to this temporary fix. The law’s implementation is too far down the road to pull the plug entirely, as Republicans are so eager to do.
Instead, the industry, the administration and the country are left to hope that enough people who are young and healthy, and who were either uninsured or satisfied with cheaper policies that offered substandard coverage, will participate in the new insurance marketplace and provide insurers with the premiums needed to cover the more robust policies Obamacare dictates.
After all, the problem isn’t that some people lost their policies. Discarding substandard policies that don’t provide adequate coverage is not necessarily a bad thing, considering many of the millions getting cancellations can find better coverage at better prices on the exchanges.
No, the problem was that Obama sold his plan on a false promise that they would not lose their policies.
This fix may restore some of those policies, but it won’t restore the country’s confidence in the law. And if it leads to higher premiums, that will be yet another argument for its demise, along with the adverse effect on employers and part-time workers and the woeful website.
Obamacare has at its core a noble premise: affordable and good health care for all Americans. Its requirements that pre-existing conditions be covered, and its provision that parents be allowed to keep their children on their plans until their mid-20s, are proving beneficial and popular. The subsidized policies it offers can help the poor and keep them from seeking more costly emergency room treatment.
Once the full rollout has occurred next year, and the full consequences are known, the public will have a better sense of where fixes are needed, or whether the entire law needs to be jettisoned. After that, Congress can act accordingly.