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Florida editorial roundup

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Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

Daytona Beach News-Journal on funding for state’s park system:

Florida’s parks have been recognized three times — in 1999, 2005 and 2013 — as the nation’s best park system. No other state has earned that many honors. Last year they attracted more than 27 million visitors.

But that’s not good enough for Florida officials, who are concerned that too many parks generate insufficient revenues for management. Jon Steverson, the recently confirmed head of the Department of Environmental Protection, has listed making parks more self-sustaining and less reliant on funding from the Legislature as one of his top goals. Among the potential money-making measures: allowing hunting and additional cattle grazing, as well as timber harvesting, in the parks.

That set off warning bells for environmentalists and other park supporters, who feared a move afoot by Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration to commercialize and privatize parks.

At his confirmation hearing before the Cabinet earlier this month, Steverson assured members that was not the case. Nevertheless, critics suspect a wolf in Smokey Bear’s clothing — and with good reason.

The Scott administration has been at odds with much of the environmental agenda since day one, from abolishing the Department of Community Affairs to cutting funding to water management districts (and purging them of senior staff members) to joining with legislators in monkeying with Amendment 1 funding. Much of the change has occurred without advance warning, detailed explanations or input from stakeholders — which has been par for the course for many executive actions during the Scott years.

So when the DEP tried to dismiss concerns about evolving park policy, treating them as an overreaction to what it characterizes as in-house draft documents intended merely for discussion among staff, let’s just say it hasn’t exactly earned that level of trust.

The DEP’s focus on self-sustainability is a bit perplexing. First, parks, like public transportation, usually are among the “loss-leaders” of government — valued services that require subsidies because operating costs, no matter how efficient they’re made, exceed maximum revenues from users. The goal is to keep those subsidies as low as possible.

Florida parks do quite well in that area: They were 71.3 percent self-sustaining in 2013-2014, whereas the national average is 43 percent. About 20 percent of Florida’s parks made more than they spent, including Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, whose revenues were nearly twice that of its expenses.

Surely, though, some parks could — and should — do better, if only to protect them from the capriciousness of yearly budget writers in Tallahassee. The key is to increase revenues without changing the character of the parks. Turning DeLeon Springs into another Wet ‘n Wild might lead to profit, but at the cost of the natural beauty that draws people there in the first place. Why bother having state parks if they cease being what they are

There are less-intrusive ways of improving self-sustainability, such as selling naming rights or advertising, or expanding contracts with private businesses to operate parks or provide certain services. That might be a bit gauche for some purists, but it would leave the flora and fauna undisturbed, as opposed to what increased hunting and grazing might do.

Any DEP proposal, though, must go through a deliberative process in which the public is kept well-informed throughout and invited to participate. Change can be easier to accept if it’s not a sucker punch.


The Tampa Tribune on red-light camera programs in the state:

It’s not surprising that the recent court rulings against municipal red-light camera programs in Florida have more than a few law firms seeing green.

That pursuit of the big payday arrived in Tampa last week when a group of law firms sued Tampa over its red-light program, which has committed the sin of reducing serious and sometimes fatal car crashes at some of the city’s most dangerous intersections.

The lawsuit names a woman ticketed in 2014 as a single plaintiff, but the attorneys are asking a judge to grant the suit class-action status, opening the door to potentially thousands of clients. The pot of gold at the end of this legal rainbow is the $11 million in fines collected to date in Tampa.

Getting a judge to force the city and the private company that operates the cameras to refund the money would certainly result in a sizable portion going to the law firms.

It also might derail a program that has tempered a reckless behavior that puts innocent motorists at risk. Red-light runners cause dangerous T-bone accidents that result in serious injury or death.

Tampa, which began its program in 2011, has issued about 190,000 tickets, ample evidence that a problem exists. The images are reviewed by the private camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions, before being sent to Tampa police officers for a review and a determination as to whether a violation has been committed.

It’s the review by the vendor that might prove golden for the law firms. The lawsuit claims the vendor’s role in reviewing the data isn’t allowed under Florida law, invalidating the citations.

As the Tribune’s Christopher O’Donnell reports, the same law firms are suing 70 Florida cities and counties, along with several camera vendors, in federal court over infractions dating to 2010. St. Petersburg, Temple Terrace, New Port Richey and unincorporated Hillsborough County are among the jurisdictions in their sights.

One of the attorneys representing the woman suing Tampa has already won a case in circuit court in Hollywood, Florida. The judge in that case ruled the city improperly delegated police authority to the vendor, a decision upheld on appeal. That ultimately led to Palm Beach and Broward counties suspending their red-light programs.

We hope that doesn’t happen here. Tampa’s attorney says they have reviewed the decisions and believe they are operating within the law.

Critics of red-light cameras have found plenty to criticize since the state authorized them five years ago. The length of the yellow lights before the red-light cameras are triggered was not uniform and considered too short. Rolling right-hand turns on red were triggering too many tickets. The appeals process was flawed. And statistics in some cities show that while the number of fatal crashes was nearly cut in half at the intersections with cameras — the statistic that should matter most, by the way — the number of rear-end crashes caused by people jamming on the brakes has increased in some jurisdictions.

But those flaws in the process are being addressed for the most part.

In Tampa, the lawsuit is targeting a program that has resulted in a drop in even rear-end crashes, according to a report by a state accountability office. As further proof that the program is working, consider that the number of citations has decreased as motorists learn they better slow on yellow rather than press the accelerator. St. Petersburg dropped its program because the number of citations dipped and it was no longer cost-effective to operate.

The cameras have shown they are an economical way to enforce the law and protect the public. Being ordered to give refunds to people who endangered the lives of others would be adding insult to the threat of injury that red-light runners pose to us all.


Florida Times-Union, on lessons state can learn from Hurricane Katrina:

Never again. That was the mantra immediately after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.

Never again would a disaster take this country by surprise.

Never again would officials lack the foresight to deal with potential disasters.

Never again would it take so long to deliver citizens from crisis.

But the urgency has faded with each passing year.

And too many have forgotten about the trauma caused by one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history.

Today, 10 years later, we have not followed through on many of the agonized promises we made to prevent a repeat of our inadequate response to Katrina.

On the heels of the hurricane and resultant flood, a bipartisan panel appointed by then-President George W. Bush and Congress arrived at 81 recommendations necessary to protect this country’s most vulnerable citizens — children — from such disasters.

Never again, the National Commission on Children and Disasters said, would a crisis such as Katrina have such devastating effects on children.

The commission’s 2010 report covered 11 aspects of disaster planning from mental health to education.

But, five years later, we clearly haven’t lived up to our vow to safeguard the children.

A new Save the Children report shows that only 20 percent of the recommendations made by the panel in 2010 have been fully met.

An additional 55 percent are still in the works.

It seems Katrina has spawned a second disaster.

Unfortunately, we can blame this on some of the same problems that dulled our response 10 years ago:

  • A lack of leadership from federal agencies.
  • Insufficient and inconsistent coordination between all levels of government.
  • Inadequate funding …

Save the Children counts 20 recommendations that have yet to be even addressed.

Among the most urgently needed actions are:

  • A cohesive plan to deal with emergency transport and health care of children following a disaster. The report stated that less than half of hospitals address the needs of children in their emergency planning.
  • The restoration of money — cut by Congress — to strengthen children’s mental health programs in communities and schools. Following disasters, children often need immediate care to deal with trauma.
  • Including children’s needs in state emergency planning. Currently, just one penny of every $10 in federal funding for disaster preparedness is assigned to children. After Katrina, it took seven months to reunite all families.
  • The appointment of a children’s disaster coordinator.

But the federal government isn’t alone in failing to do enough …

Florida is Ground Zero in terms of Katrina-like disasters. The state had 35 direct hits from major hurricanes between 1851 and 2004 (more than any other state).

Yet Florida is not at the forefront of preparing to protect its youngest residents from disasters.

Since 2008, Save the Children has also been tracking how well the states stack up in disaster preparedness planning for schools and childcare providers.

To date, 32 states have met all four minimum planning standards set up by the organization.

These standards involve setting up plans to evacuate children in child care, reunite families and assist children with disabilities and special needs — as well as creating a multi-disaster plan for all schools.

Florida has met only 50 percent of these standards.

It has yet to create a comprehensive road map for evacuating children in childcare facilities should an emergency occur.

And it has ignored children with disabilities and other needs by failing to create a specific plan to accommodate their challenges.

Such lapses are simply unacceptable.

Legislators must be reminded of their responsibility to protect children should another disaster strike.

And all of us must be reminded that it’s unwise to become complacent about the prospect of another disaster.

Remember the mantra.

Never again.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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