A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:
Tampa Bay Times — EMS agreement better than nothing, but more work needed
The proposed three-year agreement between St. Petersburg and Pinellas County to temporarily resolve years of discord over emergency medical services is a step in the right direction, but it does not solve the ultimate problem: Pinellas’ EMS system is too expensive and will not be sustainable long-term. Even if the county can ink similar deals with the other 17 fire departments that provide EMS, officials still must work toward an effective, permanent solution that rewards, rather than discourages, efficiencies.
Leadership changes in St. Petersburg and the county opened the door to this week’s agreement, but so did a change in county commissioners’ attitudes and the economy. For several years the commission had watched EMS costs grow faster than the receipts from a countywide EMS property tax that reimburses fire departments. Part of the reason? Under the system, the county’s 18 fire departments shipped individual bills to the county for reimbursement with few checks and balances on whether operations were run efficiently.
But the commission’s hard-line approach mellowed as the economy improved and after it fired County Administrator Bob LaSala in April and replaced him with Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard. At the same time, Rick Kriseman, who succeeded Bill Foster as St. Petersburg mayor in January, was researching the EMS dispute.
Kriseman and Woodard met for negotiations on a recent Sunday to see how much of each other’s top priorities they could satisfy. The resulting three-year agreement would start in October, with the option of two one-year extensions. The agreement merely caps compensation for the next three years.
The Bradenton Herald — It takes an entire community to fight crime
A long-suffering East Bradenton neighborhood must still be rejoicing over the arrests of six suspects connected to a brutal crime ring blamed for nine murders, drug trafficking, kidnapping and robberies in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Those arrests by local and federal law enforcement agencies, announced with fanfare on June 5, should help ease the fear pervading the community surrounding the 13th AV Dream Center.
Those fears reached a flash point after the August 2013 shooting death of Brenton Coleman Jr. in front of several hundred children and adults gathered at the center for a Pee-Wee team football practice.
That horrific crime galvanized the community and prompted the Dream Center to launch a neighborhood unity program, called the Manatee Metro Action Plan.
One of the essential ingredients to successful crime fighting is information from witnesses and others who have details about law-breakers.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Better ways to deal with sex offenders
In olden days, criminal offenders could be banished beyond the city walls, protecting the residents inside from further harm while subjecting the guilty to the unforgivingly harsh world outside.
Today, communities use laws to create similar barriers between convicted sex offenders and their potential victims by creating zones around schools, parks and other areas where children gather. Although well-meaning and politically popular, these statutes have proven to be most effective at instilling a false sense of security among the public — while at the same time potentially undermining the safeguards they purport to provide.
Florida cities have gone even further than state law, which prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of designated areas. Deltona in 2006 was among the first to ban certain sex offenders and predators from living within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, day care centers and other places where children congregate. Other local governments in Volusia County and around the state followed suit.
However, as recently reported by The News-Journal’s Lacey McLaughlin, there are loopholes in those state and local laws that make them difficult to enforce. For example, Florida law exempts sex offenders convicted prior to 2003 in Florida and those convicted out of state before 2010.
A bigger problem with such restrictions, though, is that they make it more difficult for sex offenders who have served their time behind bars to reintegrate into society. Drawing expansive forbidden zones around ubiquitous sites creates a paucity of places to live, and makes it hard to find work.
The Florida Times-Union — VA problems cry out for major changes
This is more than fraudulent wait lists. Is the culture of this agency too warped to repair?
Should its health care services be moved to the private sector?
All those involved in oversight — Congress, auditors and the news media — should have done more.
As an interim report from the VA’s inspector general noted on the Phoenix office, a total of 18 previous reports dating back to 2005 have been issued. In fact, the 2008 report described the problems with wait lists as “systemic.”
The VA had trouble meeting 30-day wait times, which then led to the impossible goal of 14-day wait times. In reaction, staff created elaborate schemes to make it appear the goals were being met.
New reports describe sustained problems with a group of seven VA hospitals that have high rates of death and infection.
FUNDING OR MANAGEMENT?
Since 2000, annual spending for the VA has tripled, reported The Wall Street Journal. Since 2005, enrollment in VA services increased by 18 percent while spending increased by 76 percent.
Congress is all too willing to support more spending for the VA without providing sufficient oversight of management problems.
Only one of 435 VA executives in 2012 received a less-than-satisfactory review. In fact, the head of the Phoenix office received a bonus.
Bonuses even went to physicians who had been disciplined.
The Gainesville Sun – Tall tuition tales
Gov. Rick Scott has stretched the truth to the breaking point in campaigning on the issue of tuition.
“Gov. Scott Signs Legislation that Lowers Tuition for All Florida Students,” read the headline of a news release issued Monday by the governor’s office. Too bad it isn’t true.
Scott signed legislation that lowers tuition for one group of Florida students: unauthorized immigrants who now qualify for in-state tuition if they meet certain criteria.
Scott initially opposed the idea and didn’t hold a public signing ceremony. Instead, he hit the campaign trail this week with a focus on other parts of the legislation.
The measure also requires legislative approval for tuition hikes at most state universities, other than the University of Florida and Florida State University. UF and FSU can still seek 6 percent increases outside of that process, down from a previous 15 percent.
The Lakeland Ledger — Florida Polytechnic University: Respect Campus Design
On many university campuses, buildings spring up as needed to house classes for students. The approach is pragmatic — and often looks to be nothing more.
At Florida Polytechnic University, alongside Interstate 4 in northeast Lakeland, the campus is springing up around a showcase building. The aluminum-ringed, solar-winged Innovation, Science and Technology Building turns the heads of I-4 drivers-by all day long.
The stunning structure “is our signature building, and its innovative design has helped to inspire students, faculty and supporters of the university,” Florida Polytechnic Chief Operating Officer Ava L. Parker told The Ledger’s Mary Toothman for an article Thursday.
The subject of the building — designed by world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava of Spain, as was the campus — came up in an April letter from the architect’s office to the board of trustees.
Calatrava associate Frank Lorino criticized the boxy design, height and location of a residential hall that has been raced into place by Vestor Communities Inc. of Jacksonville. The company is paying for construction of the five-story hall. It plans to earn back the cost and make a profit over the years through housing fees paid by students.
The Miami Herald —The smallest migrants
Faced with a dramatic increase in unaccompanied children from Central America swarming across the U.S. border, the federal government must offer a swift and compassionate response. The minors are the most vulnerable and helpless migrants, here through no fault of their own. They are innocent pawns of forces they cannot begin to comprehend.
Their treatment, however, must stop short of inciting even larger waves of illegal immigration. This will be no easy trick. International treaties and moral obligation require the government to protect the young migrants and treat them as humanely as possible. But it would be cruel and unfair to send a signal that, once here, unaccompanied minors gain a legal toehold on U.S. soil.
There is no such entitlement, nor is any contemplated. The record of immigration processing in recent years suggests that only a tiny fraction of unaccompanied minors manages to make a case for asylum or resident status.
The numbers in this sudden exodus are striking. Some 47,000 children have been apprehended this fiscal year, more than double the total for all of 2013. The final tally could exceed 90,000.
Because they’re children, they cannot be quickly repatriated. They have to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of arrival. If they have family here, they might be reunited, but most will face deportation hearings.
The Orlando Sentinel — Stop gouging counties on juvenile-justice bills
It sounds like a dispute that would only interest bureaucrats: Florida’s juvenile-justice agency and the group that represents county governments are at odds over how to divvy up detention costs for youthful offenders.
In fact, there’s a good reason for taxpayers to be interested, too: It’s their money. The more of that money that goes to Tallahassee, the less that’s available for county leaders to direct to local priorities, like social services, public safety and parks.
The Florida Association of Counties maintains its members together are owed some $200 million for years of overpayments to the Department of Juvenile Justice, and would be overcharged millions more under a proposed change in the cost-sharing formula from the agency.
State lawmakers squandered a chance this year to enforce a court decision in favor of the counties. Now it’s up to Gov. Rick Scott to come to their rescue.
A year ago, a state appeals court agreed with the counties that they were paying more than their share for juvenile-detention costs under state law. In the legislative session that concluded last month, a bill that would have evenly split the costs between the state and the counties, and paid back the counties and their taxpayers $140 million over the next 23 years, easily passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
It’s hard to excuse the failure, because the counties had the court ruling on their side, and lawmakers had a $1.2 billion budget surplus to work with.
After the session, the DJJ proposed a new formula that would charge the counties more than the appeals court prescribed — $24 million more next year, according to the association. Orange County alone would pay almost $2 million more under the proposed formula. Lake and Osceola also would get hit with higher bills — each paying about $200,000 more.
A 2004 state law made counties responsible for the bill for detaining juveniles before their cases are resolved in court — pre-disposition costs — and the state responsible for post-disposition costs. Yet in 2009, DJJ began sticking the counties with some post-disposition costs, including the tab for detaining youth who violate probation.
The Ocala StarBanner — VA accountability
A lack of accountability has been a problem in the Veterans Affairs system for a long time it now appears, but a new audit shows that the overburdened system has problems that just firing senior officials won’t solve.
More than 57,000 veterans have been waiting for medical appointments 90 days or more after requesting them, according to an internal VA audit released this week. Another 64,000 who enrolled for VA medical care never received appointments.
At the Gainesville VA medical center, about 4,000 new patients have waited at least 90 days for appointments and more than 3,000 never received them. The center’s average wait time for an appointment is about 50 days, among the worst times in the nation.
The scandal surrounding the VA started over a secret waiting list at the VA center in Phoenix and allegations that veterans died while waiting for appointments there. A handwritten waiting list was later uncovered at the Gainesville VA center.
A VA official has said that list was used only because of a computer system unable to schedule follow-up visits more than 120 days in advance. The new audit flagged the Gainesville VA as being one of 112 facilities requiring further review.
The Pensacola News-Journal — What our country needs from the press
These days, the scandal involving long wait times at VA hospitals can feel like some made-in-Washington spectacle generated by politicians looking for headlines. But it isn’t. It had its genesis in a late-April report on CNN that as many as 40 veterans may have died waiting for appointments at VA hospitals in Phoenix.
This investigative piece was notable for two reasons. It’s been a while since a news story so quickly provoked such a storm of public indignation that a Cabinet secretary – deservedly or not – had no choice but to resign. And it’s a reminder of just how important old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting remains to our system of government, especially when it uncovers official misdoing.
One of the basic truths about our representative democracy is that it does not work without solid information. Public officials, both elected and appointed, need to know what’s happening in the communities they serve, and the people who live in those communities need to know what the government they elect and fund is doing in their name. This is why the press – and by this I mean print, broadcast and online journalists – is so crucial to our country’s health. It is, or ought to be, a steady, dispassionate, truth-seeking, skeptical and tough-minded force for public understanding.
These are not easy times for journalists, however. As a result, I worry that if the line between news and entertainment gets blurred, if loud opinion replaces accurate reporting, and if journalists take the easy road of covering politics and the horse race rather than the core of policy-making – substance, consensus-building, and the painstaking search for remedy – then representative democracy is in trouble.
The Palm Beach Post — No express trains, but good progress for new rail service
Amid all of the rancor over plans for a long-distance passenger train service along the South Florida coast, a different and even more important story is being largely overlooked, one that will have far more impact on the region’s railways and the development of its mass transit system. That’s the future of a local, Tri-Rail-operated commuter train service on tracks running through the heart of the region’s downtown centers, connecting cities from Jupiter to Miami.
It will be more than five years before this local train service, Tri-Rail Coastal Link, is up and running. But plans for what it would look like are starting to take shape, with an important agreement finalized in late April. Because the service would run on the private Florida East Coast Railway tracks, public transit officials have had to negotiate with the company, and coming to terms is hardly a given. Indeed, the most tenuous talks, regarding costs, are still ongoing.
The Panama City News-Herald — An old and tragic story about red tape
Despite what you may have heard the term ‘red tape’ did not originate with Civil War veterans.
Historians point out that red tape was used to bind official documents in England and other parts of Europe for centuries. However, the story of veterans who fought to preserve the union being unable to access their war records and finding them bound in red tape still resonates for veterans and their families who are, to this country’s great shame, mistreated after their service has ended.
In the wake of the latest Veteran’s Affairs scandal CNN put together a timeline of all the scandals that have rocked the agency and presidents on both sides of the aisle since the federal government created the Veterans Bureau in 1921. It lists about 30, surely just the highlights, and includes World War 1 veterans who never received their war bonuses, the shoddy care veterans received at VA hospitals in 1945, the VA’s failure to appropriately deal with the sicknesses caused by the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam and the backlog of vets waiting for care in 1991, 2003 and this year.
This year’s scandal erupted when it was reported that 19 veterans died in 2010 and 2011 because of delays in treatment and that officials were falsifying records to make it seem like VA clinics had shorter wait times.
The Tallahassee Democrat – Gerald Ensley: FAMU sports tries to play the money game
You could argue this is how Florida State University sports success started.
Forty years ago, in 1974, the FSU athletics program was $300,000 in debt. FSU President Stanley Marshall told the few hundred Seminole Boosters they needed to start raising money or there might be severe changes to the FSU sports program.
FSU boosters took that threat to heart. In a year, they had 1,500 members and raised $400,000 to erase the debt. In four years, they had 3,000 members and were raising more than $1 million a year. Today, there are 18,000 Seminole Boosters, the organization raises $43 million a year — and FSU has won three national football championships.
Which is the direction Florida A&M boosters are now trying to head. Two weeks ago, an advisory committee announced FAMU’s first serious sports fundraising campaign. The committee chair, Gregory Clark, set a goal of raising $3.2 million in the near future.
Clark said boosters want to use that money to upgrade FAMU’s football facilities. Then, they want to raise money to whittle down FAMU’s $7 million athletics deficit — which is probably equivalent to what $300,000 was 40 years ago.
Kudos to FAMU boosters. It’s about time.
The Tampa Tribune — Anchoring the north end of Tampa’s waterfront
Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s eyes lit up like a little kid’s the other day when he gave us a tour of Water Works Park, which is under construction along the Hillsborough River just north of downtown.
We imagine residents will have a similar reaction when they see how this long-neglected stretch of the riverfront is being transformed into a fun gathering spot for people of all ages.
Indeed, the projects on the bend in the river are further illustration of Tampa’s maturation into a dynamic municipality that should further spur investment, development and jobs downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods.
“This is going to anchor the north end of the waterfront,” Buckhorn says of the park and the adjacent Ulele Restaurant. “I think you are going to see this become a destination and lead to more development.”
Renovations already are underway at the nearby Tampa Armature Building as part of the Heights Project. Developers envision commercial, retail and residential complexes on the surrounding 37 acres. That will take some time.