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The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

Nursing homes say adding generators a ‘huge challenge’

Florida nursing-home officials made clear Friday they think it is unrealistic — if not impossible — to carry out a demand by Gov. Rick Scott that facilities quickly install generators that can power air-conditioning systems.

Two major nursing-home groups held a “summit” in a conference center at Florida State University to address new emergency rules that call for nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to have generators within 60 days. Scott last weekend ordered the emergency rules after the high-profile deaths of residents of a Broward County nursing home where air conditioning was knocked out by Hurricane Irma.

Industry officials were careful Friday to say they share the governor’s goal. But during panel discussions that touched on issues such as the need to design and upgrade the electrical systems of older buildings, gain permits and order generators, speakers repeatedly contended the 60-day timeframe is unworkable.

Speakers indicated that it typically would take six months or longer to go through the process of adding a generator to a nursing home.

“Up until this point, we’ve only heard anecdotally how cumbersome this is,” said Emmett Reed, executive director of the Florida Health Care Association, one of the groups that hosted the summit. “This is alarming to hear the timeframes. There’s a huge challenge.”

Steve Bahmer, president and CEO of the other group, LeadingAge Florida, described the 60-day timeframe as “impractical, if not impossible,” though he added that carrying out the directive “isn’t for a lack of willingness.”

But while industry officials raised concerns about quickly installing generators, state Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Justin Senior addressed the summit and said the Scott administration plans to move forward with the emergency rules. He said the state will publish a list of facilities that comply.

“We do think that this is going to be a significant step forward in the safety that our elders experience during a crisis like Hurricane Irma,” Senior said. “We’re going to be working aggressively across the state in the coming couple months to ensure that every facility is fully prepared to comply with these new requirements.”

Under the rules, Senior said nursing homes and assisted-living facilities would not have to install generators that could cool entire buildings. He said they could comply by being able to cool portions of the buildings where residents could congregate for 96 hours.

But Senior, speaking with reporters after addressing the summit, indicated the Scott administration is not swayed by the logistical concerns raised by the nursing-home industry.

“We think very strongly that the cost of not complying with this rule is greater than the cost of compliance,” he said.

Scott last weekend directed the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Elder Affairs to issue the emergency rules in the aftermath of the deaths Sept. 13 of eight residents of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Broward County. Three more seniors who had been residents of the facility died this week, including 94-year-old Alice Thomas, who died Thursday, the Hollywood Police Department said Friday.

The nursing home lost its air conditioning system Sept. 10 when Hurricane Irma knocked out a transformer. The air conditioning had not been restored three days laterwhen the deaths occurred and the rest of the facility’s residents were evacuated.

Under the emergency rules ordered by Scott, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have 45 days to submit plans that would include acquiring generators to ensure temperatures could be maintained at 80 degrees or cooler for 96 hours after losing electricity. Nursing homes and assisted-living facilities would have to carry out the plans within 60 days.

It was not clear Friday whether nursing homes might challenge the rules.

“We’re exploring all options,” said Kristen Knapp, a spokeswoman for the Florida Health Care Association. “But we want to work with the governor. We know he has good intentions.”

Under state law, emergency rules are designed to be in effect for only 90 days. But lawmakers are already preparing to consider the generator issue during the 2018 legislative session, which starts in January.

House Health Care Appropriations Chairman Jason Brodeur, Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Chairman Rene Garcia and Rep. Cyndi Stevenson appeared on one of the panels Friday.

“The reality is we had one bad actor, and we just can’t allow that to happen again,” Garcia said. “Whatever the facts will come out … we just can’t wait for this investigation to go forward and do nothing. It’s going to happen. We’re going to move forward with some legislation in the state of Florida having to do with generators and alternative power. It just needs to happen.”

One issue likely to confront the Legislature is the cost of adding generators, as many nursing homes rely on the Medicaid program for large chunks of their funding. Lorne Simmons, who served on one of the panels Friday and is with the accounting and consulting firm Moore Stephens Lovelace PA, estimated that it would cost an average of $350,000 for a 120-bed nursing home to add a generator.

Kip Corriveau, direct of mission at the Bon Secours St. Petersburg Health System, which includes a nursing home and an assisted-living facility, said the organization installed a generator in 2011 at a cost of $500,000.

During Hurricane Irma, Bon Secours had to use school buses to evacuate about 310 nursing-home and assisted-living residents because it was in a mandatory evacuation zone. The facility never lost power.

As an indication of the complexity of handling emergencies at nursing homes, Corriveau said evacuations can be difficult for many residents. He said planning for storms is critical.

“It is a huge trauma to move people like that in a hurry,” Corriveau said. “Even in a blue-sky kind of day before the storm hits.”

Marijuana law challenged over black farmer license

A lawsuit filed Friday challenges the constitutionality of part of a new state law that requires a coveted medical-marijuana license to go to a black farmer.

Columbus Smith, a black farmer from Panama City, filed the lawsuit, alleging that the law is so narrowly drawn that only a handful of black farmers could qualify for the license. The lawsuit contends that the measure is what is known as an unconstitutional “special law.”

The law, passed during a June special session, was designed to carry out a November constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana in Florida. A key part of the law was expanding the number of licenses that would be awarded to operators in what could turn into a highly lucrative industry.

While the law called for an overall increase of 10 licenses by Oct. 3, it also specified that one license go to a black farmer who had been part of settled lawsuits about discrimination by the federal government against black farmers. The law also said that the black farmer who receives a license would have to be a member of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association-Florida Chapter.

The lawsuit said Smith meets the qualification of being part of the litigation about discrimination against black farmers. But it said he has not been allowed to join the black farmers association, effectively preventing him from receiving a license.

“There is no rational basis for limiting the opportunity of black farmers to obtain a medical marijuana license to only the few members of that class of black farmers who are also member of a specific private association,” said the lawsuit, filed in Leon County circuit court.

The Florida Constitution bars “special” laws, in part, that relate to “grant of privilege to a private corporation.” The lawsuit alleges that the medical-marijuana law violates that part of the Constitution.

The lawsuit names the Florida Department of Health, which is responsible for awarding licenses, as the defendant. It seeks an injunction against issuing a license under the part of the law related to black farmers.

Licenses to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana have been one of the most-controversial issues in the rapidly developing industry.

Representatives of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association-Florida Chapter said Friday they could not comment on the lawsuit until their attorneys had time to review it.

Health officials granted the first medical marijuana licenses in 2015, after the Legislature authorized non-euphoric medical marijuana for patients with severe epilepsy, muscle spasms or cancer. Nurseries that had been in business for 30 years or longer in Florida and grew at least 400,000 plants were eligible to apply.

In expanding the number of licenses this year, the Legislature carved out a license for black farmers who complained that they were shut out from applying for the original licenses because none of the black farmers met the eligibility criteria.

Part of the reason that the black farmers don’t have operations as expansive as their white and Hispanic counterparts may be blamed on discriminatory lending practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that led to a class-action lawsuit, known as “Pigford I,” filed in 1981. A second lawsuit, called “Pigford II,” was finally settled by a federal judge in 2011. Many of the claimants have yet to receive their portions of the $1.3 billion settlement, and others have died waiting for the cases to be resolved.

“They have carved out most of the small farmers, not only the black farmers, but the small farmers. We can’t compete with those companies. It’s just a shame. It’s a travesty. Again, going back 30 years ago with the USDA, the same thing you saw in Pigford I and Pigford II. It’s the same thing again, right here in the state of Florida. It’s not right,” Howard Gunn, an Ocala farmer who is the president of the black farmers’ association, said in 2015.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Toll suspension cost $3 million a day

More than $45 million in revenue is believed to have been lost when the state suspended highway toll collections to help speed evacuations and relief efforts for Hurricane Irma, Florida’s Turnpike system estimates.

However, the estimated $3 million-a-day impact is not expected to hinder operations of the system or ongoing work programs, “as impacts such as toll suspensions due to a hurricane are taken into consideration during the annual budgeting process,” turnpike spokesman Chad Huff said in an email Friday.

Funding 404 full-time positions, the turnpike system is budgeted at $1.57 billion for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

Tolls were lifted by Gov. Rick Scott on Sept. 5 in advance of Hurricane Irma’s trek across Florida. Toll collections resumed at 12:01 a.m. Thursday across the state, though they remained suspended on the Homestead Extension of Florida’s Turnpike south of State Road 874 in southern Miami-Dade County, as Monroe County recovery efforts continue.

Irma made initial landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe County and a second landfall in Collier County before traveling north and exiting the state Sept. 11.

As Irma approached Florida, an estimated 6.3 million people were directed through mandatory or voluntary evacuations to find shelter inland or further away.

The state has not estimated how many people took to the road in advance of the storm.

The Florida Department of Transportation also suspended construction, clearing work zones to reduce traffic impacts for evacuees.

The turnpike system backed the governor’s toll suspension.

“Governor Scott’s top priority was to keep people safe as our state faced the threat of Hurricane Irma and to ensure Floridians had no reason to not evacuate if they were in evacuation zones,” Huff wrote. “Suspending tolls was critical to helping Floridians travel safely and quickly during the largest ever evacuation in U.S. history.”

Also Friday:

– Scott continued to focus on debris removal, which he earlier blamed for slowing efforts to restore power lost from storm and causing public health issues.

Scott on Thursday invited debris removal companies to contact the Florida Department of Transportation – if willing to work “at a fair price” – as he’s received complaints from local governments about debris-removal contractors not abiding by pre-storm contracts.

– Scott expanded license-free freshwater and saltwater fishing through June 30, 2018, for utility workers. The same offer was provided for Florida law-enforcement officers and first responders on Thursday. The offer includes free day passes to Florida state parks through October 2018.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Floridians line up for FEMA assistance

More than 1 million Floridians homeowners and renters have registered for federal individual assistance following Hurricane Irma.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management reported that the daily number of applicants since Hurricane Irma exited the state Sept. 11 “is steadily increasing.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency program, available to residents in 48 counties, includes a wide range of assistance.

As of Thursday, nine counties each had more than 50,000 people register for individual assistance: Miami-Dade, 203,832; Broward, 113,890; Orange, 65,694; Lee, 65,662; Pinellas, 60,132; Palm Beach, 55,248; Hillsborough, 52,630; Polk, 52,285; and Duval, 50,932.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Restoration of electricity almost complete

Power was back as of midday Friday for all but 13,735 homes and businesses in Florida, primarily in four counties that were hit hardest by Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10 and Sept. 11, according to the state Division of Emergency Management.

At the peak, Irma knocked out electricity to 6.7 million homes and businesses.

In Monroe County 3,986 homes and businesses were still offline, 6 percent of the customers.

Hardee County had 1,019 of homes and businesses without power, or about 5 percent.

Collier County was down to 2 percent without power, or 5,109 customers.

Lee County was at 1 percent, or 3,452 homes and businesses.

Smaller numbers – 25 to 54 – of outages remained in Broward, Charlotte, Glades and Polk counties.

A state update indicated 1,530 of those without power were customers of Florida Power & Light in Collier and Lee counties. The rest of the power outages are customers of municipal utilities or electric cooperatives.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Tourism recovery could take time in Keys

Gov. Rick Scott would like to see storm-battered Key West “open for business” within two weeks, but tourism officials marketing the southern end of U.S. 1 indicate it could take longer.

Some tourism hot spots have started to reopen in the Lower Keys, as electricity is back for more than 90 percent of Monroe County. However, the Keys’ tourism website at midday Thursday continued to advise travelers with “near-term” reservations to contact airlines and hotels to change plans.

“Some areas of the Keys are likely to be ready to accommodate visitors before others,” the website said. “An exact reopening date for all regions is not yet known, but Key West city officials expect their island could open by Fantasy Fest, the annual costume and masking festival that is set to start Friday, Oct. 20.”

Residents and business owners have been allowed back in, but the tourism website noted “some regions of the Keys were impacted more than others and damage at Keys accommodations’ facilities varies from no impacts, except for landscaping, to severe damage because of storm surge.”

Meanwhile, state restoration efforts continued in Monroe County and other areas hard hit by Hurricane Irma, which made initial landfall Sept. 10 in the Keys.

Transportation officials reinstated toll collections statewide on Thursday after suspending tolls Sept. 5 to help speed traffic during evacuations. But the suspension of tolls has remained in place from the Homestead extension of Florida’s Turnpike south to assist Monroe County residents.

Department of Transportation crews also continued to clear debris from arterial roads in Monroe County.

A boil-water notice remained in place for the lower Keys.

On Monday, Scott discussed a desire for a quick turnaround in the effort to restore one of Florida’s major tourism draws.

“So many people make money off of tips and things like that, so we’ve got to figure out how we get our tourists back as quickly as we can,” Scott said Monday during an interview on U.S. 1 Radio 104.1 FM, a station based in the Lower Keys. “My goal is that by the first of October, we’re open for business. And we’re going to do everything we can to help the locals to do that.”

The state’s tourism-marketing agency, Visit Florida, reaffirmed an Oct. 1 goal on Thursday. This week, Visit Florida rolled out a $4 million to $5 million post-hurricane marketing plan that will include a component focused on the Keys “once our partners there have indicated they are ready to welcome visitors back.”

The state, which before Irma was on pace to top last year’s 113 million visitors, has not calculated the hurricane’s potential economic impact on the tourism industry.

In a prepared statement, Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson described the marketing plan as one that will showcase “sunshine, blue skies and good times.”

The online and broadcast campaign is expected to run for about a month, leading into Visit Florida’s traditional winter marketing.

The Key West area is starting to get some good news towards its recovery.

Royal Caribbean International announced Thursday that its cruise ships can start making calls into Key West starting Sunday.

“With both Havana and Key West ready, and excited to welcome us, we are now able to offer the Royal Caribbean vacation guests are looking forward to,” Royal Caribbean posted online.

Also, commercial air service was restored for residents and relief workers Wednesday at Key West International Airport.

Lawmakers seek tax exemption for diapers

Buying diapers for babies or adults would be free of sales taxes under a proposal filed Thursday in the Florida House.

Minority Leader Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, filed a measure (HB 163) that would provide a sales-tax exemption on diapers, incontinence undergarments, pads and liners and disposable “baby wipes.”

Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat who gave birth to twins in February, filed a similar measure (SB 56) last month. The bills are filed for the 2018 legislative session, which starts in January.

A similar proposal was filed in the 2017 session but did not make the Legislature’s final tax-cut package.

A Senate staff analysis for the 2017 session estimated that the tax exemption would cut state revenue by $52.1 million a year. Without the exemption for baby wipes, the number would be $40 million.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Highway bill would honor Greg Evers

A 13-mile stretch of State Road 4, a highway that cuts through the Blackwater River State Forest in the Panhandle, would be named after the late former Sen. Greg Evers, under a measure filed Thursday by Rep. Jayer Williamson, a Pace Republican.

Under Williamson’s proposal (HB 171) State Road 4 would be designated the “Senator Greg Evers Memorial Highway” between Munson Highway and State Road 189 in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties.

Evers, 62, died Aug. 21 in a single-vehicle accident near his home in Okaloosa County.

Evers, a Republican, served nine years in the Florida House before his election to the Senate in 2010. Evers left his Senate seat last year to make a bid for the U.S. House but lost the Republican primary to U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Williamson’s bill is filed for the 2018 legislative session, which starts in January.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Judge refuses to toss out ex-lawmaker’s conviction

A federal judge this week refused to acquit or order a new trial for former state Rep. Dwayne Taylor, who was convicted of wire-fraud charges stemming from allegations that he improperly used campaign cash.

U.S. District Judge Carlos E. Mendoza issued a five-page order Wednesday rejecting arguments by an attorney for the Daytona Beach Democrat, who was found guilty by a jury Aug. 31 on nine counts. Defense attorney A. Brian Phillips filed a lengthy motion last week asking Mendoza to issue a judgment of acquittal or to require a new trial.

But Mendoza’s order, in part, said prosecutors used ATM video recordings of Taylor moving money from a campaign bank account to a personal account. It is illegal in Florida to use campaign contributions for normal living expenses.

“In several of the recorded video transactions, defendant would withdraw cash from his campaign account using a clearly visible blue ATM card that was issued solely for official campaign use,” Mendoza wrote. “Within minutes, defendant would deposit the same or similar amount of cash, using the same ATM, into a private bank account using a clearly visible red ATM card issued to defendant for his personal bank account.”

But in the motion last week, Taylor’s attorney contended that prosecutors “offered no direct evidence as to Taylor’s state of mind with respect to the alleged offenses and certainly failed to show that Taylor had a specific intent to defraud his campaign donors.”

“The only evidence presented was that Taylor withdrew funds from his campaign account and deposited funds, not necessarily the same cash, into his personal account,” the motion filed Sept. 14 said. “There is no evidence that Taylor specifically intended to cheat or defraud the campaign donors. Even if the government alleges that there were discrepancies between Taylor’s expenses that were reported to the state of Florida and the withdrawals from Taylor’s campaign account, there was no evidence presented to refute the defendant’s good faith instruction that these discrepancies were mistakes that amounted to poor record keeping, not the intent to defraud.”

Taylor, 49, who served in the House from 2008 to 2016, is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 16 in federal court in Orlando, according to an online docket.

The jury verdict in Taylor’s case came about 11 months after another former House member, Jacksonville Democrat Reggie Fullwood, pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the use of campaign money for personal expenses. Fullwood pleaded guilty in September 2016 to one count of wire fraud and one count of failure to file an income tax return.

In the motion last week, Taylor’s attorney also argued for a new trial because of a dispute about the dismissal of a juror who was believed to have fallen asleep during the trial. Taylor’s attorney objected to the dismissal and said in the motion that the juror was one of only two African-Americans on the panel. Taylor is African-American.

“Therefore, the defendant suffered prejudice from a juror who was the same race as the defendant not having the opportunity to deliberate,” the motion said.

But Mendoza wrote that he remains “absolutely certain” that the juror was sleeping during the trial.

“But to be clear, race played absolutely no role in the dismissal of Juror No. 6,” the judge wrote. “The court would raise the same concerns … in any circumstance where a juror was observed sleeping.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Citrus industry looks for aid after Irma

A long wait may be ahead for broad federal relief for Florida’s beleaguered citrus industry, “decimated” last week by a lethal hurricane that crossed the peninsula at the start of the growing season, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Wednesday.

Putnam, a Bartow Republican running for governor, advised Florida Citrus Commission members that the agriculture industry – the state’s second-largest industry after tourism – could be at the mercy of Congress to land broader federal assistance for crops ravaged by Hurricane Irma.

“Comparable disaster assistance programs, to what we’ve seen in the past, will now require an act of Congress,” Putnam, a former member of the U.S. House, said. “And as a recovering congressman, I can assure you that nothing moves as fast as we’d like in Washington.”

Putnam, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Thomas Rooney took an aerial tour Monday of a number of groves in Southwest Florida.

Perdue, a former Georgia governor, tweeted Monday, “Staggering crop loss from #Irma will test resilience of growers.”

Insurance is expected to help many citrus growers cover crop losses, and federal rural-development loan programs are available. Perdue said in a separate tweet that he will ask Congress for additional aid.

However, Putnam said Perdue’s office doesn’t have the flexibility it once had.

When Florida was hit by a series of hurricanes in 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created a $500 million Florida Hurricane Disaster Assistance program. The money covered storm damages and income losses for growers.

“Timing will be key,” Putnam said. “We’re going to have to devise a new strategy that will allow growers to get the help they need, as quickly as possible, to be able to rebuild. And we need total industry unity to accomplish this, throughout the citrus industry and our other commodities, to really get done what we need to get done.”

Citrus Commission Chairman G. Ellis Hunt, president of citrus groves and packing houses in Lake Wales, said “jobs are in limbo” for an industry that employees about 45,000 people and that the need for federal assistance is “very significant.”

“We had people from the packing house calling in (Tuesday) wanting to know when we are going to start. We don’t have a date and can’t tell them,” Hunt said. “There’s a lot of questions out there behind each of these growers, but the employees are really questioning what will happen to their lives.”

While meeting with reporters and farmers in Lake Wales last week, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson – while jointly touring areas impacted by the storm with Rubio – said Congress may not consider disaster relief money for Florida until it is forced to act on the federal budget in December.

A similar vote providing $15.3 billion to victims of Hurricane Harvey was approved this month over the objections of a number of conservative Republicans as the vote also raised the federal debt ceiling and extended government funding into December.

A clearer outlook on the storm’s impact is expected when the first forecast for the citrus growing season is made Oct. 12 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Florida’s citrus industry, which has faced years of reduced acreage and a deadly citrus greening disease, was already at a five decades-low yield when the most-recent growing season ended in July.

A decade ago, Florida accounted for almost three-fourths of all U.S. orange production. California was second at 25.7 percent. Florida now accounts for 58 percent of U.S. orange production. California remains second, but at 40.65 percent of the federal total.

Estimates of Hurricane Irma’s impacts range from 40 percent to 100 percent losses for growers, though an overall figure is not available.

Nevertheless, Putnam said the industry will survive as it has past freezes, storms and other disasters.

“This is a resilient industry,” Putnam said “We’ve been through this. We’ll get through this.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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