Hurricane Irma Archives - Florida Politics

Takeaways from Tallahassee — Getting 2018 ballot in ‘order’

Citizen groups, the Legislature and the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) are all able to change the state’s governing document, but constitutional amendments still have to pass the final test — the people.

That means placement on the statewide ballot and getting at least 60 percent approval.

But what governs the order of amendments on the ballot? Why, a state regulation, of course.

Simply put, amendments get numbered in the order they’re certified, a Department of State spokesperson explained.

To amend Florida’s Constitution, voters must have their say. But first, amendments must be put in order.

So, Amendment 1 is “Increased Homestead Property Tax Exemption,” and Amendment 2 is “Limitations on Property Tax Assessments,” both from the Legislature.

The recently approved “Voter Control of Gambling” measure, the first citizen initiative OK’d for the 2018 ballot, is Amendment 3.

Another initiative could be close to becoming Amendment 4: The Voting Restoration Amendment, which would restore nonviolent ex-cons’ right to cast a ballot, has 750,723 valid signatures toward the 766,200 needed for ballot placement.

Still to come are amendments put forth by the still-working Constitution Revision Commission. Or not, if by remote chance the CRC approves no amendments.

(Hey, its constitutional charge does say it can “examine the constitution, hold public hearings and … file its proposal, if any, of a revision of this constitution or any part of it.”)

“Initiative amendments filed on the same date shall be assigned the number received in a random drawing of lots containing the remaining available designating numbers,” the state’s rule says.

And “in the event a proposed revision or amendment is removed or stricken from the ballot … all other proposals shall retain the number assigned.” That just means there could be a gap in numbering.

It adds: “The designating number of the stricken proposal shall not be reused unless that proposal is reinstated.” That doesn’t sound like the best way to get a number retired.

Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Ana Ceballos, Jim Rosica, Danny McAuliffe, Andrew Wilson and Peter Schorsch.

But first, the “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

Accusers and sex policies — The Florida Senate sexual harassment saga continues. Days after former Sen. Jack Latvala was publicly accused by the former lobbyist at the center of a sex-for-votes allegations that launched a criminal investigation, the Florida Senate rolled out new employee guidelines on how to handle sexual harassment in the workplace. The new guidelines prohibit sexual harassment for employees and lobbyists, who will receive a copy of the policy. The changes take effect immediately. Next week, the Senate full floor will vote on incorporating annual one-hour training for senators as part of its formal rules.

Gamble on the ballot — Florida voters could have the “exclusive right” to decide whether casino-style gambling should be allowed in the state, under a proposed constitutional amendment. Backers of the amendment this week topped the 766,200 petition signatures required to go before voters in November. For it to pass, the proposal needs 60 percent approval from voters. Permission for any form of casino gambling is controlled mainly by the state Legislature.

Dead on arrival — Since South Florida’s high-speed commuter line began carrying passengers, four people have been killed on the railroad trains’ paths. The deadly Brightline train launch has raised concerns about pedestrian safety and U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio both called for a federal transportation investigation. State Sen. Debbie Mayfield, who has pushed for Florida to regulate safety for the state’s new rail service, has also decried the events, asking lawmakers “how many more people have to die in order for us to really take a look at safety measure?” Brightline officials insist they are building their system with the highest safety standards offered by the Federal Railroad Administration.

ICE, ICE baby — As tension grows among the immigrant community in Florida with the demeaning rhetoric coming out of the White House, federal immigration authorities are cracking down on undocumented inmates. Seventeen counties in the state have entered agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold deportable inmates in local jails for 48 hours. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who made it a priority this year to pass a ban on so-called “sanctuary cities,” has also asked Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to investigate Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman for standing in support of what Corcoran calls “illegal sanctuary city” policies.

Corcoran, House gets sued — A records battle pitting the Florida House against Pat Roberts, the producer of a cooking show. Roberts and his company MAT Media sued the House contending that the records sought by the House include trade secrets and confidential information. Corcoran signed a subpoena on the first week of Session that requested documents detailing how the show spent millions of dollars paid out by VISIT FLORIDA. Corcoran also wants to know how much the state’s tourism agency paid directly to the celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, who stars in the cooking show.

Gasparilla pirate fun at the Attorney General’s office

Tampa’s annual Gasparilla weekend celebration kicked off at Attorney General Pam Bondi’s Tallahassee office.

Ahoy, Mateys!

The Gasparilla Parade starts this weekend, and it is expected to attract thousands of carousers for myriad pirate-themed events in honor of the iconic pirate invasion of Tampa. A dozen pirates briefly invaded the office of the state’s top attorney Thursday and took photos with her.

Bondi wants more money to combat opioid crisis

Attorney General Bondi said this week that $53 million is insufficient to combat the growing opioid epidemic in Florida, going against Gov. Scott’s budget proposal.

“In an $80 billion budget that is nothing,” Bondi told reporters this week. And the House Democratic Caucus agree with her.

“Opioids have already cost our state over $1 billion each year in the form of hospital care, treatment centers, foster care, court costs, strains on law enforcement and first responders, and heavier loads on our corrections system,” House Democrats said in a joint statement.

In 2016, 5,725 people died from an opioid overdose in the state. Democrats say the epidemic has progressed in recent years and is responsible for pushing thousands of children into foster care.

As Bondi becomes more vocal on funding to address the opioid crisis, House Democrats say they remain “hopeful that House and Senate leadership” and the governor will propose more funding.

The week in appointments

Dan Casper to the Florida Citrus Commission

Casper was reappointed to the Commission. The 60-year-old is the president of Southern Garden Citrus.

He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri and is reappointed for a term that began Jan. 18 and will end on May 21, 2020. This appointment is subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

Robert Spottswood to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

The 60-year-old is currently the vice chairman at the Commission. He was reappointed for a term that began Jan. 12 and will end Jan. 6, 2023.

Spottswood is the chief executive officer of Spottswood Companies, Inc. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and his Juris Doctor from the University of Miami School of Law.

Kathryn Ballard to the Florida State University board of trustees

Ballard was reappointed to the FSU board of trustees. The 53-year-old term will end in Jan. 6, 2023.

She received her bachelor’s degree from Florida State University. Ballard has previously served on the Board of the Florida Center for Performing Arts and as a board member of the FSU College of Human Sciences.

Instagram of the week

OFR warns investors about ‘initial coin offerings’

Those upset they missed the bitcoin boom, take heed: There’s plenty of scams out there being pitched as the next big thing.

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation this week echoed a warning from the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) that identified initial coin offerings (ICOs) and cryptocurrency contracts for difference (CFD) as two of the top emerging threats that investors should watch for in 2018.

The bitcoin craze has investors searching for the next big thing.

OFR said it “encourages Floridians to be very cautious of investments involving cryptocurrency,” and reiterated that even legitimate cryptocurrencies carry plenty of risk outside of their high volatility.

Most investors know currencies such as bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin aren’t backed by any government — meaning no Federal deposit insurance — but their unregulated nature can also bring out some shady companies that may be more susceptible to fraud and theft than regulated financial institutions.

OFR said would be cryptocurrency investors should check out NASAA’s video on initial coin offerings and, as always, give them a call if there are suspicions of investment fraud.

‘Fast Facts’ on the state’s insurance regulation office

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation this week released a booklet of its accomplishments for the 2016-17 fiscal year, touting some of the highlights from the fifth annual “Fast Facts” in an email.

The agency said licenses under regulation increased by nearly 3 percent last year and have gone up by 15 percent over the previous five years. The office said it also answered more than 40,000 consumer calls with an average time to pick up of 19 seconds and approved more than 79,000 applications in an average of five days per application.

Drew Breakspear, commissioner of the Florida Office of Financial Regulation, offers some ‘Fast Facts’ on its accomplishments.

“The Florida Office of Financial Regulation is committed to protecting consumers while promoting growth of the financial services industry,” Commissioner Drew Breakspear said. “I encourage all interested Floridians to learn more about our agency and how we can help them verify the license of a financial services business and protect them from financial scams.”

The agency also pointed consumers to its “Consumer Knowledge Center,” which includes alerts issued by the department on potential investment scams.

Florida Sheriffs Association applaud ICE agreement

A day after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials announced a “housing agreement” with 17 Florida sheriffs, the Florida Sheriffs Association came out in full support of it.

“The process clarifies that aliens held by these jurisdictions are held under the color of federal authority, thereby affording local law enforcement liability protection from potential litigation as a result of faithfully executing their public service duties,” said Mike Adkinson, the president of the Association.

Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson.

The deal would give federal immigration authorities more time to pick up deportable inmates from local jails in Florida. Local authorities have agreed gold hold undocumented immigrants eligible for deportation beyond the time they usually would have by booking individuals under federal auspices.

Adkinson said that if the launch continues to “go smoothly” there is hope to expand it to other counties in the “very near future.” He said other sheriffs have expressed interest in entering the agreement.

Volunteer Florida gets $27M grant for Irma victims

Volunteer Florida announced this week that it had secured more than $27 million in grant funding from FEMA for a program to help those affected by Hurricane Irma.

“Volunteer Florida is proud to administer this grant on behalf of the State of Florida. This funding will allow us to provide Floridians with a single point of contact who will advocate for them and help them through the recovery process. We are thankful for our partnership with FEMA and the Division of Emergency Management,” Volunteer Florida CEO Vivian Myrtetus said.

Volunteer Florida receives $27 million in grants for those affected by Hurricane Irma.

The money will help set up a Disaster Case Management Program to advocate for families and individuals and help them access resources ranging from food, shelter, and clothing through home repairs and financial planning.

Volunteer Florida will hand out the grant funding to qualified outside organizations that apply through a competitive RFP process. The RFP and application instructions are available online.

Public employee group backs education bills

Public employee group AFSCME Florida this week announced its “strong support” for education reform bills by Sen. Rene Garcia and Reps. Barry Russell and Sam Killebrew.

“We commend Senator Garcia and Representatives Russell and Killebrew because we believe that services should be shared through centralized locations to give the district the best return on investment,” said AFSCME Local 1184 President Vicki Hall, representing more than 7,300 Miami-Dade County Public School employees. “We look forward to working with school districts to ensure its implementation so we can to reinstating important programs, like Summer Services, and ensure funding works for our communities.”

Rene Garcia gets public employee union support for a series of education reform bills.

SB 1152 and HB 1431 would allow school districts to use Title 1 funds, which are granted to schools with high poverty rates, for things such as summer school, enrichment, and before- and after-school programs.

“While some districts have been able to mitigate the short-term effects of HB7069, if this law is not corrected before the next fiscal year many vital food-service and transportation employees could lose their jobs and schools would lose the staff needed to achieve success for their students,” said AFSCME Florida Political Director Jacqui Carmona.

Moffitt Cancer Center advocates ask for legislative support

Lawmakers this week heard from a familiar organization with a compelling mission: to work toward the prevention and cure of cancer.

More than 60 advocates from Moffitt Cancer Center arrived at the Capitol this week to ask for continued legislative support for cancer research. Moffitt is considered one of the best cancer hospitals in the U.S.

“Patients seek Moffitt because we are a leader in cancer care and research,” said Dr. Alan List, Moffitt CEO and president. “Some of the biggest advances in cancer research and treatment over the last three decades have come from Moffitt faculty and researchers.”

Moffitt Cancer Center, one of the best health care facilities of its type in the nation, is asking for legislative support.

Recent Food and Drug Administration approval of two cellular immunotherapies, known as CAR T therapy, was attributed to Moffitt research. The cancer center pioneered the treatment, treating the first adult patients in both the clinical and post-approval phases.

Moffitt’s simple request is that lawmakers continue supporting its work.

Spawned with the help of the Legislature in 1981, Moffitt takes its namesake from former lawmaker and cancer survivor H. Lee Moffitt, who championed a $3.5 million appropriation for startup funds for the Tampa cancer center.

Florida Legal Services looking to help disabled Irma survivors

Florida Legal Services is looking for help finding Hurricane Irma survivors who were unable to pre-register for Disaster Food Assistance, or D-SNAP, a version of the SNAP program that helps low-income households with food loss or damage caused by a natural disaster.

Aventura Democratic Rep. Joe Geller helped get the message out for FLS this week in an email to his constituents.

Joe Geller is pushing for victims of Hurricane Irma to get greater access to Disaster Food Assistance. 

“After Irma, many affected persons with disabilities who needed D-SNAP were unable to travel to a D-SNAP site or stand in line to be interviewed, a requirement to qualifying for D-SNAP. Although DCF provided phone interviews for some survivors with disabilities, only persons who completed pre-registration were able to get phone interviews. We would appreciate your spreading the word that FLS wants to hear from survivors who were unable to pre-register,” he wrote.

Geller said those who know someone who couldn’t preregister should point them toward an online form FLS set up for D-SNAP assistance.

House Democrats still keeping track

The House Democratic Caucus updated its “running count” of bills heard in committee or on the House floor to include the first week of the 2018 Legislative Session and found that Republican-controlled House is still giving more attention to GOP-sponsored bills than Democrat-sponsored ones.

The breakdown on the “What’s the Agenda?” site shows that during the first week of session, 13 Democrat-sponsored bills were heard, compared to 50 Republican-sponsored bills. Another 9 bills heard in committee had both Republican and Democrat sponsors.

The “keep track” effort also found that 9 Republican bills were heard on the floor during week 1, while just a single Democrat-sponsored bill made the grade.

Including the five committee weeks leading up to the 2018 Legislative Session, Dem bills make up 16 percent of those on committee agendas while GOP bills take a 70 percent share.

Jewish American Week to be observed next week

Sen. Daphne Campbell and state Rep. Emily Slosberg have filed a resolution declaring the week of Feb. 12 as Jewish American Heritage week in Florida.

“I am proud to sponsor the first-ever resolution in the Florida Senate declaring Jewish Heritage Week in the State of Florida from Feb. 12-16,” Campbell said.

Slosberg said the resolution “pays tribute to the unique cultures, customs, and dynamic heritage that derived from Jewish Americans.” There are approximately 650,000 Jewish Americans in the state.

Andrew Gillum proposing to raise state corporate taxes

Tallahassee Mayor Gillum, a Democrat running to be the next governor, wants an increase of the state corporate tax to invest more on the middle class.

Gillum unveiled his “Fair Share for Florida’s Future” plan Friday and said President Donald Trump’s “tax scam” will make the rich richer and the middle class poorer.

“I’m proposing that the tiny fraction of Florida’s richest corporations pay their fair share so we can invest in working families through world-class public schools, a pay raise for teachers, early childhood education and SHOP 2.0 vocational training,” Gillum said.

Andrew Gillum wants to raise corporate taxes to help Florida families.

Gillum wants to adjust the state corporate income tax rate on large corporations to 7.75 percent, which he says would generate $1 billion more to invest in the public school system and vocational training.

Gillum wants to put in at least $100 million in public schools, $400 million in pay raises for public school teachers and at least $250 million in early childhood education programs.

The Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy has already jumped in support of the measure, saying the plan will be a “job creator for Florida’s working families.”

FSU gets $25K grant to fight human trafficking

Florida State University’s Institute for Family Violence Studies has received a $25,000 grant from Attorney General Bondi’s Office that will be used to improve training for recognizing the signs of human trafficking.

The funds will help create online training for Emergency Medical Services personnel so they can better identify signs of the crime and report it so victims can get the help they need.

Jim Clark, the dean of the College of Social Work at FSU (shown with Young Alumni Award winner Robyn Metcalf), says a new $25K grant will help EMS first responders better identify signs of human trafficking.

“We recognize that for many victims of human trafficking, EMS first responders are an important link to freedom from this enslaving crime,” said Jim Clark, dean of the College of Social Work at FSU.

Data from the Department of Children and Families indicate that cases of human trafficking increased more than 50 percent from 2015 to 2016, a surge mainly attributed to more reporting resulting from increased awareness.

“This new project provides information EMS professionals need to provide the most effective assistance,” Clark said.

Cold weather yields utility bill payment options

If you are suffering through the frigid temperatures in Tallahassee, at least the city is giving you utility payment options.

The city of Tallahassee’s electric utility department said it recorded its highest peak load in nearly a decade — and third highest ever — this past week.

Snow in Tallahassee means options for utility payments.

The load was due to temperatures dropping to the 20s in the city, which is expected to increase customers’ utility bills next month. To help ease the financial burden, the city is offering a one-time payment option for utility customs known as “Winter Relief Assistance Program.”

The alternative payment program allows all residents and non-demand small business utility customs to carry over up to 25 percent of their utility bill in January and February to the following month’s bill when usage will likely be less.

To request the carry-over option, customers can call 891-4968.

Now for this week’s edition of Capitol Directions:

It’ll be magic if Joe Negron succeeds with new Lake O reservoir land buy

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations committee heard a presentation from South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Ernie Marks on the status report of the reservoir project authorized by Senate Bill 10.

Following the presentation, Appropriations Chair and Senate Bill 10 sponsor Rob Bradley expressed confidence in the district’s plans. But following the meeting, Senate President Joe Negron told reporters he is still planning to seek another 4,000 to 5,000 acres of land before the end of Session.

Why would the Senate president make these comments when the district says it has the land it needs, the chair is happy, and the project appears to be on schedule?

Negron’s comments come following a picture coming into focus that leaves little room for land buying, particularly taking more agricultural land out of production, which is a pillar of Florida’s economy.

In January of last year, Bradley first filed SB 10 — a bill that (at one point) called for the purchase of nearly 60,000 acres of working farmland south of Lake O.

It didn’t take long for questions to arise about how the state of Florida would buy this private farmland, warning it would adversely affect those living the region.

Among the first sounding the alarm about “eminent domain” was Marco Rubio.

“What about the people that live in those communities? What about Pahokee, what about those cities in the Glades communities that are going to get wiped out,” Florida’s junior senator told a blogger in April 2017. “If you buy up all that farmland, that means there’s no farming, that means these cities collapse, they basically turning ghost towns. Shouldn’t they be at the table? Shouldn’t they be part of this conversation as well?”

Soon afterward, an overwhelming bipartisan Senate majority revised SB 10, stripping the controversial provision that would have bought the 60K acres of privately-held farmland.

The last version of SB 10 — which Gov. Rick Scott signed into law that May, and was applauded by environmentalists such as the Everglades Foundation — prohibited the use of eminent domain.

According to comments today from Marks, more than 80 percent of the large landowners south of Lake Okeechobee are not selling. Glades farmers are steadfastly against losing valuable, productive agricultural land.

Also, the coming budget crunch following Hurricane Irma doesn’t lend itself to land grabs.

And there’s also the fact that this Florida Senate has little appetite for another bruising debate over land buying in an election year.

Finally, any deviation from the district’s schedule could delay the reservoir project — possibly for years.

Bottom line: this ship has sailed.

I have always maintained that President Negron is a true statesman, and this may be a moment showing the Stuart Republican cares more about the people in his district rather than the people in the Florida Senate — an admirable trait in any elected official.

But if Negron has any intentions of squeezing an acre of private land out under these circumstances, he’s more than a statesman. He’s a magician.

Citrus agency shifts money as industry seeks aid

The Florida Department of Citrus adjusted its budget Wednesday for the second time this growing season, as leaders of the storm-battered industry hold out hope the U.S. Senate will approve a disaster-relief package.

The Citrus Commission, which oversees the department, agreed to shift more than $70,000 out of administration, scientific-research and global-marketing budgets to cover an anticipated drop in revenue from December.

The Department of Citrus is funded through a “box” tax on citrus. Revenues have dropped as citrus production has declined in recent years because of citrus-greening disease and destruction from September’s Hurricane Irma.

Christine Marion, commission secretary, said the agency reduced research materials by $10,000, a nutritional program by $45,000, and administrative costs by $23,500.

Department officials said they were able to make the cuts without eliminating programs or personnel. The administrative changes were made through scaling back on areas that included training, vehicle purchases, equipment-rental fees and database fees.

The moves came despite a January forecast for this season’s citrus crops holding mostly stable when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a monthly outlook last Friday.

The monthly numbers were the first sign of a potential bottom from the devastation of Hurricane Irma, which washed away up to 70 percent to 90 percent of the crop for some growers in South and Central Florida. Still, the December and January forecasts represent a 15 percent drop from the initial forecast in October and a 33 percent reduction from the prior seasons’ five-decade low output of oranges and grapefruit.

In December, the commission shifted $556,147 from reserves to cover a separate anticipated reduction in the budget.

The budget adjustments have come as the industry awaits the fate of an $81 billion disaster relief package the U.S. House approved in December that is targeted for hurricane-impacted areas of Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico and wildfire-damaged regions of California. The package, which has been held up as Congress works on a short-term funding bill, includes $2.6 billion for agriculture.

Citrus Commission Chairman G. Ellis Hunt, who traveled to Washington, D.C. in December, said Wednesday it is “frustrating” that the Senate won’t take a “clean vote” on the package.

“We’re just going to pursue and not give up,” Hunt said.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs estimated in October that Irma caused $2.5 billion in damage to the state’s agriculture industry, including $761 million to the citrus industry.

State lawmakers have said the citrus crop damage has since topped $1 billion but no further post-storm estimates have been made.

“Florida’s iconic citrus industry and its growers continue to struggle with the unprecedented damage caused by Hurricane Irma,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said after the monthly forecast was released Friday. “This damage, combined with the cumulative impacts of citrus greening, leaves Florida’s growers in desperate need of support.”

FPL to pass federal tax cut onto customers instead of raising rates to pay for $1.3 billion Hurricane Irma restoration

Florida Power & Light says it’s dropping plans to charge customers for Hurricane Irma costs and will instead apply savings from the recently enacted Tax and Jobs Act to cover the cost.

For the average customer, this means savings of about $250. FPL also announced that the tax savings could allow it to continue operating for an additional two years under the 2016 base-rate agreement. That agreement has been scheduled to expire in 2020.

“The timing of federal tax reform, coming on the heels of the most expensive hurricane in Florida history, created an unusual and unprecedented opportunity,” FPL president Eric Silagy said in a news release. “Our current rate agreement provides the ability to use federal tax savings to entirely offset Hurricane Irma restoration costs, which delivers an immediate benefit to customers, and also the potential opportunity to avoid a general base rate increase for up to an additional two years.”

FPL’s response to Hurricane Irma has been lauded widely both in Florida and around the country for its unprecedented breadth and speed, but the $1.3 billion price tag was likely to be a point of contention with regulators.

FPL had previously said it would have to implement a surcharge to pay for Irma in March, after a year-long surcharge for 2016’s Hurricane Matthew ends in February, but announced shortly after the new year that it would wait to determine how the new tax law would impact its bottom line.

“While we were planning to file a cost recovery plan with the Public Service Commission by the end 2017, we now believe it is in the best interests of our customers to delay our filing to allow us time to have more accurate information and understand the complexities and implications of changes to the federal tax code that occurred at the end of December,” FPL spokesman Dave McDermitt said at the time.

Fellow utility companies Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Company asked the Public Service Commission last month to approve plans that would allow them to pass on to ratepayers a combined $600 million in costs related to Hurricane Irma and other storms.

Duke Energy customers would see their average bill jump by $5.20 a month for three years if their plan was approved, while Tampa Electric ratepayers would see a $4 a month increase through at least 2018. In contrast, FPL customers will now see their rates decrease in March. For a 1,000-kWh customer bill, the decrease will amount to $3.35 a month in savings.

FPL notes that its rates have decreased significantly in the past decade. FPL says the latest decrease will mean its rates will be nearly 30 percent below the national average.

FPL did not release details about its future plans. FPL said its current rate agreement, which was negotiated with the Office of Public Counsel and other customer groups and approved unanimously by the Florida Public Service Commission in 2016, set parameters for base rates and storm surcharges from 2017 through at least 2020.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this post, republished with permission.

Economic Opportunity surveying Central Florida housing needs

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has sent out letters to county, city and housing authority officials throughout Central Florida seeking information on affordable housing shortages.

The letter, from DEO Director of Community Development Julie Dennis, is exploring available resources and unmet needs that are being tested as a result of both the damages caused by Hurricane Irma, which struck the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Florida, and then Hurricane Maria, which hit the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, sending tens of thousands of people looking for available housing.

Dennis wrote to city and county mayors and chairs, housing authority directors, and others throughout Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Polk and Seminole counties  announcing the DOE Division of Community Development is analyzing statewide data to determine remaining unmet needs in communities after all other resources have been exhausted. To do so, it is seeking housing information from the local authorities, especially “on any needs for which there are no current resurfaces available.

“The information will be included in an unmet needs assessment required by the federal government to receive additional funding for long-term recovery,” she wrote in letters that went out late last week.

The Central Florida area is being cited for having a particularly critical affordable housing shortage exacerbated by the migration of tens of thousand of people from the islands since the hurricanes wiped out communities and shut off power and water for millions. The Florida Division of Emergency Management has reported more than 300,000 people have flown from Puerto Rico to Florida since the start of October. While it is unknown how many are staying, many of them are believed to have settled, principally in Central Florida, and unknown thousands are living in friends’ and relatives’ homes or in motels, looking for longer-term housing.

“The Florida Division of Economic Opportunity appreciates the support your community has extended to evacuees from Puerto Rico who are seeking refuge in your community due to Hurricane Maria,” Dennis wrote. “We are working hard to provide resources to help these families find job opportunities, temporary housing, and other forms of assistance in our state.”

State, counties, feds face hefty Irma tab

State agencies spent $680.2 million after Hurricane Irma, with county government costs exceeding $1 billion, according to a draft of a report by the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.

And while the state expects the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover most of the costs, the numbers — separate from $2.49 billion spent by federal agencies in Florida — will continue to grow, as the figures reported by the committee are more than a month old.

“Even now Hurricane Irma’s full damage to our state’s economy and industries is still being assessed, but initial estimates are concerning,” the draft report released Friday said. “In addition to emergency response costs, initial recovery costs were incurred for debris removal, temporary housing, food assistance, and other expenses. Although many of these costs are covered at least in part by federal assistance, state and local governments must bear some of the burden.”

The report was released before the committee was slated to meet Tuesday to consider 77 recommendations about the state’s response to Irma and the influx of people from Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria and how to prepare for future storms. Recommendations range from extending the Suncoast Parkway along the Gulf Coast as another northern evacuation route and setting up petroleum distribution centers throughout the state to imposing timelines to stop tree trimming and trash collection before storms so waste- management employees can prepare trucks and landfills.

Proposals advanced from the select committee will go to other panels as lawmakers craft bills and the state budget during the Legislative Session that started last week.

The report said Florida is working to receive a storm designation from FEMA that would include a 90 percent federal cost share.

The state is expected to be responsible for at least $115 million of the local-government costs and 25 percent of what are known as “other needs assistance” payments, which include such things as medical expenses and funeral costs. Those payments are projected to be about $274 million, with the state’s share at least $68 million.

Federal “reimbursements for preparation and response efforts will be processed faster than reimbursements for recovery efforts such as longer-term infrastructure projects,” the report noted.

The report said long-term damage from the storm includes the loss of affordable housing in the Florida Keys, damage to wastewater and potable water infrastructure and severe erosion of large stretches of Florida’s coastline.

The report said the insurance industry faced $6.55 billion in property damages claims.

The Office of Insurance Regulation on Jan. 5 upped that figure to $7.2 billion.

The agriculture industry, which has been seeking a federal disaster-relief package, faces $2.5 billion in losses.

Hurricane Irma made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and pounded the state as it moved north. The storm created 18 tornadoes across the peninsula, caused at least 32 rivers and creeks to flood, and left 84 dead. The most shocking loss of life occurred at a Broward County nursing home, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which was evacuated Sept. 13, three days after Irma knocked out its air-conditioning system.

Eventually, the medical examiner ruled 12 deaths to be homicides due to heat exposure.

Power was knocked out to more than 64 percent of the state. The Federal Communications Commission reported that on Sept. 12, 82 percent of the cell towers in Monroe County, 73 percent in Collier County and 78 percent in Hendry County weren’t working. About 50 percent of cell towers were not functioning in another six counties, including Lee and Miami-Dade counties.

Evacuation orders were issued in 54 of the state’s 67 counties, as the storm’s projected track changed.

A record 6.5 million people evacuated, which forced the Department of Transportation to open the left shoulder for northbound traffic on Interstate 75 from the intersection of Florida’s Turnpike in Wildwood to the Georgia state line starting Sept. 8 and on Interstate 4 from Tampa to State Road 429 near Celebration for a few hours on Sept. 9.

The report acknowledged that even with the new technique, established before the start of the 2017 hurricane season, traffic congestion was found across northbound Interstate 95, the Turnpike and Interstate 75.

After the storm, the State Emergency Response Team distributed more than 6.7 million meals and 10.7 million liters of water, as well as over 71,000 tarps and 13,000 cots.

Nearly 700 shelters opened, housing 191,764 people at the peak of the storm.

House select committee on hurricanes approves final report, 78 recommendations

A final report of 78 recommendations, ranging from nursing home safety to evacuation route improvements, and shelter planning to longterm development concerns, won unanimous approval Tuesday from the Florida House’s Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.

The 21-member committee, appointed last fall by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, now presents the 2018 Legislative Session with a comprehensive blueprint that the committee intended to show what went right, what went wrong, and what fixes need to be considered immediately, generally, or longterm, following the impacts of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria in September.

While Select Committee Chair Jeanette Nuñez, a Miami Republican, called the 110-page report and its list of recommendations a good starting point, she also cautioned that there will be other recommendations and proposals emerging elsewhere, in bills and other committees, or which may emerge from further study and analysis. She also cautioned that some matters raised during the committee’s six previous public hearings this fall may not all be explicitly spelled out, but should all be addressed in one form or another.

For example, the final report’s detailed recommendations make no explicit mention of any desire to encourage power companies to get more of their electric lines buried underground, an omission that raised the curiosity Tuesday of Coconut Creek Democrat Kristin Jacobs. Nor do the recommendations speak specifically to some local concerns, such as one raised by Port St. Lucie Democrat Larry Lee, about the handling of human sewage in hurricane-vulnerable areas around Indian River Lagoon.

However, the recommendations do speak more generally to finding ways to “harden” utilities, and generally to protect environmentally sensitive areas such as the Indian River Lagoon, Nuñez pointed out.

“This is by no means a comprehensive and exhaustive list,” Nuñez said. “It is what I call the best starting point that we can have, to not only see the recommendations through in a Legislative Session, in which we are in week two, but recognizing there are some short-term things that need to occur, as well as some longterm things that need to occur. So we really did our best to compile a comprehensive list that is feasible in terms of action items moving forward in the next fifty-some odd days.”

Among the recommendations:

– Vulnerable populations such as the residents of nursing homes should be better protected, with proposals such as requiring nursing homes provide adequate emergency power necessary to protect residents from unsafe temperatures;

– Florida’s ability to shelter people must be strengthened, especially for those citizens with special needs, with such improvements as providing more state assistance for shelter management training at the local level; and creating a statewide special needs shelter registration;

– Florida’s evacuation programs can be improved with recommendations such as establishing strategically-located gasoline distribution centers along evacuation routes; and by emphasizing the effectiveness of shorter evacuation operations;

– More should be done to harden the state’s electricity grid, partly by directing the Public Service Commission to prepare a study of the efficacy and costs of all technically feasible storm hardening measures of the grid; and by improving communications between utilities and local governments;

– Longterm restoration of communities, particularly with issues such as the loss of affordable housing in the Florida Keys, should be addressed with such efforts as creating a temporary program to provide funding for affordable housing recovery efforts;

– To start considering ways to mitigate future hurricanes’ damage, Florida should consider, among other options, producing a complete and accurate 3-D map of the state for use in numerous emergency management and infrastructure planning applications;

– Florida should invest in plans that cost-effectively mitigate flood risks to developed areas, including protection of greenways and blueways that act as flow ways or provide temporary storage during high-water events;

– And Florida should identify areas where rebuilding after a disaster may be high-risk, and consider options for not rebuilding in those areas.

Ricardo Rosselló accuses Washington of turning its back on Puerto Rico

A sometimes angry, defiant and determined Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló accused Washington D.C. Friday of “turning its back on” Americans on the island since Hurricane Maria

Rosselló called on Puerto Ricans in Florida and others to respond in elections.

Speaking to a packed room of about 500 people at the Kissimmee Civic Center, Rosselló unleashed a torrent of frustration over a nation that made promises to help the island (and its residents) and has failed to do so since.

The Puerto Rican Governor was in Florida for the first time since Hurricane Maria devastated the island on Sept. 20-21, and since hundreds of thousands of his constituents fled to Florida because so much of the island remains without power, potable water, and much of a functioning economy.

Rosselló was joined at the podium by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, and Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez, who all also spoke to a crowd that was so much larger than expected that the room had to be expanded twice before the program started.

The gathering also included more than a dozen other elected officials and candidates, including Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, state Sen. Victor Torres, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham.

While Rosselló’s New Progressive Party is generally aligned with the stateside Republican Party of Scott, Jacobs, and President Donald Trump, and while in the early weeks after the storm he and Trump appeared to be united, he struck a strongly different tone Friday.

Rosselló said the island government and Congress and Washington struck a deal through the PROMESA act passed in 2016 to address Puerto Rico’s economy and debt, and that the island government lived up to its end with massive cuts and changes in labor laws. But after Hurricane Maria, many of those in Washington who had made promises “turned their back on Puerto Rico, and not only forgot about us, but made things increasingly worse.”

“This is where we have to draw the line in the sand,” he said. “This is where we need to be outraged, outraged, by the inadequate response for U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico.”

“A storm that, as evaluated by third parties, was a thousand-year storm … Maria is the most devastating natural event in the modern history of the United States of America, make no mistake about it. This is why there are challenges of unprecedented nature, and this is why we needed a response of unprecedented nature,” Rossello said.

He spoke of Puerto Ricans’ love for American citizenship, but said Puerto Ricans have been treated as second-class citizens for a century, and he accused Congress and leadership in Washington of breaking promises just in the past few months.

“We fight the same wars, we have the same citizenship and we deserve that equal and fair treatment. After the storm, when the world was watching Puerto Rico, people started to say, ‘Hey? How come the response is so fast in some places in the United States yet so slow and so filled with obstacles in Puerto Rico?'”

Rosselló drew a standing ovation when he finished the 26-minute speech.

In his speech, Scott pointed out all of the things Florida has done to help both the island and the evacuees, from sending utilities experts and crews to the island to widespread waivers of state rules so that Puerto Ricans could more easily settle in to live in Florida. Rosselló also announced $1 million is being added to CareerSource to help Puerto Rico evacuees find work in Florida.

Rosselló thanked him for that and acknowledged that all the work he and his staff have done for the island, and said the channels of communication with the island’s government, “means a lot to us and the people of Puerto Rico.”

But he heaped more praise on Nelson, who likely will face Scott for the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Florida, declaring, “It’s hard to find a better friend than Sen. Nelson has been for the people of Puerto Rico.”

Rosselló then said similar things about Soto and Alvarez, and called on Puerto Ricans in Florida and across the country to remember who has been their friend, and who has not, and to send a message by registering to vote, and then voting.

He called on the six million Puerto Ricans in the United States, including more than a million in Florida, to exercise their power to “make things right, not only on the island, but to make things right for yourself as well. We have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right now.”

Rosselló said America has “no moral standing” to preach democracy for Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq and Afghanistan until it addresses full citizenship for Puerto Ricans.

“How do we make this happen? We make this happen not just by talking, but by acting. And I am committing myself here to coming to Florida and to other states as well to organize our communities, so that we can make them know what the issues are, and make the distinctions between those have been friends to Puerto Rico, and those that have turned their back, and we can be influential in the up and coming midterm elections.”

Alvarez, Soto and Nelson all set the tone in criticism of the federal government and Congress in its Puerto Rico response.

The Democrats decried everything from slow recovery efforts — 40 percent of islanders are still without power more than 100 days after the storm — to the passage last month of a tax reform package that penalizes Puerto Rico with a new excise tax.

With immediacy, Soto said FEMA is telling evacuees in Florida that their housing vouchers are being canceled Saturday because the agency determined their homes back on the island are habitable, even though some still have no electricity, and some do not even have water.

Stable, still dismal: Citrus forecast low but steady

Recent Florida citrus estimates are steady for the first time since Hurricane Irma struck Florida.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s January estimates reflect no change from December’s, marking the first stable citrus forecast since the storm.

The USDA in October forecasted 54 million boxes of oranges for 2017-2018 production. In November, that forecast dropped to 50 million followed by another decrease in December to 46 million – an estimate that remained for January’s forecast.

And yet, while seemingly stable, the forecasts are dismal.

Florida Department of Citrus Executive Director Shannon Shepp said the state’s citrus industry still faces its lowest forecast in more than 75 years.

The monthly forecasts are best guesses; the real numbers come after the growing season ends. It’s those figures that tell the story of citrus in Florida.

Along with Irma, the state’s citrus industry has been hit by the citrus greening epidemic. The so-far incurable disease attacks the fruit, causing it to turn green and bitter, and eventually killing the tree.

“While the temporary comfort of a stable forecast gives us a moment to breathe it doesn’t hide the fact that this industry remains in crisis due to the impact of Hurricane Irma,” Shepp said.

In the 2016-2017 season, Florida produced close to 69 million boxes of oranges. Florida growers are looking to the state and federal government for remedy.

“Florida’s iconic citrus industry and its growers continue to struggle with the unprecedented damage caused by Hurricane Irma,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a separate statement.

“This damage, combined with the cumulative impacts of citrus greening, leaves Florida’s growers in desperate need of support,” he added. “I will continue to work with Gov. (Rick) Scott and leaders in Washington to get Florida’s growers the relief they need to rebuild and replant.”

The U.S. House of Representatives passed an $81 billion disaster spending bill. A $2.6 billion agricultural assistance package for Florida growers was included in that bill.

State estimates reported an estimated $2.5 billion crop loss to Florida growers following Irma. The state’s recurring message is that the storm “could not have been more lethal” to Florida citrus.

Scott’s proposed “Securing Florida’s Future” budget recommends $22 million for the Sunshine State’s citrus industry. Lawmakers are sure to address the situation when crafting their own budget this Legislative Session.

Florida now a little safer, joining FirstNet nationwide public-safety network

By joining FirstNet, Florida will now become just a little safer in times of emergency.

Last month, the state of Florida (quickly followed by California) became the final entry in the nationwide public-safety broadband network, part of a public-private partnership between FirstNet and telecommunications giant AT&T. The announcement by Gov. Rick Scott came just hours ahead of the Dec. 28 opt-in deadline.

This under-the-wire decision now means that all 50 states — as well as three U.S. territories — are part of this ambitious public-safety program.

Inclusion in FirstNet gives Florida agencies currently running on Motorola Solutions Project 25 (P25) radio networks an immediate benefit by their addition to this new national, high-speed broadband system.

Established by Congress in 2012, FirstNet allows AT&T to set up an LTE radio access network within each state’s borders — at no cost to the state.

Offering greater ease of communication, FirstNet represents a quantum leap for public safety, a critical advantage in emergencies such as severe weather. When Florida communities face disaster, as in the case of September’s Hurricane Irma, seconds matter. Milliseconds can be the difference between life and death.

In those situations, first responders and law enforcement just can’t afford to lose radio communications.

Before FirstNet, Florida first responders, consumers and businesses have been sharing a common commercial communication network. During heavily attended events or significant emergency situations, these shared resources can quickly become problematic — and potentially deadly. Systems become congested, and calls lost, creating a nightmare for first responders, as well as a potential public-safety crisis.

A major hurricane, or an upcoming Super Bowl, can have thousands of users all accessing phones simultaneously. At the same time, first responders using the same network are also trying to share critical issues.

As anyone frustrated by a dropped cellphone call knows, not being able to communicate in an emergency is devastating.

Nationwide, first responders use more than 10,000 voice networks, many of which do not work well together, with often tragic results (notably during the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001).

One answer came when the federal government set a national P25 standard for public safety voice communications, solving the problem for voice calls. With a universal standard across the country, FirstNet will do the same for data applications.

FirstNet, in conjunction with P25 land mobile radio (LMR) networks, will be America’s first dedicated, interconnected public safety network exclusively designed for first responders. The result will be a platform for communication and collaboration that reaches across local, state and national agencies.

Motorola Solutions, a leader in P25 communications worldwide, is collaborating with AT&T in Florida to deliver this innovative network for first responders in the state and beyond.

This partnership will also expand coverage throughout the state — particularly in underserved rural areas that lack reliable, secure public-safety communications in times of natural disaster or emergencies.

As part of FirstNet, Motorola customers in Florida can bridge their standards-based P25 systems to the new nationwide data network.

In Florida, 28 counties work under the P25 System. Motorola Solutions serves 25 of those counties as a vendor of choice for public safety radio communications, including Broward, Pinellas, Palm Beach, Orange, Leon and Columbia.

Motorola Solutions’ LEX F10

Under FirstNet, they will all have access to the new generation of productivity, with enhanced public safety specific applications and devices. Motorola public safety customers will also receive the highest priority in accessing the FirstNet system.

For example, Motorola Solutions’ premier LEX F10, a rugged public-safety LTE handheld device specifically designed for first responders, is certified by AT&T as “FirstNet ready.” That means the device can at once be used to enhance existing equipment — offering seamless communications when it is needed most.

Also, FirstNet’s communications network will also support Motorola’s other land mobile radio networks.

Motorola Solutions is no stranger to partnering with AT&T, past collaborations have resulted in developing cutting-edge mobile apps, software, and other services; FirstNet is just the latest role for Motorola in its goal of supplying both high-quality broadband devices and solutions for Florida’s public safety needs.

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