Hurricane Irma – Page 5 – Florida Politics

Claudia Rodriguez: Motorola Solutions thanks Florida first responders

First Responder Appreciation Week is a special time when we Floridians recognize law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel who help keep us safe. This past year, first responders went above and beyond not only day-to-day but also during Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes we have seen in years.

They worked tirelessly to prepare residents for the approaching storm and provide assistance when it hit and in its aftermath.

They helped evacuate high-risk areas, conducted search and rescue efforts, provided security and cleared routes to allow people to return to their homes.

They also supported communities with food, water and other aid for those in need.

Motorola Solutions’ Florida employees thank the many men and women across the state who provided their selfless support. Hurricane Irma is only one of the many examples of their tireless dedication to protecting lives and helping communities.

We are grateful for everything they do.


Claudia Rodriguez is Motorola Solutions corporate vice president. She is based in Plantation.

Assisted living facilities pleased by Rick Scott’s new proposal on backup power sources

On Friday, the Rick Scott administration published new proposed backup-power rules for Florida’s assisted living facilities.

It is a move that could mean an end to the legal struggle between the governor’s office and providers, with Scott backing off the controversial mandate that long-term care facilities install generators to provide continuous power in the case of emergency.

Under proposed Rule 58A-5.036, instead of mandating installed generators, facilities would now need to have a power source, such as a generator, on-site — but not necessarily installed. ALFs would be required to submit plans that detail how they would acquire sufficient fuel and safely store the fuel to maintain ambient temperatures at or below 81 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 96 hours following a power loss during a declared state of emergency.

Praising the new proposal is Shad Haston of the Florida Assisted Living Association, who said the changes would give member facilities a “better chance of complying.”

“We are happy that the newer version takes into account the suggestions provided during the Agency for Health Care Administration and Department of Elder Affairs’ workshop on Proposed Rule 58A-5.036, F.A.C.,” Haston wrote in an email Monday to Florida Politics. “From the beginning, FALA has taken the same opinion, and that was how do we get to the finish line with so little time, whether there are less restrictive ways of compliance, addressing the fuel requirements, and funding.

“FALA will continue to discuss possible options for help with funding for generators but is happy with the final product of the proposed rule.”

The prospective rule requires ALFs with 16 or fewer beds to keep on-site 48 hours of fuel, while homes with 17 or more beds would need to have on-site 72 hours of fuel unless local ordinances ban such storage. An ALF located in an area of a declared state of emergency must secure 96 hours of fuel.

To meet these new rules, ALFs can use portable fuel containers.

In the wake of Hurricane Irma in September, the Scott administration issued emergency rules that nursing homes and ALFs must have generators installed.

The rules followed the deaths of a dozen residents at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, a Broward County nursing home where the air conditioning was knocked out during the storm.

Scott’s order drew a swift backlash from groups representing nursing-home and assisted-living facilities. Before the new ALF proposed rules published Friday, estimates show it would cost the 2,951 assisted living facilities more than $243 million to comply.

The anticipated ALF rule comes about a week after the administration proposed new nursing home backup generator rules.

At the same time, the Florida House last week agreed to advance 78 recommendations arising from Hurricane Irma, including requiring long-term care providers to have backup power.

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Not Just A Body Of Water — A weekly newsletter about Tampa Bay politics — 1.21.18

— Tampa Bay ranks third statewide in job creation —

Tampa Bay added 28,000 new private-sector jobs in the last year, the third-highest number of jobs among all Florida metro areas.

In a statement this week from Gov. Rick Scott, Tampa Bay’s unemployment rate had dropped to 3.4 percent, down 1.1 percentage points from the same period last year.

Statewide, Florida businesses created nearly 30,000 new jobs in December and 1,497,100 new private-sector jobs since December 2010.

Rick Scott is touting Florida’s strong private-sector job gains.

“Last year ended strong with 28,000 new jobs created in the Tampa Bay area,” Scott said. “Statewide, nearly 1.5 million jobs have been created since December 2010, and it is clear that we are on track to making Florida the best place in the nation for families to find new opportunities.”

Industries with the highest growth in Tampa Bay were professional and business services (7,000 new jobs) and education and health services (6,100). The Tampa area remained first among the state metro areas in job demand in December with 40,143 openings. The region also continues to rank first in the state in demand for high-skill, high-wage STEM occupations with 13,179 openings in December.

— Dennis Ross blasts conditions at Bill Young VA Medical Center —

U.S. Rep. Ross, the Lakeland Republican who serves as Senior Deputy Majority Whip, sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin demanding answers about the conditions at the CW Bill Young VA Medical Center in Pinellas County.

A portion of the facility has no heat or hot water and veterans in the residential units have either had to take cold showers or walk across a parking lot to take a hot shower in a mobile unit.

Lakeland Republican Dennis Ross is criticizing the care at the CW Bill Young Veterans Center in Pinellas County.

“Although this facility is located in Pinellas County, several of my constituents in Hillsborough, Polk, and Lake counties receive care there and regularly interact with the employees and other Veterans there,” writes Ross, who represents Florida’s 15th Congressional District. “I would like to join my colleagues in the Tampa Bay delegation in requesting that these Veterans be provided with an alternative living space with working heat and hot water and for all reasonable steps to be taken to finish the repairs to Building 102 in the most efficient manner possible.”

— House hurricane panel suggestions include Suncoast Parkway extension —

A House committee formed in response to Hurricane Irma announced a list of suggestions to deal with future hurricanes — including extending the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia line, and not rebuilding in “high-risk” areas.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran appointed the 21-member state House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness in September, tasked with reviewing response and making recommendations. The committee issued 78 recommendations last week covering 10 policy areas: energy, shelters and vulnerable populations, housing, beaches and more.

To better handle future hurricanes, one suggestion is extending the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia state line.

To help with evacuations, the panel recommends extending the Suncoast Parkway — a 42-mile stretch between Tampa and northern Hernando County — to continue about 150 more miles to the Georgia state line.

On Oct. 12, Gov. Scott directed the Florida Department of Transportation to review improvements to I-75 from the Florida Turnpike interchange to the state line.

The House report also suggests the FDOT order an independent evaluation of strategically located petroleum distribution centers. Scott also directed state FDOT to examine ways to increase fuel supplies during hurricanes.

— Tampa Water Street project seeking public art submissions —

Tampa is seeking a professional artist to contribute to its multibillion-dollar Tampa Water Street project.

The City of Tampa’s Art Program Division and Strategic Property Partners, developer of the Water Street Tampa project, along with The University of South Florida Art in State Buildings Program, is issuing a call to professional artists to Commission a “site-specific exterior artwork” to be placed or integrated in the open plaza of the site.

Budget for the project is $600,000, which will include all costs associated with the public art venture.

The Plaza will be between the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute and a planned high-performance office tower.

For consideration, artists must send a proposal that includes a written statement, professional resume, digital images and a digital image ID sheet. Images can be uploaded to or email a link from Dropbox or other file sharing service to Mail submissions to: Water Street Tampa/USF Health, Art Programs Division, City of Tampa, 306 East Jackson Street 5N, Tampa, FL 33602. For more information and submission requirements, email, or call (813) 274-8531.

Application deadline is 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23.

— Former state Rep. Heather Fiorentino endorses Ardian Zika for HD 37 —

“Ardian Zika is a compassionate conservative who will fight for our children and will strive to make sure our teachers have the resources they need to provide a high-quality education to each Pasco child,” said Fiorentino, who now serves as superintendent of Pasco County Schools. “Over the years, I’ve been impressed by Ardian’s commitment to our community. He has been a tireless volunteer and I am grateful he is willing to now continue that service in our state capitol.

Former state Rep. Heather Fiorentino endorses Ardian Zika (left) for HD 37.

Zika is seeking the Republican-leaning Pasco County HD 37 seat vacated by term-limited House Speaker Corcoran. In recent years, Gov. Scott named Zika to the Florida Council on Homelessness, the Pasco Hernando State College board of trustees and the CareerSource Florida board of directors.

Also running is New Port Richey Democrat Tyler Sambucci.

— Hillsborough Commissioner Al Higginbotham endorses Joe Wicker for HD 59 — 

“Hillsborough County needs effective leadership in the state House and I can think of no one better suited to represent District 59 than Joe Wicker,” Higginbotham, who represents Hillsborough Countywide District 7, said in a statement.

“Joe served his country in Iraq and came home and began his own small business — living the same American Dream he fought to protect overseas. I’m proud to endorse Joe and I hope residents of East Hillsborough County will join me in supporting Joe Wicker for State House.”

Wicker, a Republican, is currently the only candidate in the race to replace Ross Spano of Dover in HD 59, which covers most of Brandon, as well as Valrico, Dover, Seffner, Riverview, Palm River and Clair-Mel City.

“Hillsborough County is well-served each and every day by the leadership of Commissioner Higginbotham. He embodies all the values and qualities we hope to see out of our elected officials. A true servant of his community, I’m humbled Commissioner Higginbotham has lent his name and support to our campaign,” Wicker said.

— Largo Mayor Woody Brown, Commissioner Curtis Holmes endorse Nick DiCeglie for HD 66 —

“I’m pleased to offer my support to Nick DiCeglie for my home district, Florida House District 66,” Brown said in a statement. “Nick cares about this community and has a solid record of community involvement.”

Largo Mayor Woody Brown.

“I seldom voluntarily endorse any candidate but there are occasions when the qualifications displayed by a would-be leader are so outstanding that it’s warranted and that is why I wholeheartedly endorse Nick DiCeglie to be the next representative for Florida House District 66,” said Holmes. “I’ve worked with Nick on many occasions, he’ll do a great job for Largo.”

Holmes and Brown’s endorsement follows support from former House Speaker Will Weatherford and Seminole Vice Mayor Chris Burke. DiCeglie chairs the Pinellas County Republican Party and runs Clearwater-based trash removal and recycling company Solar Sanitation.

— Seminole Councilmember James Quinn endorses Berny Jacques for HD 66 —

“Berny is a person who cares, and he will make the best decisions and protect all he plans to serve,” said Quinn in an announcement. “My endorsement for Berny is based on observing him serve our community as a member of the City of Seminole Developmental Review Board and as a member of the Sheriff’s Advisory Board.”

In addition to a seat on the Seminole City Council, Quinn also serves on the Sheriff’s Advisory Board, is a member of the Florida League of Cities Energy & Natural Resources Committee, and a member of the American Legion.

Jacques, a St. Petersburg attorney, responded that he was honored by Quinn’s endorsement, calling him “someone who fights daily for the residents of our city and I look forward to bringing the same fighting spirit to Tallahassee when representing the people of House District 66.”

— Mariella Smith kicks off Hillsborough County Commission run —

Smith, a Ruskin Democrat, will hold her kickoff fundraising event for the countywide Hillsborough Commission District 5 seat beginning 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23, at The Italian Club, 1731 E. 7th Ave. in Ybor City.

Suggested donation is $100 for attendees, $500 for a spot on the host committee. For info, to RSVP or host: or (727) 619-4145.

District 5 is an open seat since being vacated after eight years by Republican Ken Hagan, who has announced he is running for an added four (and possibly eight) years in District 2.

Smith is the fifth Democrat to enter the race, following Elvis Pigott, Mark Nash, Jae Passmore and Corey L. Reynolds.

— Pinellas County vote-by-mail schedule announced —

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark announced a new tentative mailing schedule for vote-by-mail ballots in the March 13 Municipal Elections.

Voters will cast ballots in several municipalities countywide: Belleair, Belleair Beach, Clearwater, Gulfport, Indian Rocks Beach, Kenneth City, Madeira Beach, Pinellas Park, Redington Beach, Safety Harbor, South Pasadena and Treasure Island.

Clark said mail ballots will start going out Jan. 26 to absent military and overseas voters who have to date requested ballots. State law requires ballots for absent military and overseas voters to be mailed at least 45 days before an election.

On Feb. 6, mail ballots will go to domestic voters who have requested ballots to date. State law requires domestic ballots to be mailed between 35 and 28 days before an election.

Additional mail ballot requests will be fulfilled as received, Clark added. To request a mail ballot, visit, call (727)  464-VOTE (8683), or email

The deadline to request sending a vote-by-mail ballot is March 7 at 5 p.m.

Mail ballots must be received at one of the Supervisor of Elections Offices by 7 p.m. on Election Day. Voters should allow at least one week for a ballot to be returned by mail to the Supervisor of Elections Office.

Vote-by-mail ballots may also be dropped off at any Supervisor of Elections Office; hours and locations can also be found at

— Pic of the week —

Despite many Floridians protesting against Donald Trump, the president still has fans willing to speak out in his favor.

— Clearwater Chamber PAC endorses David Allbritton, Hoyt Hamilton —

ClearPAC, the political action committee affiliated with the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, endorsed Albritton and Hamilton for Clearwater City Council Seats 4 and 5, respectively.

“Mr. Allbritton has demonstrated his commitment to the future of Clearwater by his long history of service on various boards and committees, and is dedicated to moving Clearwater forward,” said ClearPAC Chair Ray Ferrara. “Mr. Hamilton’s outstanding record of public service to this city and his commitment to new business development in downtown Clearwater while keeping a historical perspective will serve our citizens well.”

The Chamber endorsed the pair, in part, because both candidates fully support the Imagine Clearwater waterfront redevelopment plan, approved by an overwhelming majority of Clearwater voters in November’s referendum.

“A 75-25 split is more than just a mandate,” Ferrara added. “This needs to happen. Our citizens are tired of waiting. We are pleased that both candidates recognize this, and are committed to ensuring that the Imagine Clearwater project gets done.”

— Clearwater schedules City Council meet-the-candidate forum —

The Clearwater Downtown Partnership is hosting a City Council meet-the-candidate forum Monday, Feb. 5 at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater.

Confirmed to appear are David Allbritton, Tom Keller and incumbent councilmember Hoyt Hamilton.

Allbritton and Keller are facing off to replace Councilmember Bill Jonson in Seat 4. Hamilton is running for re-election to Seat 5. His opponent, John Funk, declined to appear.

Meet three of four Clearwater City Council Candidates Feb. 5.

The primary focus of the event will be issues facing the downtown community, but topics will not be limited to downtown only. Organizers are restricting that discussion to policy or issues, with no personal questions allowed.

Doors open at 5 p.m., forum begins 5:30 p.m.; the event is open to the public. The Capitol Theatre is at 405 Cleveland St. in Clearwater.

— Two Madeira Beach City Commission races draw four candidates —

Four candidates are seeking a pair of seats on the five-member Madeira Beach City Commission.

Incumbent Terry Lister faces challenger Deby Weinstein for District 1; incumbent Nancy Hodges faces Eric Breslin.

The Madeira Beach elections are March 13, the same day Pinellas County holds its municipal elections. In addition, the communities of Belleair, Indian Rocks Beach, Kenneth City, Pinellas Park and Treasure Island will hold mayoral elections.

Residents can learn which district they live in at the Madeira Beach website.

— Safety Harbor candidate forum gets venue change —

The 2018 Safety Harbor candidate forum has received a venue change, moving from the City Commission Chambers at City Hall to the Baranoff Theater at the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa.

The event is still set to start at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 1, with a meet-and-greet in the foyer, followed by a two-hour question and answer period in the 150-seat theater.

According to officials for the Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce, which is sponsoring the forum, the venue change was necessitated by the large candidate field — six candidates qualified to run for the three open commission seats Tuesday, March 13.

Safety Harbor candidate forum gets a venue change.

Also, with the forum now taking place off city property, some of the restrictions surrounding the event have been lifted. Whereas campaign materials were prohibited at City Hall, those materials, including pamphlets and campaign signs, will be allowed to be displayed at the Spa. The venue change also forced the city to scrap plans to livestream the event, as they don’t have the capability to stream events outside City Hall. According to City Manager Matt Spoor, a video of the event should be up on the city’s website by Monday, Feb. 5.

— Charter Communications celebrates Brian Aungst Sr. career, retirement —

In celebration of a 30-year career in the public and private sectors, Charter Communications is honoring Aungst with a retirement reception Tuesday, Jan. 30.

Citing family health issues, Aungst is ending his stint as director of Government Relations for Charter-Spectrum Communications — formerly Vision Cable, Time Warner and Bright House Networks. During that time, he served as chairs of the Florida Cable Telecommunications Association, Clearwater for Youth and the Bright House Clearwater Super Boat National Championships as well as other groups.

Since moving to the area in 1988, Aungst has been active in the community; he also served two terms as Clearwater mayor starting in 1999.

The event begins 6 p.m. at the Marina Cantina, 25 Causeway Boulevard in Clearwater. “Your present is your presence! Please, no gifts,” says the invite. RSVP by Jan. 26 to

Aungst and his wife of more than 40 years, Karen, live in Clearwater and have a son, Brian Jr., who is an attorney at the firm of MacFarlane Ferguson & McMullen.

Clearwater Chamber recently named Karen and Brian Aungst Sr. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Clearwater.’ Aungst is retiring this month after an illustrious 30-year career. 

— Personnel note: RSA Consulting Group adds up-and-coming lobbyist Kaitlyn Bailey —

Bailey becomes the firm’s newest associate for Government & Community Affairs. As one of the region’s leading full-service consulting firms, with offices in Tampa and Tallahassee, RSA specializes in government, legislative and community affairs, strategic planning, media and public relations.

“We’re thrilled to welcome Kaitlyn to our growing team,” said RSA founder and President Ron Pierce in a statement. “Since Kaitlyn joined us as an intern in 2016, we’ve been impressed by her professionalism, her willingness to jump right in and her strong aptitude for understanding the process and policies we work on.”

Bailey is a Florida State University graduate with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Hospitality and Political Science. She first joined RSA two years ago as an intern, later becoming a part-time associate for the 2017 Session. Before RSA, Bailey served as turf coordinator for the Republican Party of Florida during the 2016 presidential election cycle, working with the Field Director on strategy, data analysis and canvassing in Northwest Florida.

— Christopher LaBruzzo, Frederick Pollock named to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court —

On Friday, Gov. Scott announced the appointments of LaBruzzo and Pollack to the 6th Judicial Circuit Court, which serves Pinellas and Pasco counties.

LaBruzzo, 42, of Tampa, is an Assistant State Attorney for the 6th Judicial Circuit. He fills the vacancy created by the resignation of Judge John A. Schaefer.

Pollack, 45, of Clearwater, is a partner at Hunter Law, P.A. He has previously served as a Family Law General Magistrate and Child Support Hearing Officer for the 6th Judicial Circuit. Pollack fills the vacancy created by the resignation of Judge Mark I. Shames.

— Swope, Rodante attorney named America’s most influential —

The Trial Lawyer magazine recognized civil trial practice firm Swope, Rodante P.A. attorney Elizabeth Zwibel as a member of 2017’s The RoundTable: America’s Most Influential Trial Lawyers. Her inclusion in the annual list is Zwibel’s second in a row.

Every year, The Trial Lawyer magazine identifies a select group of remarkable trial lawyers who have met the challenges of the legal profession and achieved extraordinary success in the courtroom. Zwibel regularly presents seminars across the nation and is recognized for her ability to handle the complexities of catastrophic cases. In addition to the RoundTable, she is also a member of The National Trial Lawyers: Top 100, has been inducted into the Florida Verdicts Hall of Fame by the Daily Business Review, was featured for her stellar achievements in the Ex Parte of Brevard County, and was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by America’s Top 100 Attorneys.

— Local courts roundup —

Vinoy sued for theft of $300K Ferrari — In July 2017, Orange County resident James “Skip” Fowler, 73, stayed at the Vinoy St. Petersburg Resort and Golf Club, leaving his 2014 Ferrari 458 Spider, with a valet. While there, Levi Miles — another Vinoy guest — obtained the keys to the Ferrari from a valet and drove off. Hours later, Miles was discovered with the stolen Ferrari; he was arrested for Grand Theft Auto, cocaine possession and driving with a revoked driver’s license. Fowler is suing Vinoy owner Marriott International Inc. and Seven One Seven Parking Enterprise Inc. (which runs the Vinoy valet service) for negligence and for repairs to the car, worth roughly $300,000.

James “Skip” Fowler, plaintiff, with his 2014 Ferrari 458 Spider

Florida nursing homes face class-action lawsuit — From December 2016 until just before her death in January 2017, 74-year-old Shirley Cox resided at Woodbridge Care, a Tampa nursing home that is one of 22 Florida facilities purportedly owned by New York residents Eliezer Scheiner and Teddy Lichtschein. According to a proposed class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Cox and roughly 3,000 other residents, the nursing homes provided more than $900-million in “unlicensed skilled nursing services” because their licenses were obtained via “fraud and deception.” Cox’s estate and two other plaintiffs say the owners of the 22 homes — currently on the market by defendant Marcus & Millichap — operate them as a single entity for all practical purposes, extracting maximum profit while providing “substandard” care. But in dealings with the state’s licensing agency, the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration, the owners portrayed each of the 22 homes as individually owned to minimize liability to creditors. The plaintiffs accuse Marcus & Millichap of being “fully aware of the deception” and are misleading in marketing the homes for sale.

Tampa man accuses Hertz of threats, harassment — On Oct. 4, 2017, Dwayne Ross, a longtime customer of car rental firm Hertz, went to a rental location in Tampa to close out one contract and enter into a new, one-month contract for an Infiniti QX80. After signing the contract, he left briefly and returned to give the staff a gift “to thank them for their service.” According to a Jan. 10 lawsuit, Ross says an unidentified location manager screamed, swore and threatened him for signing an underpriced contract, demanding Ross tear it up and sign a new one at a higher rate. Instead, Ross left and confirmed with a supervisor the contract was valid. Several days later, Ross complained to an unidentified Hertz Tampa Bay area regional manager about how he was treated. Instead of sympathy, the manager allegedly called Ross “boy,” demanding he pay a previously unknown 13-year-old debt; he also placed Ross on a “do not rent” list. The manager then repossessed the Infiniti in New York — stranding Ross and his family, who were there visiting a sick relative. Ross is seeking damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and violation of Florida’s consumer debt-collection law.

MacDinton’s Irish Pub blamed for tossing patrons through glass door Dominic Gallone says he was at MacDinton’s SoHo on April 1, 2016, when a bouncer named Marques Delliott Smith threw him through the bar’s glass front door “without justification or provocation.” As a result, Gallone suffered substantial injuries (and Smith was sent to prison for felony battery). In a lawsuit filed Jan. 5, Gallone says the tossing was not an isolated incident. He claims ejecting “patrons they deem troublesome” by tossing them through a glass door is a “pattern” at MacDinton’s.

Brain booster manufacturer sues over faulty capsules — In 2016, Elixir Zenith hired Tampa-based Peak Nutritional to manufacture two nutraceutical products in capsule form: a brain booster called “Neuro” and a sleep formula. Elixir began an “extensive marketing campaign” for the products, which were sold as a package. After Elixir began shipping the products, customers began to complain and demand refunds. Peak’s allegedly faulty manufacturing process allowed the capsules’ powdery contents to be “contaminated by an unidentified liquid,” which caused the powder to begin dissolving, solidify, and generate black and brown spots. In a lawsuit filed Jan. 8, Elixir accuses Peak of delivering “defective and noncompliant products.”

Pasco teacher blames Dillard’s for battery, malicious prosecutionChristine Lallier, a 50-year-old Pasco County teacher, says she was wearing a black and tan Le Mystere 38D bra when she went shopping at the upscale Dillard’s store at Citrus Park Town Center Nov. 14, 2016. After trying on (but rejecting) a similar bra, Lallier, a resident of New Port Richey, bought a pair of pants for her son and left the store. A security guard allegedly stopped her for “stealing” the $65 bra she came in with and was still wearing. In a back room of the store, a loss-prevention officer named Jeffrey Ruiz and a female employee (identified only as Victoria) allegedly proceeded to falsely accuse Lallier of stealing the pants she bought for her son, a used lipstick she had in her bag, and the bra she was wearing. Despite proof to the contrary, Victoria ordered Lallier to stand up, lifted her shirt without consent, and pulled down the cups of her bra while Ruiz watched. Later, the pair demanded a police officer arrest and jail Lallier. Lallier pleaded “not guilty” and hired a defense attorney. The prosecution continued for five months. On the day of a scheduled nonjury trial, Ruiz failed to show, leading prosecutors to drop the case. In a lawsuit filed Jan. 5, Lallier says Dillard’s knew from the surveillance tapes that there was no evidence against her, but continued to push for a conviction anyway. She says the prosecution — as well as a threatened lawsuit by Dillard’s seeking $475 — caused her anxiety and humiliation and made her fear losing her teaching job.

— Save the date: St. Pete event to highlight plight of DREAMers —

The League of Women Voters St. Petersburg Area’s Immigration Action Group will hold an event Wednesday, Jan. 24, to showcase the plight of nearly 2 million young adults and millennials brought to the U.S. as children, 790,000 of them temporarily protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. They all faced deportation unless Congress acts to reauthorize the DREAM Act.

The event — free and open to the public — begins 6:30 p.m. at Empath Partners in Care, 3050 1st Ave. S. in St. Petersburg. More information at

League of Women Voters St. Petersburg will highlight the plight of DREAMers at a Jan. 24 event.

— If you read one thing: A parent’s notes on foster care —

It’s difficult to raise children — arguably more so when they’re not your own.

Foster care parents occupy a unique space, absorbing all the difficulties of parenting while knowing the product of their care will eventually return to a parent or family member. Shannon Colavecchio, a former Tampa Bay Times reporter, published in her alma mater journal entries she kept during her brief time with fostered child Princess Pigtails, a nickname for a 3-year-old girl with “big green eyes, blonde hair and freckles” who had been pulled from her home and her mother was arrested and taken to jail.

Foster mom Shannon Colavecchio talks about the struggles raising a child.

It’s a must-read, providing insights to foster care, parenting, faith and love. It’s also a feel-good story, leaving the reader optimistic about Pigtails’ future with her biological mother, to who Pigtails is ultimately returned.

Here are some great excerpts:

The little things: Colavecchio, who now works with Moore Communications Group in Tallahassee, searches for reassurance that her brief tenure as a parent is working well. She writes, “I cling to little things — like a good note from her teacher, or how she has learned to start each meal by saying grace — as a sign that she and I are navigating this thing okay. ‘Deah Word (Lord). Fank you food. Amen.’”

Homesick: “ … this morning before school, she just plopped down onto the floor and hugged her knees to her chest and sadly declared, ‘I miss my mom. I want see her. I sad,’” writes Colavecchio. And later: “Things that are true but not easy to be told: ‘You no mom. You Shannon.’”

A happy ending: Colavecchio hears from Pigtails’ biological mother after the two are returned. The mother struggled with addiction, but Colavecchio remains hopeful. She writes, “She’s not the monster I wanted to think she was. I’m not the stranger who tried to take her daughter. I tell her that Princess Pigtails is worth fighting for. Worth cleaning up her life for.”

More: There are an estimated 24,000 foster care children in Florida at any given time, to learn more visit

— Tampa Bay Rowdies sign attacker Junior Flemmings —

Adding another dynamic young attacker, Flemmings joins the Rowdies ahead of the 2018 United Soccer League season. The signing is pending league and federation approval.

“I’m very happy to join the Rowdies family and I’m looking forward to meeting my new teammates and coaching staff,” Flemmings said in a statement. “I’m excited to play alongside players who I’ve admired and watched growing up like Joe Cole, Marcel Schäfer and Neill Collins.”

Newly signed Rowdies attacker Junior Flemmings.

Flemmings, 22, played the last two seasons with the New York Red Bulls II. He scored 16 goals in 52 matches, helping the Red Bulls to a USL Championship in 2016 and the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2017. Last season, Flemmings was twice named to the USL Team of the Week.

“Junior is the kind of players fans love to watch,” Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell said. “He’s lightning quick and very experienced for his age. You add him into a group of skilled wide attackers that includes Leo (Fernandes) and Alex (Morrell) already, plus Jochen Graf and Sebastian Guenzatti and we really like the attack we’re building.”

A native of Kingston, Jamaica, Flemmings broke into the senior national team last year, earning his first cap for the Reggae Boyz in June 2017.

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.

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