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Who pays for climate change? Hillsborough County Commission candidates tackle environment, race and coronavirus at forum

Should taxpayers foot the bill for projects to address climate change? Or should the burden be put on the companies that contributed to pollution and environmental damages? 

Hillsborough County Commission candidates addressed this question and others related to climate change, racial justice and the coronavirus pandemic at a virtual forum Wednesday night. 

The forum, which was organized by several local environmental and social justice organizations, hosted District 1 Democratic candidates Harry Cohen and Jen McDonald, as well as five of the District 3 candidates. 

The organizers reached out to Republican candidate Tony Morejon who did not respond to an invitation to join. Morejon’s primary opponent Scott Levinson confirmed his attendance but did not show.

So, how did the candidates respond? 

Cohen, a former Tampa City Councilman who is leading the race in fundraising, agreed to the suggestion of joining the growing number of cost recovery lawsuits currently being pursued by several Florida cities and counties holding polluting parties accountable for environmental harm.

“To me, the analogy here is with tobacco companies — taxpayers should not have to pay the health care costs of the ramifications of smoking that tobacco companies knew was killing people. It’s really the same situation,” Cohen said. “If there are lawsuits out there that are already in progress, then our job is to find the best one to join.”

McDonald emphasized the need to start tracking things now, as the cleanup can ultimately become so great that it becomes the responsibility of the federal government. 

“We’re already well behind the curve,” McDonald said. “No, I don’t think taxpayers should be saddled with this because quite frankly those energy companies are making profits off the backs of taxpayers’ pennies.”

The local environmental group GreenFaith asked the candidates how they plan to move forward into sustainable and equitable recovery from COVID-19, especially in heavily impacted marginalized communities.   

Cohen voiced his support for rent assistance led by Hillsborough County.  

“Without a federal bill, we are going to have to do a lot more,” Cohen said. “When the eviction moratorium is up, we are going to have a lot of people that owe a lot of money in terms of rent and they are going to lose their homes, unless the county steps forward with cash assistance.” 

McDonald addressed the pandemic’s strain on the economy, and her leadership in the community throughout the pandemic. 

“All I know how to do is try to lead the community by sharing good information from experts like doctors and scientists,” McDonald said. “One of the biggest things I see coming down the line is the economic challenges coming out of COVID-19 — we really have to move forward with how we protect people while allowing them to live their lives and provide their family.”

The Democrat candidates of the Hillsborough County Commission’s District 3 race — Gwen Myers, Thomas Scott, Rick Fernandez, Frank Reddick and Sky White — were also involved in the forum. The organizers reached out to Republican challenger Maura Cruz Lanz, who declined to join.

The candidates discussed the same questions, including if the candidates would fight for a county moratorium on water and power utility shut offs, meant to alleviate economic burden during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All the candidates agreed that they would fight for a moratorium. 

“Hillsborough County has its own water that they handle and so that should be real easy to get done,” said Scott, who is currently leading in fundraising. 

Reddick, although in support of a moratorium, made sure to mention the significance of social services that are helping families respond to the impact of the pandemic. 

“The county has Social Services programs that assist families that have issues with the water and electricity, and they work in collaboration with other agencies to make sure that those individuals, those families, receive services during this COVID virus,” Reddick said. 

Written By

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at kelly@floridapolitics.com.

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