With state government firmly in the hands of Republicans since the last century, Florida policymakers have been extremely friendly to free-market principles.
At the same time, local governments — cities and counties — decry the trend of state lawmakers passing so-called preemption bills, which the locals believe step on cherished home-rule principles of local democracy.
So how do you explain a handful of communities in the deepest-red part of Florida going out of their way to stifle free enterprise, disrespect the state Legislature, and impose what amounts to an unauthorized “tax” on contractors and homeowners?
In an area still struggling to rebuild from the devastation of Hurricane Michael two-and-a-half years ago, you would think local governments would be doing everything they can to make rebuilding as affordable and timely as possible.
That’s why it’s particularly shocking that some local governments in the Panhandle are sticking it to local builders — and, ultimately, to the homeowners these governments are supposed to serve.
That’s right, Bay County, I’m looking at you. And also you, Walton County. And ESPECIALLY you, Lynn Haven.
Almost two decades ago, the Legislature authorized licensed private entities to conduct building inspections and plan reviews, so the burden wouldn’t fall solely on understaffed local building departments.
In 2017, lawmakers recognized that the locals still weren‘t able to keep up with the demand, so they incentivized the use of private providers by requiring governments to reduce permit fees when builders and homeowners used private inspectors instead of public employees.
The reasoning was simple: The backlog was costing builders and homeowners time and money, and if government resources aren’t being spent to do the inspections, builders shouldn’t have to pay as much for the permitting process. It wasn’t just a suggestion — the Legislature made the fee reduction mandatory.
But that hasn’t seemed to matter to some local governments in the Panhandle, which have refused to lower the permit fees the way the law requires.
Government officials there are thumbing their nose at the Legislature and flipping off the clear language of statute and the small mom-and-pop businesses working hard to rebuild these communities. Is it any wonder elected officials seem to grow increasingly comfortable stepping on local authority?
Perhaps the worst offender, based on the description in a lawsuit, is the city of Lynn Haven — a small community next to Panama City that’s quickly earning a reputation as a haven for corruption.
Last year, the feds indicted several city officials, including the then-Mayor, city manager, and city attorney, along with several businesses, in a fraud scam stemming from Hurricane Michael recovery funds. (More federal criminal charges were filed just last week.) Brazenly, in 2019, the lawsuit says, the city adopted a new fee scheme that reduces permit fees by an arbitrary amount — not what the law requires.
Worse yet, Lynn Haven doesn’t even use city employees for these inspections. It farms out the work to a vendor, which receives 75% of every permit fee — even when the builder hires its own outside inspector.
That’s right, this vendor collects potentially thousands of dollars for not doing the work.
Let’s be clear: There is every reason to believe that the overwhelming majority of Florida’s 400-plus cities and 67 counties do things the right way, appropriately reducing permit fees when builders exercise their legal option to use private inspectors. Even in the Panhandle, we hope, most local governments get it right.
But these few outlaw outliers seem to think they’re above the law, that they can keep charging outrageous amounts no matter who it hurts and no matter how much it slows down the region’s ongoing economic recovery.
It’s hard to understand why, in some of Florida’s most politically conservative counties, local officials think they can flout the law, disrespect state officials and their own people, collect this unauthorized tax on homebuilding and other construction, and ultimately make their constituents suffer.
If local government officials want the Legislature to stop intruding on their home rule powers — and they most certainly do — then they had all better stop acting like outlaws who can pick and choose which legal mandates to abide by and which to flagrantly ignore.