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8 posts from December 11, 2013

December 11, 2013

Rick Scott two-fer: big tax cut + swipe at Charlie Crist tax increases


Gov. Rick Scott will make an election-year pledge Thursday to cut $401 million in auto-tag fees that could save a typical driver about $25 yearly and put some political heat on his 2014 challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Scott plans to make the announcement in Tampa -- Crist's stronghold -- but he isn't expected to detail an additional $100 million in other tax and fee relief he might want.

While the auto-tag fees were raised by Crist and the Republican-led Legislature in 2009, Crist noted in a statement Wednesday that Scott had allowed the fees to remain for the past three years.

"It’s about time! When these fees were passed by Rick Scott’s colleagues and signed into law they were never meant to be permanent," Crist said in a statement. "I’m surprised it’s taken this long for Governor Scott to realize that it’s time to roll these fees back – better late than never.”

The governor's fellow Republicans who control the Legislature say they want to see more details, but they like what they've heard so far -- especially because it gives them the chance to reduce the unpopular fee increase four years ago.

"I've had three campaigns since then and knocked on thousands of doors, and this is the tax increase people remember," said Senate budget chief Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who last year passed a measure to scale back the fees.

"Government has a bad habit of raising fees in times of need but not revisting them when times improve," Negron said. "This puts a little extra money back in people's pockets."

In targeting auto-tag fees, Scott is highlighting the tax-and-fee increases passed in 2009 by the Florida Legislature and approved by then-Gov. Crist. Crist, who two years previously approved a mammoth property tax-cut package, broke a pledge on increasing taxes when he signed that budget.

Driving lawmakers' need for the 2009 tax increases: the shoddy condition of Florida's budget, running red with shortfalls in the depths of the recession. To fill the budget hole -- and qualify for billions in federal stimulus money -- Crist and his then-fellow Republicans raised $2.2 billion in taxes and fees, including the auto-tag fee about $1 billion of which came from a new cigarette tax to help fund Medicaid.

The stimulus money and tax increases helped prevent large cuts to schools and social-service programs. As the budget went into effect, in the summer of 2009, the rate of Florida's precipitous job losses stopped, but unemployment remained persistently high.

Dogged by the bad economy and his embrace of President Obama's stimulus program, Crist mounted an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2010, when Marco Rubio chased him out of the GOP. Crist ran and lost as an independent and is now seeking his old job as a Democrat.

Now, Florida has climbed out of the recession and the state has a projected budget surplus of $1 billion -- making the election-year call to cut half of it a relatively easy left in the GOP-led Legislature during the regular lawmaking session this spring.

"Obviously, we're very supportive of the governor's call to cut taxes," said House budget chairman Seth McKeel. "We're in a year where we can afford it, and we're excited to be on board with him cutting taxes."

Miami Gardens police chief resigns amid scandal

@jknipebrown @LDixon_3

Miami Gardens Police Chief Matthew Boyd resigned Wednesday amid allegations that officers under his command have systematically committed civil rights violations.

Boyd, the city’s first and only police chief, had disputed the allegations, which were detailed two weeks ago in a story by the Miami Herald.

The story revealed that members of the force’s specialized crime units routinely stopped, searched and arrested patrons of a local convenience store, the 207 Quickstop. Some of the store’s customers were questioned hundreds of times over the past four years for minor infractions, such as trespassing and violating liquor law ordinances.

Boyd maintained that the officers’ actions were justified because the store is in a high-crime area in need of pro-active policing.

But the store’s owner, Alex Saleh, was disturbed by how his customers were being treated. Last year, he filed a complaint with the department and later installed video cameras. Since then, he has recorded hundreds of videos, many of them showing Miami Gardens police officers stopping, frisking and arresting customers who had committed no serious crime, and who appear to be cooperating with the officers.

More here.

Miami-Dade to take first stab at soccer stadium


Soccer icon David Beckham’s pursuit of a downtown Miami stadium for a potential Major League Soccer team will face its first public political test next week.

A Miami-Dade County Commission vote scheduled for Tuesday would authorize Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration to identify possible stadium sites and negotiate construction contracts with any interested private developers.

That would begin talks in earnest between the county and Beckham and his investors, who have approached Gimenez about building a 25,000-seat stadium on public land on PortMiami’s Dodge Island.

Even if the seaport were to be deemed unsuitable, the legislation before commissioners would limit any other sites to downtown, an area of imprecise borders that both Beckham and MLS have identified as the preferred location to attract soccer fans.

“Success of MLS in this country has been due to urban, downtown locations” near people and public transportation, said Neisen Kasdin, a local attorney and lobbyist for Beckham’s investment group. “David and Victoria Beckham and sort of what they stand for is hip, urban cool.”

More here.

Citizens offers to settle disputed sinkhole claims, but some wonder if it's sincere

About 2,100 customers who have or are planning to sue Citizens Property Insurance over sinkhole claims will soon be getting offers to settle.

The state run company announced Wednesday it is mailing proposals to current and potentially future litigants this week that offer to pay for repairs. But there are strings attached, including a a requirement that customers will no longer be paid to make the necessary repairs. Instead, Citizens will pay the contractor directly.

Read settlement proposal:  Download Citizensletter.pdf

Dubbed “Grout in the Ground”, the proposal is part of an effort to settle sinkhole claims, as well as avoid future risk. The letter invokes recent sinkhole mishaps in Seffner, Clermont and Dunedin to encourage customers to agree to settle.

“While we recognize that these events are extremely rare occurrences, Citizens’ primary goal is making you and your family safe immediately,” the letter stated.

The settlement offer also comes after the Herald/Times reported frustration among customers with the claims process

If homeowners accept the offer, they must drop their lawsuits against Citizens, agreeing to pay their own legal bills and fees.

“This is an attempt to see if we can settle some of these cases,” said Citizens spokesman Michael Peltier. “It’s been our policy not to write blank checks. This is an expansion on that.”

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, represents parts of Pasco and Hernando that are susceptible to sinkholes. He hailed the settlement offer, which he encouraged in meeting with Citizens officials, as a practical way to reduce litigation costs while providing customers with the coverage they need.

“What we’re trying to do is get the homes properly repaired,” Simpson said. “That’s the primary concern. This is the right way to do it. There’s no downside at all in this plan.”

Simpson said too many customers spent claims money on other expenses or didn’t spend the money at all, making the homes vulnerable for themselves or for those who buy the homes later.

Frequent Citizens critic and former state lawmaker Mike Fasano, who is now the Pasco Tax Collector, said he was happy to hear that the company will require that the money be spent on repairs. Too often, he said, customers would spend the money elsewhere.

But Fasano questioned the chosen method of repair: grouting. He said grouting is more expensive than other methods, such as pinning.

“This will cost Citizens a fortune,” Fasano said. “Grouting is expensive. Companies will pour cement just to meet the total cost of the claim. They’ll grout until the cows come home in some cases.”

Lawyers like Dan Fritz, who represent homeowners against Citizens, say the latest offer was an insincere one.

“Citizens is the only insurance company in Florida that is forcing homeowners to put ‘grout in the ground’, which is what they were doing in Dunedin when the collapse occurred,” said Fritz, general counsel at Sinkhole Public Adjusting, LLC in New Port Richey. “Citizens has a strategy which appears to disregard their customer’s best interests.  We saw Citizens send out a similar letter after the Seffner tragedy, so it doesn’t look like a serious offer.”

According to the three-page letter, cash will no longer be paid to those with homes in need of underground repairs. Instead, those homeowners who have identified sinkholes must hire certified contractors to bolster the homes with grouting. Citizens will pay for those expenses. If the grouting doesn’t stave off sinkhole damage, Citizens will pay for additional repairs deemed necessary by Geohazards Inc., a Gainesville contractor hired by Citizens.

Once Geohazards identifies the necessary repairs to stabilize or repair their homes have been completed, Citizens would pay for a “neutral” evaluator to determine if further repairs are necessary if the engineer hired by the homeowners recommends more work.

The neutral evaluator, or contractor, would have geotechnical expertise to determine if further repairs are necessary. A key part of Wednesday’s settlement is that homeowners would agree to abide by the recommendation from Citizen’s neutral evaluator. Citizens would pay for all repairs the evaluator recommends.

Customers won’t be required to pay any out-of-pocket expenses for the repairs, the letter states.

Still, there’s some wiggle room for Citizens.

The letter states that if homeowners accept the offer, and the neutral evaluator agrees with the homeowner’s engineer’s method of repair, Citizens would pay the “reasonable cost” of the report and investigation by the homeowner’s engineer, along with any “reasonable” attorneys’ fees.

“Understand that Citizens is committed to working with you to put this litigation behind us and to put the ‘grout in the ground’ necessary to protect your property,” the letter stated. “We hope you are as well.”

To avoid customers handling the money, Citizens would pay the contractor directly. Homeowners would provide Citizens with any invoices for the grouting and repairs as the work is performed.

Citizens will monitor the work done by the homeowner’s contractor to make sure it is “appropriate and consistent with the engineer’s recommendations.”

Upon completion of the grouting, Citizens will inspect the home and determine if the repairs caused any additional damage to the home. If it does, Citizens would pay.

Interim DCF Secretary to stay in post through 2014 legislative session

Interim Department of Children & Families Secretary Esther Jacobo has agreed to stay in the job through the end of the 2014 legislative session, Gov. Rick Scott announced Wednesday.  She’ll be continuing in the post at a time when the department is trying to correct flaws that helped lead to the deaths of 40 children under state care.

Jacobo, Miami’s top DCF administrator, took over the post in July, after former DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned amid the scandal over the deaths of four children from families with a history of involvement with child abuse investigators during a six-week period, catalogued in stories by The Miami Herald. 

Scott also said that his office will be meeting with children services and law enforcement officials and community leaders to identify a permanent secretary.

Here are comments from Scott and Jacobo from Wednesday’s press release from the governor’s office:

“Esther has been an incredible leader, and she will be an invaluable resource for legislators on children and family issues during the upcoming legislative session. Our state has already benefited from the on-the-ground experience Esther brings to DCF, and we will continue to work with child services stakeholders to ensure we have the best leadership at the agency to protect Florida children.”

 Interim Secretary Jacobo said, “When Governor Scott asked if I would stay through the legislative session, I jumped at the opportunity. I am eager to lead our team through session because I believe in the work we are doing. I cannot thank Governor Scott enough for the honor of serving as Secretary of DCF, and I look forward to continuing to work on significant changes that will have a positive impact on our state’s most vulnerable children and families.”


Scott files paperwork to seek re-election in 2014

Gov. Rick Scott submitted the necessary paperwork to the state Division of Elections Tuesday to seek a second term in 2014, making him officially a candidate for re-election. Republican "Richard L. Scott" appointed Abby Dupree as his campaign treasurer and Frederick (Rick) Carroll III, a well-known Tallahassee CPA, as his deputy campaign treasurer.

Scott's paperwork is in addition to his Let's Get to Work re-election committee. The filing is a formality and he's not expected to have serious opposition in the Republican primary. The first reporting deadline for contributions to Scott's re-election fund will be on Jan. 10, 2014.

-- Steve Bousquet

Homestead scuttles Dade Medical College deal


For Ernesto Perez’s increasingly troubled educational empire, it was the Homestead piece that was the first to crumble.

On Tuesday, Homestead’s City Council killed a planned land sale to the Perez-owned Dade Medical College. The 5-2 vote came after weeks of damaging revelations about Perez’s for-profit school.

Perez was a conspicuous no-show. The land deal in question would have allowed Perez to buy 19 city properties in downtown Homestead — with the college leader paying 38 percent of what the land is worth.

Homestead’s city council unanimously approved the sale two years ago — believing Perez’s promise that an expanded Dade Medical presence would enliven their sleepy downtown. Dade Medical already has a Homestead campus but Perez said the additional land would mean more students and more spin-off businesses.

What wasn’t known at the time: Perez had hired the wife of Homestead’s mayor as his real estate consultant.

Neither Perez nor then-Mayor Steve Bateman disclosed the conflict. Bateman, meanwhile, aggressively pushed the Dade Medical sale, short-circuiting city efforts to negotiate a better deal.

Homestead Vice Mayor Stephen Shelley, one of those who supported canceling the sale, called the project forever “tainted” by Bateman’s actions. The former mayor was arrested on unrelated corruption charges in August.

More here.

Miami-Dade ethics commission finds no problem with North Miami mayor using police as bodyguards

By Philippe Buteau

North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau’s use of police officers as personal bodyguards and chauffeurs did not violate Miami-Dade or city ethics rules, according to the county’s ethics commission.

The Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust investigated whether Tondreau used her official position to secure special privileges. The commission interviewed Tondreau, City Manager Stephen Johnson and Police Chief Marc Elias, reviewed a police report on threatening phone calls made to City Hall and the powers and duties of the city manager.

Based on the available evidence, the ethics commission concluded there was “no basis for filing an ethics complaint,” according to their report and closed the case without doing any further.

“What happened was connected to public business, and based on what we found there was no basis for complaint,” said Joseph Centorino, executive director of the commission. “If it were for purely private trips or business that would have been different because part of our ethics code is to avoid exploitation of office.”

In response to threatening phone calls to another city official, Tondreau had a police officer chauffeur her around to city functions. During a two-week period in August – the start of the school year – Tondreau was scheduled to visit about 30 schools in North Miami. A police officer drove her to and from the schools.

More here.