By Rich Pollack
When the state Legislature begins its 60-day regular session this month, lawmakers will consider a wide range of proposed bills, many of which have already drawn the attention of concerned local government leaders.
Among the bills proposed so far is one that would prevent a local government from prohibiting back-in parking in parking garages.
Another bill would require local governments to respond to public questions at their meetings or provide written responses within 10 days as well as to incorporate the responses into the meeting minutes. Yet another would limit local governments’ ability to regulate tree trimming on private property.
Two bills already introduced, one in the Florida House of Representatives and another in the Senate, could place the authority to create Community Redevelopment Agencies in the hands of the Legislature rather than local government and prevent CRAs from providing funding to nonprofit organizations.
While the bills have different degrees of impact, each is seen by local government leaders as eroding their ability to govern their communities.
It is, they say, an erosion of the concept of home rule, where elected officials on the local level make policies that affect the people they represent. These new bills, they say, are a continuation of a trend that has many in Palm Beach County concerned.
“We’ve seen this go in cycles before, but nothing like this,” said Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities. “This is unprecedented.”
Overcorrecting for problems
What has many on the local front worried is what they believe is an overreach by state legislators, who introduce bills that address specific problems but have statewide implications.
“When there’s a problem, you go after correcting the specific problem at hand,” says Ocean Ridge Town Manager Jamie Titcomb, who is also vice chairman of the Florida City & County Management Association’s legislative subcommittee. “You don’t use a saber to correct a problem when a small scalpel will do.”
The bills aimed at restricting actions of community redevelopment agencies are the perfect case in point, say those hoping to stem the flow of what they call preemptive bills by state lawmakers.
Under a bill proposed in the Senate, new community redevelopment agencies could be created only by a special act of the Legislature, while existing CRAs would have to be recertified by a supermajority of the bodies that created them or otherwise be phased out.
Under a bill in the House, administrative spending would be capped at 18 percent and an agency would be prohibited from spending money on festivals, street parties, grants to promote tourism, and grants to socially beneficial programs.
That could have a negative ripple effect on nonprofit and cultural organizations such as the Delray Beach Public Library, Old School Square, the Spady Museum and the Arts Garage in Delray Beach, all of which receive CRA funding.
Delray Beach CRA Executive Director Jeff Costello said the provision in the Senate bill to cap administrative spending could hinder his agency’s ability to support the community.
“The imposition of the 18 percent limitation unduly micromanages and restricts the CRA in its ability to be responsive to the needs of the community, businesses and CRA partners,” he said.
The proposed CRA legislation, according to David Cruz, assistant general counsel for the Florida League of Cities, came about at least partially as a result of problems some CRAs experienced.
“We’ve seen a number of reports that saw deficiencies in accountability and transparency,” he said.
Those concerned about the erosion of home rule admit that there have been problems but they argue that a one-size-fits-all solution is not the answer.
“Are there abuses?” the Palm Beach County League’s Radcliffe asks rhetorically. “Without a doubt, but you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
What concerns many about what they see as a trend toward the state Legislature eroding home rule is that decisions are being made for local municipalities by legislators who are not accountable to the people who live in those communities. In some cases, the legislation is the result of lobbying of elected officials on behalf of special industries or special interests.
Todd Bonlarron, an assistant Palm Beach County administrator and former legislative affairs director, says that because Florida is so diverse and what works in one county may not work in another, many decisions should be left to local governments.
“When you’re dealing with governments closest to the people, you’re ensuring the greatest number of voices are heard and taken into consideration,” he said.
Bonlarron said that preemptive legislation often frustrates local elected officials who want to address a resident’s concerns but cannot because their hands are tied.
“You go to your elected official and they say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you because I’m not allowed to,’ ” he said.
State Rep. and former Boca Raton Councilman Bill Hager, whose district includes much of Palm Beach County’s coastal communities, has largely been supportive of home rule but says he looks at each bill individually before casting a vote.
“For the most part, the legislation that we consider at the state level passes the test of good public policy,” he said. “Every now and then, I see proposed legislation that is adverse and hostile to local government. As in the past, when such legislation arises, I will work to either amend it for the good, or will vote against it if that’s not possible.”
Hager points to a proposed bill that would prohibit local governments from creating ordinances regulating vacation rentals as an instance where he believes decisions should be left up to local governments.
“I believe each local government, as to issues that can be resolved in ways that make imminent sense for that particular community, should be granted that right,” he said.
While many of the bills being introduced this year, including the one concerning vacation rentals, are aimed at reducing regulation, there are others that have financial implications.
Several are what are referred to as unfunded mandates, bills that require local governments to spend money that is not reimbursed. Couple that with bills that reduce revenues for a municipality, and that can put local governments in a bind.
Proposed this year is legislation that would, for example, require municipalities to provide two copies of all meeting materials at public meetings for inspection by residents. Also proposed is legislation that would require local governments to post property tax and voting-record information on their websites.
While fulfilling those obligations might be easy for a large city, it could be a challenge for small towns with small staffs, which might have to bring in additional help to meet the mandate.
At the same time, municipalities could see their tax revenue shrink if voters approve an increase in the property tax homestead exemption from $50,000 in assessed value to $75,000 for homes assessed at over $100,000. The issue will come before voters in November and is of deep concern to many local elected officials, who fear significant decline in property tax revenue.
“Our revenues are being challenged by the state,” Titcomb said.
While organizations such as the state and county leagues of cities are working through lobbying efforts in Tallahassee to defeat bills they see as pre-emptive, there is also an effort afoot to make residents aware of the impact the erosion of home rule could have on them.
“We have the ability to get citizens behind us,” said the county League of Cities’ Radcliffe. “We’re encouraging our people to get out and educate their residents that there’s an assault on their way of life.”