Pinellas County Commission moves forward on draft legislative program

Brian Lowack, special assistant to the county administrator, presented the draft legislative program to Pinellas County Commissioners during a Dec. 10 work session.

CLEARWATER — The consensus was full steam ahead to the draft 2021 state legislative program as presented during a Dec. 10 Pinellas County Commission work session.

Brian Lowack, special assistant to the county administrator, presented the guiding principles, which he said “sends a positive message to legislators” as priorities of the county that align with priorities at the state level.

He will bring the final program back for approval in January.

Among the local priorities is support for legislation to increase the time governments can declare an emergency from seven days to 30 days. Since the COVD-19 pandemic began and the first local state of emergency was declared, county government has been required to extend it every seven days. In the beginning the commission scheduled meetings every week, but recently delegated authority to the county administrator to extend the emergency on weeks when meetings were not already scheduled.

The emergency declaration allows local governments the power and authority to waive procedures and formalities required by law when it is necessary to ensure health, safety and welfare of a community.

It would allow entering into contracts, incurring obligations, employment of workers, utilization of volunteers, equipment rental, acquisition and distribution, with or without compensation, of supplies, materials and facilities, and appropriation and expenditure of public funds.

• The county also would support changes to the calamity provision for residential properties within the special flood hazard area.

Coastal areas of the state have many single-family homes local at grade or below base flood elevation, as determined by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In Pinellas, more than 50% of the taxable value of the area’s real estate is located within the special flood hazard area. Insurance premiums in the areas are high and are expected to increase.

Cost to elevate existing structures or reconstruct a home is high. Grants are difficult to find and only cover a portion of the cost. Homeowners typically choose to reinvest and improve at grade properties and pay high insurance instead of elevating or redeveloping due to increases in real estate taxes.

Improvement of at grade properties does not reduce flood risks, so flood insurance will continue to go up. Reconstruction is taxed as new construction with no credit for prior improvement.

Amending the calamity provision would allow property owners to rebuild up to 110% of total square footage without a change in assessed value and provide an incentive to elevate or reconstruct, which would aide in sea level rise resiliency, stabilizing the tax base, improve the community rating system class ratings and insurance risk ratings. It also would help reduce the flood risk for homeowners.

• Support would be given to amend state statute to allow an increase to the 911 fee, which is currently capped at 40 cents.

The 911 fee began more than 25 year ago and was set at 50 cents a month to pay for 911 operator salaries, training and certifications, as well as 911 telephone systems and maintenance. In 2015, the fee was reduced to 40 cents.

In 2018, a report showed that only 39% of 911’s expenses were being paid for with the fee. Local governments were paying the remainder of the cost. In Pinellas, the General Fund is use to pay for the expenses and has cost an average of $3.7 million for the last three fiscal years.

Forty-one other states use a fee to fund computer aided dispatch and 30 states use a fee to pay for building and facilities’ costs. Florida does not.

Pinellas County’s public safety agencies are consolidating multiple platforms into a singular one at a cost estimated at $11 million-$15 million to pay for acquiring a system and another $1 million-$2 million in annual support costs. The fee cannot be used to pay for these costs.

In addition, dispatching computers are now an integrated part of the system and perform a variety of necessary functions.

According to Lowack’s notes, Florida’s 911 fee is among the lowest in the United States with other states, such as Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi charging between $1 and $1.75.

• Commissioners support continuation of the use of rectangular rapid flashing beacons, which are believed to help improve safety of pedestrian crossing on roadways.

In 2020, legislation was introduced to remove rectangular rapid flashing beacons at pedestrian crosswalks and pedestrian crossings. If passed, the use of the beacons would have been limited to crosswalks on roads with no more than two lanes and a speed limit of 35 mph or less.

All the flashing beacons at pedestrian crosswalks on roads with speed limits greater than 35 mph or more than two lanes would have to be removed.

Currently, in Pinellas, there are more than 400 rectangular rapid flashing beacons, including 90 within the county’s jurisdiction. They are used along Gulf Boulevard to help increase pedestrian safety along the beaches, and they are used a trail crossings.

County staff says removal of the beacons would have a “severe negative impact” on pedestrian and bicycle safety and a negative fiscal impact.

• Commissioners support allowing water utilities to “responsibly and safety utilize” surface water discharges.

In 2020, legislation was filed that would have put a moratorium on most discharges of surface water after five years of a bill being approved. It would have required discontinuation of surface water discharges of effluent and reclaimed water.

Pinellas County Utilities used surface water discharge at South Cross Bayou Advanced Water Reclamation Facility. A study done in 2020 shows the discharge is not negatively affecting Joe’s Creek.

It is not feasible to eliminate the surface water discharge and the county’s alternative would be a $96 million project to construct aquifer recharge wells. Annual operating costs would be $500,000.

Commissioners also discussed the need to press for support for regional transportation projects that have been removed from the five-year work plan and more money for Medicaid. They agreed with Commissioner Charlie Justice that they would need to “be nimble” as projects come forward out of legislative committees.

They also agreed to talk about adding Section 8 vouchers to the federal program to address how people are allowed to apply for multiple vouchers in multiple locations which makes it harder for locals to get housing.

They also said it might be time for another discussion on the merits of a merger of the regional planning agencies (MP0s).

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.