The 2020 Florida legislative session will begin Jan. 14. Pinellas County leaders will be keeping a close eye on the action throughout the 60-day event.

The County Commission approved its draft legislative priorities on Dec. 10. The list includes 11 “guiding principles,” as presented by Intergovernmental Liaison Brian Lowack.

The first item is a repeat from previous years. The commission continues to oppose any legislative action that takes away home rule power from local governments. Along those same lines, county government opposes unfunded mandates that affect its ability to control the local budget due to having to pay for programs imposed by the state.

The commission supports any measure that would require the state to provide adequate funding for the county’s constitutional officers that do work on behalf of the state. Each budget year, the commission approves additional local money to pay for needs the commission believes should be a state responsibility.

The fourth item is another one on previous years’ priority lists. The commission supports using money in the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund exclusively for housing. The trust fund was created in 1992 to be a dedicated source of revenue to pay for local and state housing program. The money comes from fees on deed transfers, promissory notes and other official records.

The money in the fund is supposed to be split with 70% going to local governments for programs offering down-payment assistance to homeowners and pay for home repairs. The other 30% goes to pay for state affordable housing projects. However, it is common for the Legislature to use that money for other purposes, which the county opposes.

Another repeat on the priority list is a request for the state to provide a dedicated recurring source of funding for beach nourishment. The county is allocated money by the state and federal government for its beach nourishment needs, but that funding is never certain. Local money comes from the Tourist Development Tax.

The county also supports creation of a statewide climate resiliency plan. The county’s first-ever sustainability and resiliency coordinator started work in July. The cities of Clearwater, Largo, St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council also have hired an employee dedicated to climate resiliency.

The county and the state have a greater risk from sea level rise and other climate changes as well as an increase in severe weather, including hurricanes. The commission believes the state needs a plan.

The commission continues to support prohibition of oil drilling or exploration for oil in state waters. It also opposes any action that would affect the structure of Tampa Bay Water, which is the regional provider of drinking water. Friction among member governments over the past year has some concerned that the agency could be at risk.

Through an interlocal agreement, Tampa Bay Water supplies drinking water to Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties as well as the cities of New Port Richey, St. Petersburg and Tampa.

The ninth and 10th items on the list are support for state funding for arts and cultural institutions and support for priorities of other organizations and agencies that align with the commission’s priorities.

An 11th item was added Dec. 10, as requested by Commissioner Dave Eggers. The addition is support for legislation for wastewater and stormwater, including privately owned sewer laterals.

Local governments have been working on improving wastewater and stormwater facilities, especially after heavy rains caused overflows and spills in past years. However, officials say part of the problem is private sewer lines, which are expensive for private property owners to repair or replace.

A priority not on the guiding principles list is to change legislation passed in 2019 that limits a local building agency to only four inspections on work done by a private provider per year. The commission says the limit “severely diminishes the local building agency’s ability to ensure Florida building codes are being followed.” The commission would like the cap to be removed.

The county also has three funding requests. It is asking for $2 million for design and construction of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, a 45,000-square-foot facility in St. Petersburg that will provide space for the Tampa Bay Innovation Center incubator. The county recently received a $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration for the $12 million project.

Another funding request is for nearly $1.55 million in support of Central Florida Behavioral Health Network’s request for 10 Marchman beds in Pinellas. The beds would be used to provide a safe place for people with behavioral health disorders to detox and receive treatment.

The last request is for $800,000 for the Highpoint Community Recreation Complex. The county and the school board are working together to build a recreation facility that would include multi-purpose fields, park shelters and playground equipment that would serve the low-income community.

PSTA

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Board of Directors also approved legislative priorities ahead of the upcoming session.

PSTA would like to see the funding formula for transportation-disadvantaged programs changed. It also wants approval of continuation of a grant that pays for the transportation-disadvantaged late-shift and other mobility programs.

PSTA supports action that would allow Medicaid-eligible trips to be provided by Medicaid trip providers instead of the agency’s paratransit service.

The transit agency also supports creating a funding program for electric vehicle infrastructure to provide money for charging equipment.

Forward Pinellas

The staff at Forward Pinellas and its legislative committee are tracking all bills filed that have to do with transportation, transit and land use.

Of special interest is Forward Pinellas’ work with the city of St. Petersburg to change the Florida Right to Farm Act to allow more opportunities for urban agriculture in the county.

Forward Pinellas says the Farm Act prohibits local governments from imposing land development regulations on commercial farms and new agricultural uses in urban areas.

Due to the inability to regulate agriculture in urban areas, many cities don’t allow the practice at all. Forward Pinellas and St. Petersburg have drafted proposed legislation that would create a statutory definition for urban agriculture and exempt it from the Farm Act.

Traditional farms within urban areas would continue to receive protections offered by the Farm Act, while urban agriculture, such as community and rooftop gardens and vertical farms, could be regulated as needed.

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