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County leaders set legislative priorities for region

South Florida Business Journal - 1/26/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Brian Bandell

With a new governor and South Florida representatives presiding over the state House and Senate, county leaders say now is the best time to address the issues most important to our region.

Most commissioners from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties attended the Jan. 22 Tri-County Commission meeting in the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami to select their top legislative priorities for the state and federal governments. These issues will be the focus of a combined regional lobbying effort in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

"We have a much greater opportunity this year to get things done in Tallahassee than ever before," Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson said.

The top priorities the counties will pursue in the Florida Legislature are:

Affordable housing

Commissioners want to remove the spending cap of $243 million on affordable housing programs out of commercial property taxes collected for the Sadowski Trust Fund. There would be $939.5 million for affordable housing in the 2007-2008 budget year if the cap were lifted.

This proposal was made last year, but failed to gain any traction, despite the high cost of housing making it hard for most people to live in South Florida.

"Last year, it was like a lost cause," Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan said of the effort to repeal the cap. "Now, the climate has changed and the opportunity is much better for this to take place."

Transportation

Gas tax collected in South Florida for transportation improvements is paying for projects in other parts of the state - while our region deals with the worst traffic, according to a report to the commissions.

A portion of the gas tax is distributed to the Strategic Intermodal Transportation System (SIS), which is part of the Florida Department of Transportation. That group distributes the funds for projects it favors. Adding road capacity gets 75 percent of its funding.

Since there's little road capacity left to add in South Florida, we're on the short end of the stick, Palm Beach County Commissioner Jeff Koons said. Over the last 10 years, the South Florida counties have given about $690 million to the SIS fund that was spent elsewhere, he said.

"We're in an opera house now. Well, if we don't get our transportation funds, the fat lady is going to sing and we're going to be left with nowhere to go," Koons said, referring initially to the commission's meeting venue.

In another state transportation issue, commissioners agreed to push the Legislature to allow the installation of video cameras at red lights to aid law enforcement.

Beach erosion control

Beaches are crucial to the region's tourism industry, but they're getting increasingly difficult to protect, Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Bruno Barreiro said. The source his county has been using to replenish its sand has been exhausted and the options it is left with are expensive.

The commission wants Florida to preserve the existing funding for beach erosion control and find ways other than sand replenishment to do it.

Health and human services

County jails are being forced to take care of mentally ill patients the state is legally required to treat, several commissioners said.

The state under-funds care for the mentally ill, leaving them in county jails that aren't equipped to handle them, Jordan said. The legislature needs to find the funds and facilities to treat them, she said.

The commissioners also want the legislature to allow a system of reimbursement for out of county trauma care patients and find additional sources to fund trauma care. Each county collects local taxes to support their trauma centers but when residents of other counties seek treatment there - usually because of a lack of available care in their home county - local counties currently receive nothing.

Caps on local spending

Commissioners are wary of proposals to cap the amount of spending or tax revenue collected by county and city governments. They voted to oppose any effort to do so.

"Imposing caps threatens our home rule. We have to defeat that effort," Broward County Mayor Josephus Eggelletion Jr. said. "It's time for the three counties to present to Tallahassee what the economic impact of a revenue or spending cap would be."