On March 18-20, officials from local governments and organizations went up to Tallahassee for an event called Florida Keys Day. This is an event hosted by our state representative, Holly Raschein, and it gives us a chance to present our local Keys issues in front of legislators and state officials. It also provides the opportunity to watch legislation in progress. Tracking bills that potentially preempt local control over critical issues gives local officials a case of heartburn at times. Hopefully, the damage won’t be too great this year.
The City of Marathon was well-represented by Council Members Steve Cook, Luis Gonzalez, and Mark Senmartin (as well as yours truly), City Manager Chuck Lindsey, City Attorney David Migut, Growth Management Director Doug Lewis, and Planning Director George Garrett. Our lobbyist, Carol Bracy, made sure we had meetings with key officials above and beyond the day’s scheduled events.
So what happened? Let’s start with FEMA reimbursements and the Florida Department of Emergency Management. Anyone who listens to me or reads my column knows that I haven’t had a lot of kind things to say about the previous administration’s handling of the state’s audit process — this is why, 18 months post-Irma, the city has received just $244,000 of a total of $32 million in damages and costs, with more than $20 million worth of reimbursable claims already submitted.
In a meeting with DEM’s senior staff and Deputy Director Kevin Guthrie, they said that they are totally revamping their audit procedures to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, and commit that the state will be a boots-on-the-ground partner and advocate for local municipalities and counties devastated by hurricanes. The changes in the department are music to the ears of Irma victims in the Keys. Perhaps help really is on the way.
Meeting with Ken Lawson, head of the Department of Economic Opportunity, was a very refreshing change in how government meetings are conducted. It was very much to-the-point, direct, and totally lacking any bureaucratic spin. Mr. Lawson was the head of Visit Florida, and now he is in charge of the department that deals with growth management and other local Keys issues. One of the big issues is the progress of Rebuild Florida, the program that offers grants for people still struggling with damage to their homes. The deadline to apply is this Friday, and Mr. Lawson and his senior staff informed us that the first 14 cases are ready to proceed, and that another 400 are right behind that.
Other DEO issues discussed were the 300 affordable housing allocations for Marathon pending appeal, and the Legislature moving forward with the 50-50 Bill and their legal and fiscal responsibility to assist with takings cases. The 50-50 Bill, supported by all local Keys governments, has gotten a bit of traction this session; its eventual outcome is still to be determined.
The biggest change in Tallahassee this year is that there is a new sheriff in town. Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a serious commitment to improving water quality statewide, including fast-tracking Everglades restoration. Our Marathon delegation met with the Governor’s chief of staff, Shane Strum, to discuss Hurricane Irma recovery issues, takings cases and the 50-50 Bill, and the continued need for state involvement as we navigate through the end of new permit allocations and buildout. There is a good chance that this governor will still be in office when these issues rise to the surface, and it’s good to know they’re listening to our concerns.
Our Marathon delegation had a brief meeting and photo op with the governor; in my face time with him, I thanked Governor DeSantis for the bold steps he is taking for improving water quality in Florida.
Florida Keys Day includes some fun events as well — the photo ops, the big Seafood Celebration and Happy Hour in the Capitol Courtyard where Islamorada Vice Mayor Mike Forster supplied the drinks and I supplied the tunes, the reception at the Governor’s Club hosted by Holly Raschein and Senator Anitere Flores, our joint dinner “summit” with the Village of Islamorada’s delegation. Although good times were had, the important takeaway this year is that decision-makers and officials in Tallahassee are listening to us and promising some real assistance in the very near future.