TALLAHASSEE — Inside the Florida Capitol, leaders in the Keys — from the city of Key West to the Key Largo Wastewater District — walked the hallways to rooms where they met legislators, lobbyists and various agency officials. From home rule to affordable housing, Keys-related matters took center stage in Tallahassee on Feb. 4.
“I’m surprised with the size of this delegation,” Secretary of State Laura Lee said to the group. “And not everyone comes up with conch fritters and rum punch.”
The day-long advocacy event, known as Florida Keys Day, saw the Keys contingent convening with agency heads and lawmakers who shape policies affecting life in the Keys. Following a breakfast and a briefing with state Rep. Holly Raschein, who started Florida Keys Day as a Leadership Monroe County Class XVII project 10 years ago, the group proceeded to the Knott Building where they heard from cabinet members throughout the day. A brief meet-and-greet was held with House Speaker Jose Oliva. Later in the day, the group stood inside the Cabinet Room where they met none other than Gov. Ron DeSantis for a photo op.
The morning kicked off with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Robert Spottswood, who spoke on the challenges facing the protection of natural resources in the Keys. Spottswood says there are about 50 FWC officers in the Keys protecting the waters and the fishery, and they’re certainly stressed with a large area to cover.
With work underway to craft a budget, Spottswood says the hope is to add five officers in the Keys — and he knows that’s not nearly enough.
“We’re also looking at the cost of housing and the incredible burden it’s placed on our folks coming in who are experiencing the highest cost of living in the state,” he said. “ We’re looking at the compensation levels. We’re aware of the need for more law enforcement out on the water. The common theme I hear is law enforcement is doing a good job, but there’s not enough out there.”
Spottswood also commented on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s Restoration Blueprint. The first public comment period has come and gone as the sanctuary begins to review comments. Spottswood said FWC is asking the sanctuary to consider different alternatives. The teams from the sanctuary and FWC met to go over the blueprint and comments.
“We expect to have a lot of give-and-take with them,” he said. “There’s going to be some things people won’t like and some people will.”
Spottswood said he’ll be asking the sanctuary for law enforcement assistance as well.
Following the lecture, a group ventured down to the governor’s cabinet room, where Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers took to the podium to relay support for the continued Area of Critical State Concern designation. It was subsequently approved.
“We’re also thrilled to be able to add canal restoration to our work plan because that’s sort of the last frontier in terms of water quality,” she said. “We appreciate the support and look forward to cleaning up more water in the Keys.”
Monroe County leaders met with Oliva during Florida Keys Day. Carruthers and commissioners David Rice and Craig Cates, along with County Administrator Roman Gastesi and County Attorney Bob Shillinger, discussed the Land Acquisition Trust Fund and Stewardship Act funding.
Marathon leaders stuck to a busy schedule as they met with various senators, as well as the governor’s deputy chief of staff on issues of takings claims, vacation rentals and Keys Stewardship appropriations. Marathon City Manager Chuck Lindsey said the day was not only a great opportunity to showcase the Keys in Tallahassee, but it was also extremely productive.
“Working collaboratively, our Marathon team spent the day meeting with key legislators gaining support for crucial items impacting the Florida Keys,” he said. “While it was an extremely productive day, it was bittersweet knowing that this will be our last session with Rep. Raschein and Sen. Flores at the helm as both have reached term limits. Their hard work and support of the Keys has been profound and for that we are extremely grateful.”
Key West City Manager Greg Veliz said his day of meetings went well. Affordable housing was one of the big issues he stressed.
“It’s great to come up here and meet with them, but we can’t just stop there,” he said. “We have to keep on it.”
Islamorada Mayor Mike Forster emphasized the importance of the Area of State Critical Concern designation and the unique and specific requests to the issues faced throughout the island chain.
“Be it compensation for civil servants, teachers in order for retainment, to vacation rentals and sharing the cost of the 2023 end of ROGO, we need the state to partner with us to remain the great donor county that helps set the standards of sustainability and a fair balance of tourism and water-based lifestyle that we have all come to enjoy,” he said.
Leaders from Key Colony Beach had several private meetings throughout the day. City Administrator Chris Moonis said the group met with state Sen. Anitere Flores to discuss home rule and vacation rentals. They also sat down with the Office of Resiliency and Coastal Protection.
The Keys group also had the opportunity to hear from Noah Valenstein, Department of Environmental Protection secretary, who lauded the response to coral disease; Jimmy Patronis, chief financial officer; Ashley Moody, attorney general, who spoke briefly on confronting human traffickers and cybercriminals; and Ken Lawson, Department of Economic Opportunity executive director, who spoke briefly on Visit Florida as well as Rebuild Florida. Lawson noted the program that aims to help people recover from Irma has been slow. One project is underway with eight pending. Four hundred awards still await action.
“For us, how do you make it faster? For us, how do you replace these mobile homes? What’s the right way to do it?”
Following a day of meetings and talks, Keys leaders met with staff and leaders outside the Capitol Building for a little rum punch, conch fritters, Key lime popsicles and music from John Bartus.