Lakeland’s City Commission, department heads and lobbyist huddled on Friday morning to discuss their concerns and priorities as the Florida Legislature begins committee meetings ahead of its next lawmaking session, which starts Jan. 9.
The city’s top two issues deal with Lakeland Electric.
The city opposes legislation that would prohibit municipal electric utilities, like Lakeland Electric, from returning excess earnings to their local government to fund city services. Lakeland depends on that revenue — $32 million last year — to fund things like the city’s parks and arts programs.
A scuffle broke out this year over control of Gainesville Regional Utilities, which has some of the highest customer rates in the state. The Legislature passed a bill removing city commission control of the utility and in June, the governor stepped in and appointed a hand-picked board to run it, including people who don’t live in the area.
“This will probably be one of our biggest fights in the material asks this year, so that’s why it’s first on the agenda,” said lobbyist David Shepp of The Southern Group.
He explained that legislators’ problem was with the fact that utilities serve people outside the city limits. He and other lobbyists who represent cities with utilities continue to hold conversations with lawmakers on the issue.
“Unfortunately, when something happens to one part of the state, they typically try and address it statewide, so I’d say this is continuing to be an issue,” Shepp said. “We continue to work closely with our delegation and Lakeland Electric to provide all the proper information to the legislators to make sure that we are not negatively impacted on this issue.”
Shepp said they will also be lobbying against third-party electricity generation and sales, such as solar power.
“Back in 2022, there was legislation that was introduced that would have allowed private entities to introduce power into a grid directly to serve other businesses, and the bill did not pass but we want to keep an eye out for anything that comes along the pike here,” Shepp said. “Obviously, we are getting creative in what we’re doing with Lakeland Electric. We just want to ensure that there’s no exterior introduction of power onto our grid that we don’t have control over when it comes to renewable so that’s something we’ll be monitoring.”
Protecting sovereign immunity
Another bill the city opposes is increasing or eliminating sovereign immunity limits — the amount for which a person can sue local governments. There have been bills in recent years to increase the amount from $200,000 to $300,000 or even up to $1 million, which would be a significant increase for cities with tight budgets.
“Obviously, this will have a major impact on local governments,” Shepp said. “Quite frankly, the state, I think, could absorb it, but local governments — we are talking about an increase from $200,000 to a million — that is significant.”
He said the bills have gone through the arduous process of passing through subcommittees, commitees and the full House or Senate. But there’s been a stalemate at that level, with the two bodies failing to agree on a final amount.
“We do know that this bill is coming back again,” he said. The city does support reducing the statute of limitation from four years to two years.
The city also is opposed to:
- Legislation that could restrict the city from providing or partnering with a company to provide public broadband.
- The Resiliency and Safe Structures Act, which would pre-empt local government authority to protect and preserve historic buildings.
Shepp said the Resiliency and Safe Structures Act mainly deals with coastal properties within a half mile of the ocean and is primarily a Miami Beach issue. If passed statewide, it would remove all local authority from protecting historic buildings.
Rail service and historic preservation
Transportation continues to be a hot-button issue for the area, with roadways clogged and accidents increasing. The city supports legislation to expand and fund intercity transit in Central Florida.
There has long been talk about extending Sunrail train service from Orlando and Kissimmee to Lakeland. Sunrail currently operates in Orange, Volusia and Osceola Counties, with service to downtown Orlando. In addition, Brightline began service between Miami and Orlando International Airport, with talk of extending it through Lakeland to Tampa.
“The introduction of SunRail into Polk County is going to be big in the future and their conversation about extending it from the Northeast Corridor all the way down to Lakeland,” Shepp said. “I think that the crux of the matter is what happens to the funding and what happens to who pays for it? So if there is funding that comes in to extend SunRail to this community, what time period are they looking at the local governments to have to pick up and absorb that cost, which can be significant. And so what we’re hoping to be able to see is at least a study or a plan put into place for what that could look like in the future.”
The city also supports the Florida Historic Tax Credit, which helps Main Street communities like Lakeland develop heritage tourism and preserve historic properties. The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation said Florida is one of only 11 states that does not offer a historic preservation tax credit.
“While this Act benefits all of Florida, it is especially important for Florida’s Main Street communities, which would see a 30 percent tax credit for eligible preservation and rehabilitation costs,” FTFHP’s website states.
Affordable housing incentives
The final legislative priority is the Live Local Act, which requires airports to protect the areas around them from incompatible uses. It also provides funding to local governments to offset any reductions in ad valorem tax revenue associated with new affordable housing construction.
On its website, property development firm LandTech says “the Live Local Act has been dubbed the largest investment in housing in Florida history, creating a massive opportunity for developers. The Act is set to be largely beneficial for property developers operating in Florida. Especially those who have experience delivering affordable housing. There are three key elements that are likely to positively impact developers: Exceptions to zoning laws; Tax exemptions; And opening up funding options.”
Funding wish list
Lakeland also has some projects it would like funded:
- Lakeland Linder International Airport Job Growth Grant — $6 million
- Polk Regional Water Cooperative — $20 million
- Historic Preservation Grant for the historic district resurvey Phase III — $50,000
- Peterson Park Environmental Boardwalk and Fishing Pier Replacement — $1.5 million
- Peterson Park Concessions and Restrooms Grant — $200,000
- Lakeland Police SWAT Tower Replacement and Virtual Training Room — $1.5 million
Airport Director Kris Hallstrand said the grant would be used to clear and prepare property to attract a private company to the airport’s northeast corner to build a facility.
“It’s really important just for future job growth for community and high skill-high wage jobs,” Hallstrand said. “So, you know, bringing aircraft in and having the mechanics. It kind of ties in with all of our education and everything else we do on the airport, right? We want to educate you and provide jobs.”
The Peterson Park Project has come up because the 20-year-old, 300-foot boardwalk and pier’s railings and joists are failing, including 24 support posts. The boardwalk and pier, which have panoramic views of Lake John, has been closed to the public since April 11.
The SWAT Tower was built by volunteers about 30 years ago out of telephone poles and treated lumber. Lakeland Police Chief Sam Taylor spoke at the meeting and said the four-story structure has reached the end of its lifespan and has begun swaying on windy days. The tower and training room are utilized by several local law enforcement agencies, as well as state and federal agencies. Taylor said LPD does not charge them for the use of the facility.
“We would like to upgrade that to more of a concrete, maybe aluminum and steel, base structure with some window openings where they can repel the side of it into it from elevated levels and do some shooting from elevated levels,” Taylor said.
Some of the Florida Legislature’s committees and subcommittees began meeting Sept. 18. Others will meet during various weeks in October, November and December. The first day of the legislative session will be Jan. 9.
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