Each year the North Port city commission has the privilege to attend the Florida League of Cities Legislative Days in Tallahassee. The two-day event, plus travel time, is packed full of lobbying our elected officials about issues that are important to our city.

As the mayor of North Port, I wanted to share my experience with you.

Many ask, “Why go to Tallahassee when you can meet with our elected officials right here?”

Fair statement. Let me explain the difference. Not only do we meet with them, but other cities meet with them, too. They hear the same points for two days, over and over again. They learn different angles, on the same issue, based on each city’s unique perspective. In between these meetings, I attended committee meetings and an Appropriations Session. All of this could not be done at home.

I attended the Commerce and Tourism Committee meeting, which included Vacation/Short Term rentals (SB #1128)

Fun fact: Vacation/Short Term Rentals (STR) are like mini hotels in residential neighborhoods, mostly on beachfront properties and other tourist locations. Seems like a non-issue for North Port — WRONG! I mustered up the courage to speak to the senators of this committee how STR affects North Port in a different way. It reduces our affordable housing rental stock. If a single-family home is being rented, then the owner realizes they can make a lot more money with STR. Now we have one less rental available, thereby driving rental costs even higher.

I also asked whose property rights are paramount — the homeowner raising their family or homeowner using the property as a mini hotel? Other speakers shared their horror stories of living next door to an STR and the unsavory activities that happen every day, with every new group of vacationers. One elected official expressed concern about human and drug trafficking. Because of existing state statutes, the city cannot regulate, license or stop these short-term rental businesses. In my opinion, we must work with our legislatures, so ALL property rights are protected.

I also spoke during the Community Affairs Committee, which included new rules about impact fees (SB #1066). I used my speaking time to express how difficult it was to fill volunteer committees/boards and the challenge to meet quorums. Since this new proposal would take effect in July 2020, I asked them what would happen to cities that are currently looking at changing the impact fee rates; would they have to start over and spend additional taxpayer monies and start a new board?

After this meeting, a senator came up to me and stated they need to look at this further based on my perspective. I have additional concerns about a volunteer committee being tasked with the responsibilities of an elected official without accountability — but that’s another conversation.

You may ask, “What did we talk about with the state representatives?” Since we only have about 20 minutes with them, we give them a printed copy of our Legislative Priorities and some FAQs about North Port.

Then we focused on some hot topics, including:

The Job Growth Grant waiting (patiently) for Gov. DeSantis to sign. We asked each state representative and senator to support our grant and put in a good word to the governor about this grant.

Fun fact: This is the grant to run city water and sewer lines from city hall to I-75. This grant will open development for the interchange. Ultimately, it will create jobs and increase our tax base. We hope to meet with the governor when he comes to North Port for the Governor’s Dinner at the Braves stadium, this Sunday.

Lack of internet in the remote areas of North Port. State statute has too many strict regulations to become our own provider. We explained how students need reliable access to complete their homework and fulfill graduation requirements. Home-based businesses cannot flourish, and unscrupulous real estate agents lie about availability or reliability.

We explained existing providers won’t install the necessary infrastructure because they wouldn’t receive the return on investment for decades. We asked for the state to keep the Communications Services Tax so the city could use that money as an incentive to help the providers to lay the infrastructure. Most of the elected officials were unaware access to technology was even an issue.

The hospital. Last year the Certificate of Need requirement was repealed. Now we have another issue. We pay taxes to Sarasota Memorial Hospital with little in return. Because the state legislature created hospital taxing districts (in the 1940s, long before North Port became a city), they are the only ones who can help us find a work-around. This topic will require additional conversations, on the homefront.

We also reminded them about the appropriations request to run city water and sewer lines to Warm Mineral Springs.

You may be asking, “What did we accomplish?”

We planted seeds. We spoke up. We expressed concerns about how the state regulations affect our city and our citizens.

In my opinion, it was a productive two days.

Debbie McDowell is North Port’s mayor. She was joined in Tallahassee by North Port commissioners Pete Emrich, Chris Hanks and Vanessa Carusone and Vice Mayor Jill Luke.^p

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