County Leaders Focusing on Legislative Priorities at Polk County Day
As Polk County’s leaders prepare to head to Tallahassee for Polk County Day, they are clear about the message they want to send and the priorities they are seeking help with from Florida’s legislators.
Polk County Day will be held in the state Capitol at 400 S. Monroe St. in Tallahassee on Jan. 26. The county will host a reception to “get our commissioners and senior leadership in front of as many senators and representatives as we can to encourage support for our policy and appropriation requests,” said Mianne Nelson, communications director for Polk County. The day’s events are fully funded through sponsorships.
The county has been hosting the day for at least 20 years. Although anyone can attend, those who are regular guests include elected officials, business people, education leaders and constitutional officers.
“It’s an opportunity for our constituents and commissioners to meet with all legislators, and especially our delegation, while they are shaping the budget and new bills,” Nelson said.
Many of the challenges facing Polk County are also challenges statewide, she said, including affordable housing, behavioral health, growth and infrastructure. “We want to be partners in solutions, without the state burdening the local level with unfunded mandates.”
Commissioner George Lindsey, vice chair of the Board of Polk County Commissioners, said the county’s priorities fall into two categories – appropriations (money) and policy.
The county is seeking funds in four main areas:
- $280,000 for two emergency generators.
- $1.25 million to repair the air conditioning system at the old courthouse, which later became the Polk County History Center. “Aging buildings take more to maintain,” Lindsey said.
- A total of $12 million for help with three roads that are part of the county’s capital improvement projects. They are: Thompson Nursery Road in Winter Haven and the North Ridge Trail and FDC Grove Road, both of which run parallel to the overcrowded U.S 27 near Davenport. “We are asking for some assistance,” Lindsey said. “While they are county roads, they do offer relief to state assets.”
- $450,000 for the Helping HANDS program, where county paramedics follow individuals with mental illness who are being released from jail back into the community. Paramedics help them in the areas of Health care, Access, Navigation, Delivery and Support (HANDS). “It’s for individuals who need attention, not incarceration,” he said.
In terms of policy directives or legislation that may or may not be coming forward, Lindsey said, the county will be supporting:
- Funding the Sadowski Act for affordable housing. “They must stop raiding the trust fund,” established using a 10-cent increase in documentary stamps in 1992 and an equal amount of general revenue in 1995. In 2021, the governor proposed $10 million for Polk County; the House/Senate recommendation reduced that by $7 million to $3 million, according to FLHousing.org.
- Avoiding unfunded mandates, laws the state makes and expects counties and cities to pay for.
It is also seeking help for:
- The Heartland Headwaters Act, which recognizes Polk County “is the epicenter of several rivers that recharge our aquifer. We’ve been fortunate to get money appropriated there the last few years.”
- Rancho Bonito, a development in North Lakeland where people are buying lots and using them for things like mud bogging and shooting. “We’ve exhausted every local remedy, and we don’t have all the necessary tools to rein that in.” The county believes other counties that are having similar issues might be interested in joining forces, Lindsey said.
- Clarifying regulations passed a year ago on reuse wastewater.
- Getting more assistance for behavioral health. “There is a need, and demand is growing. Our biggest mental health facility is the jail, and as that population gets older and less healthy, these issues are becoming a greater burden.”
The county shared its priorities with the Polk Legislative Delegation late last year, when legislators attended committee meetings, Lindsey said. “So this is not new to them. Polk County day gives us a chance to follow up face to face, to find out where this or that is going. We express our appreciation and reaffirm our commitment to these things.”
Each of the county’s five commissioners has responsibility for three or four bills, often bringing in a key staff person who’s critical to the issue. “We all have relationships with the legislators,” he said. “This is continuing that relationship.”
The Central Florida Development Council also has legislative priorities, including supporting:
- Efforts to reinstate the state’s Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund program that offers incentives to companies seeking to locate in Florida.
- Rep. Ben Albritton’s bill to create the Rural Opportunity Tax Refund Program.
- Legislation that enables Polk County and the Polk Regional Water Cooperative to secure funding to develop non-traditional alternative water supply projects.
- The county’s colleges in their requests for funding for items such as expanding health sciences programs, seeking to become an “Engineering Program of Distinction,” preserving voucher funding and restoring Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.
- Legislation to make Florida a leader in the testing and verification of autonomous vehicles.
- Infrastructure requests for projects such as the North Ridge Trail, one of the county’s priorities, and the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.
“Our priorities are in sync with the Florida Economic Development Council (FEDC) and others around the state to ensure we all are supporting growth industries and the companies that want to locate here,” said CFDC President & CEO Sean Malott. “In addition, they reflect our targeted industries, including health sciences, advanced manufacturing, research and technology, and logistics, supply chain and distribution.”
The Florida Economic Development Council (FEDC) also supports Albritton’s bill, as well as:
- Aggressively marketing Florida as a business-friendly state.
- Continuing to invest in Talent and Infrastructure through the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, for which Gov. Ron DeSantis has requested $100 million.
- Maintaining and enhancing the CareerSource Florida Quick Response Training (QRT) grant program.