House Subcommittee approves bill overhauling special district governance despite stakeholder concerns

by | Dec 13, 2023

  • A Proposed Committee Bill, aiming to overhaul governance of special districts in Florida, was approved by the House Subcommittee on Local Administration, Federal Affairs, and Special Districts.
  • The measure includes significant reforms like term limits for elected officials and periodic voter reauthorization for districts that levy taxes.
  • Industry stakeholders and municipal representatives expressed opposition to the bill, expressing concerns about the potential disruption to essential services and impacts on communities. 
  • Lawmakers expressed a willingness to work with stakeholders and special district employees to amend the bill.

The House Subcommittee on Local Administration, Federal Affairs, and Special Districts on Wednesday approved a Proposed Committee Bill that would overhaul the governance of special districts despite industry and municipality pushback.

The bill mandates a 12-year term limit for elected officials in independent special districts, effective November 2024, and requires these districts to obtain voter reauthorization every 10 years if they levy ad valorem taxes. This is to ensure these entities align with community needs. Controversially, it stipulates a dissolution plan for districts failing reauthorization, raising concerns about their long-term stability and viability among employees and administrators.

“This proposed committee bill seeks to resolve some issues that were brought to light as part of [a] review process and to provide increased oversight, transparency, and accountability for special districts,” said  Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, Chairwoman of the committee.

In response, the meeting saw resistance from representatives of the affected sectors. Fire service professionals, including fire chiefs and marshals, expressed apprehension about the bill’s implications for strategic planning, recruitment, and retention of skilled personnel.

“The 10-year dissolution and 12-year term limit rules are problematic for the continuity and quality of our services,” commented David Cambareri, Fire Chief of the San Carlos Park Fire Protection and Rescue Service District.

Michael Rubin, President and CEO of the Florida Ports Council, highlighted the potential impact on ports, with six of the fifteen deepwater ports in Florida operating as special districts. He expressed concern over the ad valorem tax aspect of the bill, which requires independent special districts that levy such taxes to obtain voter reauthorization every 10 years. Rubin additionally targeted potential dissolution under the bill and how it could potentially harm long-term operations and competitiveness.

“All of [the ports] have a charter that was previously approved by the Florida Legislature and in almost all of those charters, there’s authority to levy ad valorem taxation,” Rubin told the committee. “I can’t tell you whether any of them are exercising that authority at this time … but our concern is certainly the ongoing referendum and potential dissolution after 10 years. As you all know, it’s a highly competitive area. We’re competing against other states and contracts at those special district seaports.”

Meanwhile, David Ramba, from the Florida Association of Special Districts, voiced concerns about the complexities of the bill, particularly focusing on its reauthorization requirements. He detailed the challenges in dissolving districts, including managing assets, and liabilities, further commenting on the bill’s potential adverse effects on insurance rates and emergency services provision.

Our main concern is you operationally run a government knowing that every 10 years there can be a referendum,” said Ramba. “It’s illegal in the state of Florida for a special district to advocate against a referendum item that would be their dissolution. And so your your hands are tied. You couldn’t explain that your property insurance rates are going up. You can’t advocate for that. It’d be like you guys running for office and the only thing you could do is direct people to your website to look at the factual information.”

Despite the concerns, proponents of the bill within the legislature advocated for the proposed reform provision, referring to them as necessary.

When it comes to accountability and government oversight, it’s always a good idea to have conversations to see how we can rein in any kind of excesses and to make sure that the public trust is being upheld and public dollars are being done right,” said Rep. Berny Jacques, who voted yes on the bill.

Critics within the committee, however, argue that the bill could disrupt essential services, affecting not just the administration of these districts but also the communities they serve. In totality, four members voted against the measure.

“I have some concerns and reservations about the bill, especially when it comes to the 10-year limit,” said Rep. Marie Woodson. “Especially when it comes to first responders, because I know they go out there and do their job to keep us safe.”

During questioning, Lawmakers expressed openness to working with industry stakeholders and special district employees to amend the bill to better serve their needs, recognizing the concerns raised about the bill’s impact on district operations and employee welfare.

“I know I’ve talked with many of you before today, and I know we will continue to have those conversations,” Persons-Mulicka told the public speakers. “I will be continuing to look at all these issues.”


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