Lawmakers Town Hall: A Roomful of Asks

PENSACOLA: The collective sentiment of the Escambia County Legislative Delegation meeting Monday night was summed up nicely by Dr. Ed Meadows, president of Pensacola State College, where the event was held.

“Everybody seems to have their hand out, and we’re like everybody else — we need state support,” Meadows told the delegation during his remarks.

From around the area, organizations, institutions and individuals took advantage of the opportunity to have a word with the region’s state legislators, Rep. Alex Andrade, Rep. Mike Hill and Sen. Doug Broxson. Each offered thanks for previous state efforts they viewed as helpful and also asked for the state’s help on various front.

Meadows asked the state legislators for help funding ongoing construction projects at Pensacola State College, as well as money for paving needs. His counterpart over at the University of West Florida, President Martha Saunders, also requested funds for construction as well as $15.5 million for the UWF’s cybersecurity program.

Escambia County officials lobbied for state support for traffic projects, like the Beulah Interchange, and also for estuary programs that fund local water sampling and restoration efforts. Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson asked for help addressing legacy airfield contamination issues, support of the housing trust fund, which he said was needed in addressing the issue of homelessness, and for a cut of any opioid legal settlements.

Robinson also told the legislators that the city would be most appreciative if the state would change current regulations to allow the location of 5G communications infrastructure on Florida Department of Transportation equipment, like traffic signals. Currently, the 5G infrastructure will be located in other areas, including residential neighborhoods.

“We’re really hoping you’ll work with us on co-location,” the mayor said. “It would help us move them out of neighborhoods.”

From the Emerald Coast Utility Authority, board member Lois Benson requested $6 million for a project aimed at getting customers off of septic tanks and onto sewer in the Brownsville area. She said the move would be beneficial both environmentally, but also have ripple benefits throughout the community, such as improving the commercial landscape.

“We believe we can restore that community to the vibrant place it once was,” Benson said.

Sen. Broxson agreed that septic tank were a problem statewide, contributing to environmental water quality issues.

“If we’re going to keep 120 million people coming in Florida, we’ve got to have clean, fresh water,” he said.

Rep. Hill also told Benson that she could take some encouraging news back to her ECUA board: the delegation will be pushing for the filling of the board’s District 3 seat, vacated with the passing of board member Elvin McCorvey in January.

“We will send a letter to the governor and urge him to fill that vacancy,” Hill said. “I know you’d be happy.”

On the education front, Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas applauded an announcement earlier in the day from the governor concerning increasing pay for beginning teachers.

“I would urge you to participate in the conversation the governor and the secretary of education started today,” Thomas said, adding that other district employees, such as bus drivers, also needed an increase in pay.

Carol Cleaver, a local sixth grade science teacher, implored the delegation to push for not only improving pay for beginning teachers, but also for experienced teachers, who she said needed to be retained.

“We need to keep these people that have been here engaged and committed to staying on the team,” Cleaver said.

Kevin Adams, who sits in Escambia District 1 seat on the school board, told the delegation that he felt it unfair that the state place so much emphasis on a student’s end-of-year tests — counting for as much as the 30 percent of the total grade — while private schools receiving public education funds were not held to the same standards.

Rep. Hill told local education leaders that he was glad to see increased mental health services available in schools. He said he hoped it would lead to less incidents where the Baker Act is employed.

“I wouldn’t connect mental health counseling and a reduction in Baker Acts,” Thomas dialed back expectations.

Other pitches lobbed during the local delegation meeting included one from Florida West concerning the development of an industrial cluster dubbed The Bluffs on the lower Escambia River; a request from the African American Heritage Society for museum funding; and remarks from the Naval Aviation Museum about the impact on attendance that the base’s entrance change has had.

Ellen Roston, of the League of Women Voters of Northwest Florida also spoke. She spoke out against the state’s open-carry law and against the new law allowing armed personnel on school grounds.

Roston also admonished the delegation for legislative actions pertaining to Amendment 4, a recently passed constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to convicted felons. She said that legislators’ requirement after-the-fact that felons pay all fees associated with their sentence, in addition to serving time, was against the spirit of the amendment passed by voters.

Rep. Andrade pushed back on this front, defending the state’s move on Amendment 4.

“There was nothing designed to inhibit anyone’s vote,” the legislator said.