The Buzz 1/22/15
Chambers Pitch To Lawmakers
The Northwest Florida Delegation heard on Jan. 15 from the business community what it would like to see the Florida Legislature accomplish this year. The list wasn’t long, but each item could have a significant impact on our local economy.
The event was the annual legislative luncheon hosted by the Greater Pensacola Chamber, Gulf Breeze Chamber of Commerce, Gulf Coast African American Chamber of Commerce, Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce and the Santa Rosa County Legislative Coalition.
Introducing all the chambers in attendance, Greater Pensacola Chamber chairperson Carol Carlan made it the clear the priorities being presented were from more than just the Pensacola business community. “We here are not just Pensacola, we are a region,” she said to the packed ballroom at the Crowne Plaza Grand Hotel.
State Senator Greg Evers, State Representatives Doug Broxson, Mike Hill and Clay Ingram listened to presentations on the business community’s three priorities.
Lance Cook, outside sales and marketing manager with Rubber & Specialties, Inc., talked about two priorities for the economic environment. He asked that the lawmakers support making permanent the new and improved sales tax exemption for manufacturing machinery and equipment and eliminate the sales tax on commercial leases and rents.
Cook said, “Florida is one of the few states that taxes commercial leases and rents. The exemption levels the playing field with other states.”
Dr. Martha Saunders, provost for the University of West Florida, spoke on workforce readiness.
“At the University of West Florida, we firmly believe that the answer to almost every important question facing our community is education,” she said. “The support of a high quality education, which provides for a well-educated, well-trained and readily available workforce is essential to the success of the businesses in our community.”
Saunders said the UWF specifically has identified Mechanical Engineering, Supply Chain Logistics and Advanced Health Professions as top priority academic programs, all of which are in high demand and pay higher wages.
The Mechanical Engineering degree is in direct response to the increased workforce demand for these engineers in northwest Florida and southern Alabama. The Logistics program is tied to a recent report by the Florida Chamber CEO to the Florida Cabinet, which said, “The state has the potential to create 150,000 new trade and logistics-related jobs, which will pay 30 percent more than the statewide average, through the next five years.”
On the advanced health programs, Saunders said, “As we continue to respond to the needs in the Health Care profession, UWF will be pursuing a State University partner to collaborate on a Physician’s Assistant degree. This will go nicely with our Doctor of Physical Therapy with University of South Florida and our Doctor of Nursing Practice with University of Florida.”
Mark Faulkner, president and CEO of Baptist Health Care, spoke on the chambers’ healthy workforce priorities. He got straight to the point.
“We are not a healthy community,” Faulkner said. “According to the 2012 Community Health Assessment, we lag behind peer counties in virtually all health status indicators.”
Those indicators included higher death rates due to Alzheimer’s, cerebrovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, diabetes, heart disease, pneumonia, stroke and lung cancer, higher rates of breast cancer, smokers, asthmatics, teen births, STDs and higher utilization of emergency departments.
“These statistics represent tremendous cost in health care utilization and lost productivity,” he said. “And the fact is that these costs are born by the entire community, both corporately and individually.”
He said the people with health insurance and access to health care are healthier and cost the system less. However, one out of every five people in Escambia County lacks health insurance, even though most of them have full- or part-time jobs. Statewide the cost of caring for uninsured patients is $3 billion, which drives up businesses’ and individuals’ health insurance premiums.
The expansion of Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act would make over 42,700 residents in the Pensacola area eligible for health coverage and approximately one million working, uninsured Floridians across the state. To date, state leaders have balked at accepting the $50 billion from the federal government for the expansion.
Faulkner asked the lawmakers to support “A Healthy Florida Works Plan” proposed by bipartisan coalition that includes Associated Industries of Florida, Florida United Business Association, nearly 700 businesses, 15 local chambers and over 95,000 individuals.
“A Healthy Florida Works Plan is a fiscally responsible approach that brings Florida dollars sent to Washington, D.C., back to Florida,” Faulkner said. “It encourages personal responsibility and healthy behaviors, while protecting taxpayers.”
The proposed plan is based on free market principles where private insurance providers elect to participate and consumers have choices. Participating individuals and families select a health plan of their choice through a state-operated private health insurance marketplace. To be eligible, participants must have average annual income levels below $16,000 or $32,900 for a family of four, pay modest monthly premiums and take part in job and education training activities.
He said the plan would save state dollars by eliminating the Medically Needy Program. Studies also show that states that have adopted access expansion have seen reductions in disability claims.
After the presentations, the lawmakers fielded questions and appeared open to the recommendations.
School District Punts
School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas has finally found a buyer for Brownsville Middle School, which has been closed since 2007. G.S.I. Brokerage, Inc., a sister corporation of a nearby scrap yard, has offered to buy the property for $475,000.
Five years ago, Rev. LuTimothy May and Friendship Missionary Baptist tried to buy the school. The asking price from the district was $1 million, but Rev. May and his advisors found the price steep considering the repairs necessary to make the facility serviceable.
G.S.I. Brokerage has the same principal address, 1831 N. Hollywood Ave., as G.S.I. Recycling, a scrap yard and shredder operation across the street from the old school. Area residents are suing G.S.I. Recycling.
Attorney Bob Kerrigan represents the neighborhood. In March 2012, he informed the school board of the lawsuit he had filed against the scrap yard, because Oakcrest Elementary School was also near the facility.
Kerrigan said his clients had complained about the noise and vibrations from the shredder, which emits what the conditional permit described as “fugitive emissions.” Neighbors had said that there was at least one loud explosion a day from the facility as it crushed cars. Kerrigan said that homes and cars in the area were covered with dust from the scrap yard. According the court records, several lawsuits are still open.
During the March 2012 school board workshop, Superintendent Thomas said, “We’ve lost buyers (for Brownsville Middle School) because of the scrap yard. The shredder devalues it even more.”
Three years later, the superintendent is ready to sell the property to the scrap yard.