Scenic Lake Mirror in 2023, including The Terrace Hotel, The Summit Building and the Lakeland Police Department headquarters. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog
Scenic Lake Mirror in 2023, including The Terrace Hotel, The Summit Building and the Lakeland Police Department headquarters. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog

The Florida Legislature will kick off its 60-day lawmaking session on Tuesday, sparking both hopes and fears for city leaders. More than 1,100 bills have been filed so far — including several that could affect city operations and Lakeland residents’ quality of life.

Local officials are hopeful that the session will yield new solutions to the state's property insurance crisis, funding for major transportation projects and support for extending Brightline rail service from Orlando to Tampa.

But they are also concerned about bills that could limit the revenue the city gets from Lakeland Electric, take away Lakeland's power to levy business taxes, double the city's financial exposure in lawsuits, require quicker approvals for building permits and ban red-light cameras.

Legislators have until noon on Tuesday to introduce additional bills, but here are the ones city leaders are most focused on at this point.

A renewed threat to Lakeland Electric revenue

At the top of Lakeland’s priority list is opposing a pair of bills filed Friday (HB 1277 and SB 1510) that would limit how much utility revenue can be used for government operations.

Unlike investor-owned utilities, whose profits go to private shareholders, earnings from city-owned Lakeland Electric benefit the residents of Lakeland by funding things like parks and public safety. Last year, the utility dividend that went into the city's general fund was $32.6 million.

The bills would penalize municipal utilities like Lakeland Electric that have significant numbers of customers outside of their city limits, even if those customers are part of the local community and use its amenities.

The Lakeland Electric Building along scenic Lake Mirror in 2023. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog
The Lakeland Electric Building along scenic Lake Mirror in 2023. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog

A pair of similar bills failed last year when they did not get enough support to move beyond initial committee hearings. Instead, lawmakers passed a narrower measure targeting Gainesville Regional Utilities, which had some of the highest customer rates in the state.

The Legislature removed city commission control of the Gainesville utility, and then Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed a hand-picked board to run it — including some members who don’t live in the service area. A group of Gainesville residents is challenging the overhaul in federal court.

Lakeland lobbyist David Shepp warned city commissioners in October that, although Lakeland Electric was spared in 2023, the threat would likely resurface this year — and it has.

The Florida Municipal Electric Association, which represents the state’s 33 municipal utilities, strongly opposes the pending legislation.

“(The bills) substantially limit municipal electric utilities’ ability to transfer revenues to cities’ general funds, which is used to reinvest in the health, safety and welfare of their communities,” FMEA Executive Director Amy Zubaly said in a statement.

“Prohibiting or limiting general fund transfers would eliminate a city’s right as the utility owner to earn a reasonable return on the investment in its utility systems, a recognized right of every utility owner and operator,” Zubaly said.

She added, “The legislation will undoubtedly raise costs and diminish the quality of life, through reduced services provided or higher taxes, for millions of Floridians already struggling with the burdens of inflation.”

Local business taxes in jeopardy

Like many communities across the state, Lakeland requires local businesses to pay a modest business tax each year. Fees vary depending on square footage, the number of workers and the category of profession.

It's not a significant source of revenue for the city. Instead, it's a self-funding system that helps the city track economic development — for instance, knowing what is opening or closing around the city. It helps ensure that businesses are complying with building codes and zoning regulations. It also lets the fire department know when safety inspections are needed.

However, a pair of bills introduced this session (HB 609, SB 1144) would repeal local governments' ability to levy a business tax.

Lakeland and the Florida League of Cities oppose the measure, saying it infringes on local home-rule powers, jeopardizes public safeguards and could cause property taxes to rise.

Increased lawsuit liability caps

The city is also concerned about a pair of bills (HB 569, SB 472) introduced this session that would raise the statutory limits on liability for tort claims against local governments.

Under “sovereign immunity” protections, the city's exposure in lawsuits is currently capped at $200,000 per person and $300,000 per incident. However, the proposed legislation would double those caps to $400,000 per person and $600,000 per incident, with the limits to be adjusted annually starting in 2025 based on changes in the Consumer Price Index.

Local governments have pushed back, saying the increases would be a hardship for cities with tight budgets and could pave the way for more lawsuits.

However, municipalities do support language in the bills that would amend Florida Statute 768.28, narrowing the window of time people have to sue local governments for negligence from four years to two years “to be consistent with the statute of limitations applicable to non-governmental entities.”

Less time to review building permit applications

Another concern for Lakeland officials is a slate of pro-development bills (HB 267, HB 665, SB 684 and SB 812) that would pressure local governments to approve building permits with less time to review them.

Typically, when it comes to growth and development, local governments try to balance the interests of builders who want to break ground quickly with the public interest in making sure projects are well-planned and up to code.

Turnaround times for building permit applications can vary depending on the quality of the application, the complexity of the project, staffing levels in city building departments and more.

The four bills before the Legislature would take away some local discretion by shortening timeframes for building permits and reducing the number of times a municipality can ask an applicant for additional information. Upon an applicant's request, local governments would have to issue no less than 50% of the permits for dwellings to be built.

Supporters say permitting delays can be costly for developers and the proposal would expedite development across the state, boosting economic growth and helping to ease housing shortages.

But Lakeland and the Florida League of Cities are opposed to the measures, saying they would usurp local authority and compromise the public interest in safe, smart growth by forcing cities to hire more — possibly less-qualified — plans examiners or rubber stamp applications without proper review.

Ability to save old buildings from demolition

Home-rule power is also at the heart of another bill the city opposes. The Resiliency and Safe Structures Act (SB 1526) was reintroduced Friday after clearing the Senate but failing to reach the House floor last year.

The bill would would make it easier for private developers to tear down old buildings by barring local governments from “prohibiting, restricting, or preventing the demolition of certain structures unless necessary for public safety.”

Opponents say it would make it harder for local governments to preserve the historic architectural character of their communities.

Defending red light cameras

The city is monitoring a pair of joint resolutions (HJR 805, SJR 1042) calling for a Constitutional amendment to ban the use of red light cameras everywhere except in school zones. The proposal would need support from at least 60% of the House and Senate to get on the ballot. And then at least 60% of voters would have to approve it in the next general election.

The issue is one that has come up almost every year for the past decade, as lawmakers try to repeal the 2010 law known as the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Program. The law was the result of tireless activism by Melissa Wandall, who was nine months pregnant when her husband was killed by a driver who ran a red light in 2003. The law was unanimously upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in 2018.

Lakeland Police Department leaders and city commissioners have expressed strong support for the city's 14-year-old red light camera program, saying every citation is reviewed by a law enforcement officer before it is sent and people who receive the $158 tickets rarely re-offend. The city currently has 19 cameras at 12 intersections — and it wants to keep them.

A bright spot for Brightline

City leaders are feeling more optimistic when it comes to bills and funding measures related to transportation.

One bill introduced last week (SB 1226) would require the Florida Department of Transportation department to preserve a 44-foot-wide rail corridor within the right-of-way of Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa to facilitate future intercity high-speed rail service.

The bill says, “The Legislature finds that it is in the strategic interest of the state and the traveling public to extend to Tampa the existing passenger rail service currently terminating in Orlando.”

The bill would also slightly decrease the amount the FDOT must spend on roadside landscaping and plantings for large projects.

Corporate tax credit for historic preservation

Lakelanders love their historic buildings and city officials are supporting efforts to protect them. A pair of bills introduced last week — known as the Main Street Historical Tourism and Revitalization Act (HB 1183, SB 1166) — would provide a state corporate income tax credit of 20% to 30% for rehabilitating historic properties.

Similar measures failed last year, but the sponsors are trying again. Private homeowners would likely not benefit, since Florida does not have a state income tax. But buildings used for tourism or business purposes might qualify.

A structure would have to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places to be eligible, although buildings not currently listed can always apply. Applicants would not have to own the building, they could be long-term leaseholders with contracts of 39 years or more.

The 20% tax credit could be received in addition to an existing federal credit for up to 20% back. Applicants could potentially receive another 10% back from the state if the building is in a designated Florida Main Street neighborhood — a state program that helps revitalize historic downtown districts. Lakeland doesn't currently have a Florida Main Street community, but Bartow and Winter Haven do.

According to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, Florida is one of only 11 states that does not offer a historic preservation tax credit.

“While this act benefits all of Florida, it is especially important for Florida's Main Street communities, which would see a 30% tax credit for eligible preservation and rehabilitation costs,” its website states.

Affordable housing

City leaders also support efforts to provide funding to local governments to offset any reduction in ad valorem tax revenue associated with new affordable housing construction.

They also support the Live Local Act, a statewide program to encourage affordable housing in commercial or industrial areas, but are asking for clarification. Officials support amendments to the act to recognize the obligations of airports and airport sponsors to protect areas around airports from incompatible land uses.

Funding requests

Lakeland Linder International Airport in December 2023.
Lakeland Linder International Airport in December 2023. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog

The city is seeking funding for multiple projects, including:

  • Lakeland Linder International Airport job growth grant - $6 million
  • Polk Regional Water Cooperative - $20 million
  • Historic Preservation Grant for the Historic District Resurvey, Phase III - $50,000
  • Peterson Park Environmental Boardwalk and Fishing Pier Replacement, which was damaged in the last hurricane - $1.5 million
  • Peterson Park concessions/restrooms (FRDAP grant) - $200,000
  • Lakeland Police SWAT Tower replacement and virtual training room - $1.5 million
Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz at Jazbablog's Forum on Race & Equity on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog
Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz at Jazbablog's Forum on Race & Equity on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog

And finally, the city is seeking funding to build the 6th District Court of Appeals Courthouse in Lakeland.

“As our State grows, funding sources and resulting allocations must increase to expand the infrastructure requirements to support that growth,” Mayor Bill Mutz said. “This is more true today than it has ever been in the past. We know it will also continue to be a focus need for our legislators.”

“The City Commission encourages policymakers to continue focusing on protecting citizen rights and enhancing the quality of life,” he said.  “We are grateful for their responsible decisions and appreciate their protecting home rule in every area where local decision-making is most effective and nimble.”

To contact legislators

Every Florida address is associated with one representative and one senator. In the state House of Representatives, most Lakeland residents are served by Rep. Jennifer Canady, R-District 50. In the state Senate, most Lakelanders are constituents of Sen. Colleen Burton, R-District 12, or for those who live south of the Polk Parkway, Sen. Ben Albritton, R-District 27.

You can contact your legislators or reach out to bill sponsors with the following links:

Florida House of Representatives
- Find your representative
- House directory with email addresses and office phone numbers
- Other ways to contact representatives

Florida Senate
- Find your senator
- Senate directory with email addresses and office phone numbers
- Other ways to contact senators

SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips: [email protected]

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Cindy Glover moved to Lakeland in 2021 after spending two decades in South Florida. She was a crime reporter, City Hall reporter and chief political writer for newspapers including the Albuquerque Journal and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. She spent a year as a community engagement coordinator for the City of Lakeland before joining Jazbablog. Reach her at [email protected] or 561-212-3429.

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to Jazbablog in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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1 Comment

  1. Keep electing republicans and this will be an ongoing problem. They used to be for less government now they want total control. DeSantis is their dictorial leader. When there is a supermajority in the legislative process there is no room to bargain or compromise.

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