Commentary: Civic work helps shape legislative agenda

Commentary: Civic work helps shape legislative agenda

My friends and family urged me to respond to misinformation and personal attacks in a number of recent letters to the editor. Instead, I’d like my constituents to know who I am, what I’ve done and what I stand for.

I came to Naples in 1979 with my husband, John, as a bride fresh out of law school. My profession is important to me, and I worked hard at my career. I was in the first group of attorneys in the state to obtain board certification in real estate law. I was also honored to be elected by my peers to serve as president of both the Collier County Bar Association and the Collier County Women’s Bar Association.

As my career progressed I was mindful of my parents’ teaching to give back to the community. I did just that by using my background and legal skills to help almost 100 civic, charitable and business organizations with their corporate documents and governance structure.

From creating the Collier County Juvenile Justice Council to serving as co-chair of the community engagement initiative of the Education Foundation of Collier County-Champions For Learning (“Connect Now”) and as president of the Southwest Florida Land Preservation Trust to chairing the board of The United Way of Collier County, I had the opportunity to work with citizens from all over Southwest Florida with a common goal of making our community a better place to live, work, raise a family and retire.

Along the way, John and I had three daughters: Catarina, Francesca and Gabriella and now we have two grandchildren, William and Emilio.

I’ve always had the desire to run for public office so that I could take what I’ve learned at the local level to the state level. In 2010 when my youngest daughter headed off to college, I became an “empty nester.” I seized the opportunity to continue serving my community and ran for public office. I was elected to the Florida House in 2010 and then to the Florida Senate in 2016 and haven’t looked back.

As a member of the Legislature, I focus on issues important to Southwest Florida. My foreclosure reform bill grew out of a partnership I helped form of community, civic and governmental organizations to provide pro bono advice and assistance to people facing foreclosure.

Another community partnership in which I became involved, the Identity Theft Task Force, came about because of the burgeoning incidents of identity theft in our community, especially among our seniors. That partnership led to my sponsorship of a bill to combat identity fraud.

Last session the tragic shooting in Parkland prompted the Florida Legislature to act swiftly to ensure the safety of the students in our schools. I fought to make sure significant mental health funding was allocated to our schools and sponsored legislation to establish partnerships with local mental health providers.

I also championed several other critical issues during my time in the Legislature, including legislation to provide increased care to infants affected by opioid addiction and guardianship reform. I was also successful in obtaining significant funding for local needs.

I’m proud of the work that I’ve done but there is so much more to do. I have a “bucket list” of initiatives focused on helping our community that I will undertake, including more emphasis on mental health funding; a septic to sewer program to address one of the root causes of the algae problem besetting our state; continuing my fight to stop legislative “sweeps” of the affordable housing trust fund and continued focus on issues confronting our elderly population. For more see: KathleenPassidomo.com.

Editorial: Passidomo’s priorities a good road map for Legislature

Editorial: Passidomo’s priorities a good road map for Legislature

Bolstering mental health programs in a state that’s ranked No. 50 in per capita funding. Further protecting vulnerable elders from abuse. Making sure Florida pays competitive teacher salaries.

Stopping lawmakers from diverting money from Florida’s affordable housing trust funds in order to balance the budget. Addressing additional ways to protect our water quality, specifically by eliminating septic tanks that might leak into aquifers.

If that agenda was accomplished by the 2019 Legislature, it would be an extremely successful session. It’s the campaign platform of state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who we enthusiastically endorse for re-election on the Nov. 6 ballot against an outstanding Democratic opponent, Annisa Karim.

Passidomo’s District 28 spans Collier and Hendry counties as well as southern and eastern Lee County.

In position
In a Republican-controlled Legislature, Passidomo, who has served in either the Florida House or Senate since 2010, should be well-positioned to help influence her chamber’s direction in 2019.

This year she chaired the pre-K through 12th-grade appropriations subcommittee, crafting a budget proposal that would have raised teacher salaries in Florida by 2 percent, significantly increased the allotment for teachers’ classroom supplies and created a new initiative to address mental health issues that are troubling students, thus affecting their schools.

Passidomo was on the right track to help public schools, but says two things happened: The House had different education spending priorities and the tragic South Florida high school shooting necessarily shifted the Legislature’s focus and spending to safety programs.

In the end, Passidomo says, the Legislature increased the student funding allocation for all programs by 1.4 percent or $101.50 per student total. Mental health assistance for schools, for example, received $69 million.

With leadership changes looming for 2019 in the House, Senate and governor’s mansion, Passidomo has the knowledge of the inner workings of the current education budget to pursue what’s needed in the state during her next term.

Similarly, it was her bipartisan bill to stop the legislative raids of the affordable housing trust fund that could have assisted Collier County and south Lee County as they now grapple with providing adequate housing options for the workforce and senior citizens. The 2018 bill didn’t pass, but she’s primed to try again.

Increased housing assistance for elders would add to Passidomo’s legislative accomplishments on behalf of seniors during the past eight years. An attorney, she’s pushed to strengthen protections for older residents covered under Florida’s guardianship laws.

What’s next?
While this year’s additional mental health money for students was an important first step, Passidomo calls it “the proverbial drop in a bucket of funding that we need for mental health prevention, early intervention and treatment” programs. She vows to advocate for adequate funding to follow through on a behavioral health initiative approved in 2016 by the Legislature.

As for protecting water quality, while various officials focus on other necessary aspects of this critical issue, Passidomo wants to explore an idea she’s dubbed “septic to sewer.” For example, she suggested environmental bonds might create financing so property owners can replace older septic tanks with connections to expanded sewage treatment systems. Septic tanks that leak into the groundwater are a concern, she says, and the outright cost of septic tank conversion or replacement is out of reach for many property owners if they don’t have financing.

Though we haven’t endorsed Karim in this race and didn’t in a 2016 Collier County Commission contest, it’s only because she’s challenged two of Collier’s political stalwarts. There’s no question Karim is well-prepared to become an accomplished public servant.

Opinion: Legislature working to uplift education in Florida

Opinion: Legislature working to uplift education in Florida

 

Florida’s students are our most important asset. They are Florida’s future: our future leaders, future workforce and future volunteers. Supporting our students — by providing a high-quality education — is the best and most important investment we can make in our state. And that is what we did this legislative session.

 

I am concerned about the recent spread of misinformation about education in our state. It’s a disservice to our students and our teachers to misrepresent how far we’ve come as a state and the investments we’ve made in our future.

Just 20 years ago, education in Florida had hit rock bottom. Florida’s high school graduation rate was just 52 percent, and half of the state’s fourth graders could not read at grade level. Since then, we have transformed our education system and improved learning in a very meaningful way.

 

Today, Florida’s graduation rate is at 88 percent. Florida students gained in all four National Assessment of Educational Progress assessments last year, and they made significant improvements in three of the four tests, while most of the nation remained stagnant. Just last month, U.S. News and World Report ranked Florida third in the nation for the best public high schools.

More: U.S. News & World Report: Three Collier high schools rank in top 75 in Florida.

 

Recently, the Florida Legislature worked to reduce the burden of tests on our students by eliminating several standardized tests and restricting the time students spent taking standardized tests to just 5 percent or less of the school year. We also provided school districts with greater local control when measuring student performance.

But we still have more work to do. This legislative session, we aimed to build on our students’ success with greater investments in our schools, more opportunities to reward high-performing teachers, fewer barriers for teachers to enter the profession, and improvements to the safety of our schools.

In the budget for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2019-2020, SB 2500, we dedicated $34.7 billion to education, or $800 million more than last year. Education funding makes up nearly one-quarter of the state’s entire budget. For Pre-K through 12 students we will spend $7,672 per student next year, or $242.60 more per student than the previous year. We dedicated $1.2 billion in our Voluntary Pre-K Program and School Readiness Programs. The Legislature also devoted more than $550 million for school district workforce programs, over $2 billion to colleges and over $5 billion to our state universities.

 

Knowing the important role that teachers play in the education and development of our students, we worked this session to reward the teachers who excel in this critical field. We provided $364 million in flexible spending for teacher pay raises or other district needs. We invested $285 million in the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship program, which provides bonuses to teachers based on their performance in the classroom, and we restructured the awards to focus on recruiting experts in certain fields, retaining proven-effective teachers and recognizing teachers for their hard work.

In response to concerns about the cost and limitations for the teacher certification process, we passed measures requiring the state to establish exam fees, and specify requirements to reduce retake fees. In addition, we eliminated the one-year requirement for individuals teaching under a temporary certificate to demonstrate mastery of general knowledge.

Furthermore, we invested in the safety of our students. With the tragic massacre that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year, it is obvious that we needed to do more to create a safe learning environment for our students and teachers. Based on the recommendations of a non-partisan, multi-jurisdictional task force, made up of sheriffs, parents, teachers, mental health experts and others, we passed SB 7030. This legislation provides schools the resources they need to improve safety and security, as well as training to reduce the likelihood of at-risk students developing mental health disorders.

When evaluating education in our state, focus on the facts and ignore the myths. We have dedicated record amounts of funding to our students, rewarded our best performing teachers and improved the safety of our schools. I am proud of our investment in our students. They are Florida’s future.

Kathleen Passidomo aims to protect state’s affordable housing trust fund

Florida Politics

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While Florida communities persistently face affordable housing issues, a trust fund to help solve the problem remains an easy pot to raid.

But state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo hopes to safeguard those dollars in next year’s budget.

One of the first bills filed by the Naples Republican for this session aims to protect the State Housing Trust Fund and Local Government Housing Trust Fund, better known as the Sadowski Trust.

“If we have funds designated for a trust, they should be used for that purpose,” Passidomo said. “It should be an extraordinary event to use these funds for something else.”

Her bill (SB 70) seeks to stop what happened last year, when the Trust seemed intact up until the annual budget conference, when lawmakers swept millions out of the fund to help pay for a school security bill passed after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland.

That reasoning seemed compelling when the mid-February shooting threw the entire Legislative Session sideways.

But Jaimie Ross, CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, said the reasoning doesn’t explain the trust getting raided every year for more than a decade.

“Isn’t there always something?” she said. “Before Parkland, why was it swept away then?”

The answer varies year to year. In 2017, Gov. Rick Scott called for the funds to be used for economic development. For years, the Great Recession and a connected loss in revenues justified more raids.

To Ross, it’s clear the best economic benefit for an affordable housing trust is to be used for affordable housing. That also seems the honest approach.

The Trust, established in 1992, gets funded through a documentary stamp tax paid on all real estate transactions in Florida.

It’s the rare tax on an industry supported at the time by Florida homebuilders and real estate professionals based on the fact the revenues generated by the tax would go toward improving housing inventory, something that would benefit the industries paying into the fund, Ross said.

For 10 years, that’s exactly what happened to the fund. But in 2002, as Florida dealt with tourism decline and an economic downturn after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, lawmakers raided the trust fund. Ever since, full funding seemed a relic of a bygone era.

Last year, Passidomo fought to protect the funding, left untouched in the Senate-approved version of the state budget.

But in the Florida House, where then-state Rep. Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat, championed similar protections, the trust did not fare so well. House members voted to sweep $182 million out of the fund, estimated last year at more than $308 million.

When House and Senate leaders went into conference, the trust fund became a casualty of negotiations.

“Because of Parkland, we swept a lot of trust funds,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley at the time. “There just isn’t enough money there to maintain the Senate’s position of not sweeping the fund — we are going to be sweeping that fund.”

For the coming fiscal year, the most recent revenue estimates estimate some $328 million to come into the Sadowski Trust. If used appropriately, Ross said that could generate $4 billion in economic impact for the state.

And Passidomo said with the economy booming but incomes rising unevenly, the need for affordable housing dollars will be as great as ever.

“There’s affordable, attainable workforce housing issues around the state,” she said. In many parts of Florida, including the Naples area, high real estate costs mean professionals from hairdressers to young attorneys can’t afford to live within 45 minutes of where they work.

During the Great Recession, there seemed a widespread acknowledgement the housing bubble burst created its own affordable housing stock through foreclosures and market decline. But that’s no longer the case.

“As values come back and the economy gets better, our employment rate is way down, but young workers have no place to live,” she said.

Developers tend to build the best and highest use on land, preferring to develop subdivisions on mini-mansions that sell at luxury prices, particularly within coastal communities rich in retirement amenities.

Now, Passidomo said, the state needs to create new programs and provide subsidies so that builders create working class housing stock. That could mean retrofitting empty strip malls into rental apartments, or simply supplementing lower rents for landlords willing to work with the state.

But in the always-a-reason-for-a-raid department, there’s already talk in Tallahassee about whether Sadowski Trust dollars can be used to help areas devastated by Hurricane Michael.

The idea makes Ross bristle.

“That is very unfortunate,” she said. “The federal government provides the housing assistance we need to recover from emergencies.”

Lawmakers may be tempted to use Sadowski dollars for short-term response, but if they do that, the federal grants that eventually come to the state cannot be used to replenish the trust. Once again, affordable housing funding will suffer and the housing crisis will worsen unabated, she said.

But these days, after raiding trust funds became the status quo, Ross worries many lawmakers don’t even consider using the dollars as a violation. Most lawmakers in Tallahassee never approved a budget that left the Sadowski Trust intact.

Her hope is that a new administration will leave the funding alone in his budget.

“I truly believe Gov.-elect (Ron) DeSantis has a tremendous opportunity to distinguish himself as he comes out with his first budget,” she said.

And lawmakers themselves can prove their trustworthiness to voters, Passidomo says.

“I’m a real estate attorney, and in my business, I take money for clients and put them in a (lawyer’s) trust account,” she said. “Those are carefully separated. I would lose my license if I used funds from Client A to help Client B. Those funds don’t belong to me.

“It’s the same thing here. These dollars are for a trust fund, and they belong in this account.”

Passidomo named majority leader, Benacquisto retains chairmanship in Florida Senate

News Press

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TALLAHASSEE — Senate President Bill Galvano put his stamp on the Florida Senate on Monday, as he slimmed down the number of lawmakers holding committee chairmanships and trimmed the number of Democrats in leadership spots.

Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who was sworn in last week as president, kept some Republicans in the same spots they held last year under former Sen. President Joe Negron, including Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, who will remain in her role as chairman of the Rules Committee, and Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who returns as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

But other senators who were in Negron’s inner circle — including Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who chaired the Banking and Insurance Committee and the Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee — will have smaller roles. Flores will chair the Community Affairs Committee.

“It was with much deliberation that the appointments were made, input from the members and the knowledge of having served with many of them either in the House or the Senate or watched them from across the rotunda,” Galvano told The News Service of Florida. “Our team is well-positioned to serve the people of Florida with the many issues we’re presently facing.”

Helping round out Galvano’s leadership team is Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, who assumes the post of Senate majority leader. Galvano said he named her to the position because she has a “good rapport” with Republican caucus members.

More: Kathleen Passidomo: Candidate for Florida State Senator, District 28

More: Benacquisto bill would limit opioid prescriptions

 

Democrats picked up a seat during the Nov.  6 elections, leaving Republicans with a 23-17 advantage in the Senate. But Galvano reduced the number of Democrats in charge of committees from four to two.

Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, will chair the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, will chair the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Galvano’s biggest structural move was to merge four committees into two, resulting in fewer chairmanships to give out.  

He combined the former Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities Committee and Regulated Industries Committee into the new Innovation, Industry and Technology Committee, which will be chaired by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. Simpson is expected to succeed Galvano as president in 2020 if Republicans keep their majority.

Galvano also combined the Transportation Committee and the domestic-security portion of the Military and Veterans Affairs committee to form the new Infrastructure and Security Committee. It will be chaired by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa.

Election results: Kathleen Passidomo wins second term in Florida Senate

Naples Daily News

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Kathleen Passidomo is hitting the ground running Wednesday after winning her second term to the Florida Senate representing Southwest Florida.

“There’s a lot we’ve got to do and as I move up the ladder there are things I want to get done,” said Passidomo, 65. “The longer you serve the more responsibility you have.”

A Republican first elected to the state Senate in 2016 and who previously served in the Florida House for six years, Passidomo won her Senate contest with 138,186 votes,or 65 percent, against challenger Annisa Karim, who collected 72,913 votes, or 35 percent, according to unofficial results as of 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The Senate district covers Collier and parts of Lee and Hendry counties.

 

A longtime Naples resident and attorney before entering politics, Passidomo describes herself as a consensus builder able to work with Democratic colleagues in the Senate. She has championed as among her causes the elderly, financial abuse and guardianship reform.

Her top priorities with her re-election is to enhance funding for mental health assistance in the education system, and to prevent money being swept away from the state’s affordable housing trust funds. After her win, Passidomo said she is moving forward again with legislation on the affordable housing trust funds and she has an opioid bill in draft.

“I feel great,” she said. “I’m ready to go.”

She spent election evening at her home in Naples surrounded by friends, her Senate staff and law firm colleagues.

 

When it comes to the algae crisis in Southwest Florida, Passidomo told the Daily News the Everglades restoration project authorized years ago and delayed during the recession needs to get back on track. Another priority is addressing water quality and preventing treated septic tank effluent from seeping into the aquifer.

Karim, 44, who is a manager with Lee County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, ran on an environmental platform in part due to her expertise in wildlife ecology and conservation, and she backed an algae bloom task force.

She said the state is not doing enough to address the algae crisis, and Karim also supported reinstating the state Department of Community Affairs, according to her website.

Passidomo raised $428,000 for her campaign and spent $235,000, state election records show. Karim raised $49,000 and spent $32,000.

Q&A with Florida Senate District 28 candidate Kathleen Passidomo

Naples Daily News

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Name: Kathleen C. Passidomo

 

Age: 65

 

Family: Husband, John; daughters Catarina, Francesca and Gabriella; grandsons William and Emilio

 

Lived in the district since: 1979

 

Work background: October 1999 to present, partner at Kelly, Passidomo & Alba, LLP; March 1995 to October 1999, partner at Kelly, Price, Passidomo, Siket & Solis, LLP; March 1984 to March 1995, partner (1987) at Harter, Secrest & Emery; September 1982 to March 1984, owner of Kathleen C. Passidomo, Esq.; May 1981 to September 1982, partner at Schweikhardt & Passidomo, P.A.; October 1979 to May 1981, associate at William Schweikhardt, Attorney At Law.

 

Public service: Florida House of Representatives, 2010-16; Florida Senate since 2016

 

Political affiliation: Republican Party

 

Q: Why should voters elect you?

A: I am a consensus builder who has been able to work collaboratively with my colleagues from both political parties over the last eight years to pass almost 50 bills ranging from strengthening laws to protect the elderly from financial abuse, foreclosure and guardianship reform to complex technical bills dealing with corporate and business laws. I understand the legislative and budgetary processes and I get things done. In the time I have left before being term limited I have a number of important initiatives I plan on undertaking and will put the same drive, energy and creativity into tackling those issues.

 

Q: What would be your top three priorities if you are elected?

1. The Legislature included $69 million in the PreK-12 budget for mental health assistance in the 2018-19 budget, however, that funding is just a start. In 2016 the Legislature passed a mental health and substance abuse initiative (SB 12). My goal is to fund the bill.

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2. Over the last six years over $662 million has been swept from the affordable housing trust funds. Last session I filed a bill that would have prohibited this.I am committed to discontinuing the sweep of housing trust funds so they may be used for the purposes intended.

3. One significant unaddressed water quality concern is inadequately treated septic tank effluent seeping into the aquifer. It is imperative the state address these antiquated systems.

 

Q: Is Florida doing enough to solve Southwest Florida’s algae crisis? Why or why not?

A: Government at all levels can and should do more. We need to complete the Everglades restoration plan authorized in 2000 and delayed during the economic downturn due to funding availability. Now, as the economy strengthens and with Congress passing the Water Resources Development Act we are in a position to fund those projects in addition to funding the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project (SB 10) to provide more water storage. Also, to address the root causes of the problem the state and local governments need to work collaboratively to address statewide stormwater management, fertilizer runoff, wastewater treatment and septic seepage.

 

Q: What role does the state have in regulating growth in Southwest Florida?

A: Implementation of the state’s growth management policy and decisions on growth regulations should be made at the local level.  Some requirements of the state’s policies have hindered the ability of local governments to effectively manage growth within their communities. Currently, every local government has a comprehensive plan in place and local land use regulations to implement the plan. Local governments are now more sophisticated and are employing creative planning techniques to guide growth. The state should not “micromanage” local government but should provide legislative and statutory oversight and partner with local governments in implementing best practices and common-sense regulations that are tailored each community.

Editorial: Passidomo’s priorities a good road map for Legislature

Naples Daily News

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Bolstering mental health programs in a state that’s ranked No. 50 in per capita funding. Further protecting vulnerable elders from abuse. Making sure Florida pays competitive teacher salaries.

Stopping lawmakers from diverting money from Florida’s affordable housing trust funds in order to balance the budget. Addressing additional ways to protect our water quality, specifically by eliminating septic tanks that might leak into aquifers.

If that agenda was accomplished by the 2019 Legislature, it would be an extremely successful session. It’s the campaign platform of state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who we enthusiastically endorse for re-election on the Nov. 6 ballot against an outstanding Democratic opponent, Annisa Karim.

Passidomo’s District 28 spans Collier and Hendry counties as well as southern and eastern Lee County.

In position

In a Republican-controlled Legislature, Passidomo, who has served in either the Florida House or Senate since 2010, should be well-positioned to help influence her chamber’s direction in 2019.

This year she chaired the pre-K through 12th-grade appropriations subcommittee, crafting a budget proposal that would have raised teacher salaries in Florida by 2 percent, significantly increased the allotment for teachers’ classroom supplies and created a new initiative to address mental health issues that are troubling students, thus affecting their schools.

Passidomo was on the right track to help public schools, but says two things happened: The House had different education spending priorities and the tragic South Florida high school shooting necessarily shifted the Legislature’s focus and spending to safety programs.

In the end, Passidomo says, the Legislature increased the student funding allocation for all programs by 1.4 percent or $101.50 per student total. Mental health assistance for schools, for example, received $69 million.

 

With leadership changes looming for 2019 in the House, Senate and governor’s mansion, Passidomo has the knowledge of the inner workings of the current education budget to pursue what’s needed in the state during her next term.

Similarly, it was her bipartisan bill to stop the legislative raids of the affordable housing trust fund that could have assisted Collier County and south Lee County as they now grapple with providing adequate housing options for the workforce and senior citizens. The 2018 bill didn’t pass, but she’s primed to try again.

Increased housing assistance for elders would add to Passidomo’s legislative accomplishments on behalf of seniors during the past eight years. An attorney, she’s pushed to strengthen protections for older residents covered under Florida’s guardianship laws.

What’s next?

While this year’s additional mental health money for students was an important first step, Passidomo calls it “the proverbial drop in a bucket of funding that we need for mental health prevention, early intervention and treatment” programs. She vows to advocate for adequate funding to follow through on a behavioral health initiative approved in 2016 by the Legislature.

As for protecting water quality, while various officials focus on other necessary aspects of this critical issue, Passidomo wants to explore an idea she’s dubbed “septic to sewer.” For example, she suggested environmental bonds might create financing so property owners can replace older septic tanks with connections to expanded sewage treatment systems. Septic tanks that leak into the groundwater are a concern, she says, and the outright cost of septic tank conversion or replacement is out of reach for many property owners if they don’t have financing.

Though we haven’t endorsed Karim in this race and didn’t in a 2016 Collier County Commission contest, it’s only because she’s challenged two of Collier’s political stalwarts. There’s no question Karim is well-prepared to become an accomplished public servant.

Sprucing up the swamp: Fakahatchee boardwalk getting $1.3 million upgrade

Marco News

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For years, the Fakahatchee has seemed to be a kind of redheaded stepchild among area nature preserves. Miles away from coastal population centers, hidden away in the woods, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park doesn’t have the name recognition, funding, or the bigtime organizations backing it, as do Everglades National Park or Rookery Bay.

Narrower, more rustic, and maintained entirely by volunteers from the Friends of Fakahatchee, the Fakahatchee boardwalk doesn’t have the cachet of the Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

But things are looking up. The Fakahatchee is the recipient of a $1.3 million appropriation from the Florida legislature, and the park’s boardwalk along US 41 will be receiving some major upgrades.

One thing they won’t be changing is the swamp itself – and that’s a good thing. Some of the cypress trees are 600 years old, and tower overhead, along or even through the planks under your feet, with the boardwalk built right around several of them. Many of the cypress are girdled with massive, sinuous strangler figs, which manage in this climate to coexist with their host.

What will change is access, accessibility, and viewability of the natural surroundings. A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for Dec. 7 to kick off the Boardwalk Expansion Project, making improvements to the facilities and entrance to the 2,300-foot wooden boardwalk. These will include safer vehicular access, sanitary public restrooms, and an expanded parking lot with deceleration lanes that will end the necessity for those using overflow parking to walk across the federal highway, with cars whizzing by at 60 to 70 mph.

A suspension pedestrian bridge will take visitors across the canal that parallels the road, to an interpretive center containing information and exhibits about the boardwalk and the swamp. Perhaps most exciting, an elevated “epiphyte walk,” 20 feet up in the tree canopy, will literally give visitors a bird’s eye view of the swamp.

 

 

Just north of US 41, the famed Tamiami Trail, the boardwalk at Big Cypress Bend represents the easiest way to catch a glimpse of the Fakahatchee, maybe including an alligator or two, plus a host of other wild fauna and flora. Despite being “miles from nowhere” this slice of wild Florida hosts approximately 100,000 visitors each year, said Friends of Fakahatchee executive director Francine Stevens.

“The boardwalk really is the front door into the Fakahatchee,” she said.

The new setup will also include regulating entry to the boardwalk, said Friends president Patrick Higgins. Just as other state parks do, but the Fakahatchee never could, they will now charge an entry fee to help fund maintenance and additional improvements to the facility. Tour operators bringing busloads of tourists will help preserve the boardwalk, which after Hurricane Irma was in such an advanced state of deterioration that the state said it should just be allowed to fall completely apart, forcing the Friends group to step in with volunteer labor and materials.

 

“After Hurricane Wilma, the State of Florida decided to ‘let it rot,’ saying the boardwalk was too far gone to repair,” said naturalist and volunteer guide Linda Koreny.

The Friends of Fakahatchee is also becoming the master concessionaire in the park, regulating ecotour operators who run boat trips or other activities in the park, which will be an additional source of revenue.

Friends of Fakahatchee board member and past president Tom Maish credited the $1.3 million in funding appropriated by the state legislature largely to the good offices of State Senator Kathleen Passidomo of Naples, who spearheaded the effort, with assistance from State Representative Bob Rommel.

“The Fakahatchee is a gem – there’s nothing like it,” said Passidomo. “In the heart of the Everglades, this shows you what our natural beauty really is. I fell in love with it.”

Fortunately, the funds were requested two years ago, she said. “This year, there was very little funding available. The timing was perfect.

“Everybody who saw the plans was really impressed,” said Passidomo. The plans were the work of Naples architect David Corban, AIA, who incorporated green principles throughout.

“As an architect, sustainability is very important to us, particularly in a pristine area” such as the Fakahatchee. “Any time you do buildings in a place like this, you have to be very careful, leave a small footprint,” said Corban.

His design sets up pilings at angles, so they resemble trees, and uses low-impact helical piles that don’t require a conventional pile driver to be set in the ground. The walkway he designed will give visitors the chance to go 20 feet up into the tree canopy and view the swamp from above. The bar grate decking allows sunlight through.

Whether you see if from above, or at boardwalk level, the Fakahatchee boardwalk is one of just a handful of opportunities to easily take a tour of how Florida looked before man altered the landscape.

The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk is on the north side of US-41 (Tamiami Trail), 25 miles east of downtown Naples, and about 7 miles west of SR-29. To learn more about guided tours or to support the Friends of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, Inc., a 501(c)3 organization, go to www.orchidswamp.org.

Kathleen Passidomo: To stop algae problem, get serious on septic tanks

Florida Politics
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If Florida wants to fight blue-green algae and red tide, it means getting serious about septic tanks, says state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo.

“Anyone of us who has a bathroom is at fault,” the Naples Republican said.

Passidomo spoke on South Florida’s ongoing water woes at a Naples luncheon organized by the Women’s Republican Club of Naples Federated.

There, she went over the history of waterway manipulation in Florida, from the expansion of farming around Lake Okeechobee to the creation of the Herbert Hoover Dike to stop flooding in the region and the manipulation of the Kissimmee River to more rapidly direct water from Central Florida into the Lake.

Over the past century or so, humanity connected the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers to Lake Okeechobee artificially while altering the natural filtration of nitrogen and phosphates in the land.

These efforts started when 30,000 people lived in South Florida, she said, and now millions of residents face the consequences.

But to address the issue means more than focusing on a few large polluters, she said. As Big Sugar gets demonized by BullSugar and other groups, Passidomo noted its importance to guarantee compliance will environmental rules but also essential to see the big picture.

“We don’t have a statewide initiative or study that looks to form a global perspective,” she told Florida Politics. That needs to change, and it will require statewide support,

“This cannot be a South Florida thing or a Southwest Florida thing,” she said. North Florida, which looks to protect its own springs, and Central Florida, where many South Florida leaders point as the source of nutrients in Lake Okeechobee itself, need to focus on eliminating septic use as well.

Passidomo also referenced an attack by Annisa Karim, her Democratic challenger in state Senate District 28, noting the incumbent, in fact, voted to lift requirements that property owners regularly have septic tank inspections.

“If I could go back would I have voted to repeal it? Probably not,” Passidomo acknowledged.

But she noted that vote came at the early stages of the Great Recession when people feared a government inspection forcing them to pay for $25,000 or $30,000 worth of repairs or replacements at their own homes.

Now, Passidomo wants to take a fresh look at septic tank requirements. She noted communities like Key West addressed the matter at the local level.

Indeed, Melba Wagner, a former member of the Key West utility board, attended the luncheon today and said the decision to put septic requirements on homeowners created an uproar on the island but resulted in drastically improved water quality.

Passidomo says there must be septic improvements statewide, but it can’t be forced on communities.

“We can’t do what we usually do, which is to tell local government to just eat it,” she said. “What we need to do is say, this is a framework, and you have to decide on a community level how to get there.

“The issue is funding, and for all of those of us who live here we have to participate in the funding.”

As for Karim’s suggestion that lawmakers need more scientists in the Legislature and that Passidomo doesn’t follow the research, the incumbent pushed back hard on the notion.

“If you’re a scientist, go and do your job,” Passidomo said. “Don’t just talk about it. Come up with solutions. Standing up and saying the Legislature isn’t doing the right thing isn’t solving the problem. Go to Mote Marine and help. Then you can come to me and say this and this are the cause of that.”

“I can then take your science say let’s make this doesn’t happen and this doesn’t happen so that doesn’t happen. That’s what I can do. That’s what I’m good at doing.”