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New Site Offers Financial Resources and Advice During Pandemic

May 29th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Three out of four Floridians say they’re feeling more financial strain from the COVID-19 pandemic according to a recent survey.

Now credit unions, banks and Florida’s Chief Financial Officer have teamed up and launched a new resource to help guide residents through these turbulent times.

While most Floridians are feeling more financial strain from the pandemic, nearly half say they’re feeling significantly more.

“Job uncertainty has kicked in,” said Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis.

Patronis is touting the launch of MoneyWiseFlorida.com.

“It’s a roadmap to try to help people,” said Patronis.

The site offers a multitude of financial resources and advice, many of which are specifically geared towards pandemic relief.

“Getting their PPP loans if they need them or want them. Helping them get other products like the economic impact disaster loans,” said Anthony DiMarco with the Florida Bankers Association.

Suncoast Credit Union CEO Kevin Johnson told us, learning how to create a six-month emergency fund is paramount in these times.

It’s something only three in ten Floridians had going into the pandemic.

“And that number is much higher if you look at the younger generation and minorities,” said Johnson. “And that’s where this information that we’re producing will really help. It’s to be able to help them navigate through this, help them budget their money better.”

The experts we spoke said the best advice they had to give was to live within your means.

“If you’re racking up a lot of credit card debt, then you’re probably buying things that you don’t absolutely need or that you can find less expensive somewhere,” said Johnson.

But if you are doing well right now you might want to consider making that big purchase.

“With the rates where they are, mortgage rates and the ability to get financing for homes and cars, now is a good time,” said Jared Ross, President of the Florida Credit Union Association.

And the CFO tells us scammers are running rampant right now.

Remember the federal or state government will never contact you directly offering money.

To report a suspected scam you can go to FraudFreeFlorida.com.

To access the new financial web resource go to MoneyWiseFlorida.com.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Lawsuit Not Over Yet

May 29th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

After a day and a half hearing, a judge in the state capital said he could not take control of the state’s unemployment system because of the separation of powers, but a lawsuit claiming negligence and more is moving forward.

30,000 or more Floridians have contacted lawyers suing the state over its failed unemployment system.

In their efforts to get a judge to take over the system, they invoked the Governor’s own words.

“Governor DeSantis said it best.This is a clunker, and he said publicly, he thought the system was designed to fail from the beginning,” said attorney Marie Mattox.

And while Judge John Cooper said he was clearly unhappy with the way unemployment benefits were being handled, he told lawyers it was out of his hands.

“I can’t tell the Governor what to do most of the time,” said Cooper.

And he went one step further.

“If you see something that you think is wrong, then you vote out that person, or that legislator, that city council person,” said Cooper.

But the judge also did not kill the lawsuit that was behind the request for emergency action to take over the department.

“The case is not over. I haven’t dismissed the case,” said Cooper.

While the lawsuit has just a handful of clients right now, it’s expected to turn into a very large class action suit.

The body of the suit seeks damages from the main contractor who built the problem laden system in 2013.

“I’m comfortable telling your honor that there’s at least 50,000, and I think it’s more,” said attorney Gautier Kitchen.

The ruling does mean that for people still waiting for a check they’ll now have to rely on the overwhelmed Department.

The lawyers believe the lawsuit will take a year or longer to play out in the courts.

The Governor has ordered his Inspector General to get to the bottom of the failed system and may seek some financial settlement from maker Deloitte.

Lawmakers are also expected to wade into the fiasco when then begin meeting late this year.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Lone Statewide Elected Democrat Takes Jabs at Governor in Cabinet Showdown

May 28th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Governor and Cabinet held their first meeting since the start of the pandemic nearly four months ago Thursday.

Democrat Nikki Fried came out swinging.

The state’s Agriculture Commissioner had hoped to get multiple items on the agenda including a pandemic and budget update, but her request fell on deaf ears.

Commissioner Fried was the only one of four officials to show up in person to the meeting.

She began by requesting a moment of silence for the more than 100,000 American lives lost to COVID-19.

“Aright, very well,” said Governor Ron DeSantis after taking a pause.

It would be the lone statewide elected Democrat’s only request to be honored.

At the end of the meeting she expressed her disappointment.

“Each of us received more than four million votes and were put here to do a job and for the most critical nearly four months of this pandemic this cabinet has been left in the dark,” said Fried.

The Governor adjourned the meeting without responding to her comments.

“You guys have a good one, take care,” DeSantis said before hanging up.

After the meeting, Fried told us she’d hoped to hear from the State Surgeon General and Department of Health on a number of pandemic related issues.

“In regards to data analysis, the information coming out of the nursing homes, the prison system,” said Fried.

She’d also requested an update on the state’s financial situation.

The state is projected to have lost $2.4 billion since March.

“And all of those were not fulfilled and were quite frankly ignored,” said Fried.

Fried asserts without the cabinet having these conversations, the public will be less informed and at higher risk as the state reopens.

“My concern is that the public is not getting correct information as we’re continuing to open up our state, opening up our beaches, our restaurants, our gyms, our summer camps. It’s important that people be able to make their own personal decisions whether to engage in those activities,” said Fried.

Even some seemingly benign requests from the commissioner went ignored, including a request to give an update on food distribution programs and an update on the wildfires raging in the panhandle.

We did reach out to the Governor’s Office for a response to the criticism lobbed by Commissioner Fried, but did not hear back.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Unemployment Investigation Underway

May 28th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The investigation into why Florida paid more than $77 million for an unemployment technology system that hasn’t worked properly since the beginning in 2013 is underway.

The inspector General looking at documents and is asking for patience.

The Governor first called for an investigation into the failed unemployment system on on May 1st.

“The way it was done was not worth the amount of money that was put in. I’ve not found a single person who has said its worth it,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

Since then, Inspector General Melinda Miguel has been pulling documents.

“One of the things we’re looking at is whether this particular project was designed properly, tested properly and designed with appropriate capacity. We want to provide a historical look back, going all the way back to 2007,” said Miguel.

That year the state spent a million dollars on a study to replace its aging system.

Four years later, work began on what was then a $39 million contract.

Seventeen amendments later, it ballooned to a $77 million project.

“We want to follow all of the money,” said Miguel.

Florida Democrats also want an independent legislative investigation.

Democrats like State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez have said the investigation must go beyond the failed technology and the past administration.

“We should take a wholesale look at the damage done to the entire state, including employers and employees who rely on the system,” said Rodriguez.

Miguel told us she will have a better idea on where the investigation is going in about a month.

“There are a lot of people out there hurting. Florida families need the State of Florida right now at a time like no other. And I think we’ll get to the bottom of this,” said Miguel.

But no investigation is going to speed up payments to the thousands still waiting.

As of Thursday morning, more than 338,000 thousand people were still waiting for a determination on the validity of their claims.

Another 33,000 who have been deemed eligible are still waiting for their first check.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Cabinet Green Lights 32,000 Acre Purchase of Conservation Lands

May 28th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Floridians will have more natural wonders to explore as the state opens up with the Governor and Cabinet approving the purchase of 32,000 acres for protection Thursday.

The lands, purchased primarily in the panhandle through the Florida Forever Program, include Lake Wimico in Gulf County, Devil’s Garden in Hendry County and the Bluffs of St. Teresa in Franklin and Wukulla counties.

Executive Director of Audubon Florida Julie Wraithmell said the between $73 and $79 million price tag on the seven land purchases is well worth the investment for the state.

“Whether you’re talking about our tourism economy or our real estate values, the ability of military bases to continue the military mission or even agriculture. They depend on these open spaces and the water quality and quantity protection that they’re providing,” said Wraithmell.

Since 2001 the Florida Forever Program has been used to purchase and protect more than 800,000 acres of natural lands throughout the state.

Thursday’s purchase was the largest in at least a decade.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Judge Dismisses Second Unemployment Lawsuit

May 28th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

For the second time, a judge has refused to step in and manage the state’s unemployment system.

Judge John Cooper called the current crisis a ‘black swan event’ and beyond the Department of Economic Opportunity’s ability to control.

Judge Cooper also cited multiple improvements that have resulted in more than a million people being paid benefits.

“But there’s still a problem and I agree there’s still a problem and this is affecting a lot of people and it’s not their fault that they’re not getting paid. Well, I don’t know every single instance, but I suspect for the majority of them it’s not their fault…” said Cooper. “I can’t tell the Governor what to do most of the time and he can’t tell me what to do most of the time.”

The judge said the only way he could have intervened is if the Governor had simply refused to pay any benefits at all.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Florida Not Collecting Taxes Owed

May 27th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Fewer car sales, and a drastic drop in sales taxes from malls, tourism and hospitality caused state revenue collections for March to fall almost a billion dollars below previous estimates.

There also appears to have been a shift to more online purchases, which is renewing a call for Florida to collect a tax already owed but ignored by the state.

Sales taxes were off, falling almost six hundred million.

At the same time more packages from untaxed online sales were being delivered.

“It’s growing everyday,” said Scott Shalley with the Florida Retail Federation.

Under Florida law, online customers are supposed to voluntarily pay the tax, but few do.

“And it’s just an equity issue. This is a tax that’s due. It’s a tax that’s owed, and right now Florida businesses have an obligation that foreign businesses do not,” said Shalley.

State Senator Joe Gruters tried to change the point of collection this past session, but too many thought it smelled like a new tax.

“I will tell you as the Chairman of the Florida GOP, and as practicing tax CPA, a tax that’s owed and changing the way its collected is not a tax increase,” said Gruters.

Only five states don’t have a sales tax and 38 of the other 45 already collect from online sales, putting Florida in the minority.

“Putting an onus on in state retailers. People that support Floridians, hire Floridians, pay rent in Florida that you are not putting on foreign entities,” said Shalley.

And Florida is foregoing at least $700 million a year.

“I think as a result of the crisis and the move to more online purchases being made, that could turn into a billion dollars or more,” said Gruters.

Lawmakers aren’t likely to act until new reports come out in late June and July, showing how deep a hole the state is really in.

Gruters believes plugging the online gap could ease future spending cuts.

The tax collections also show Floridians were drinking and smoking more during the safer at home order.

Collectively those taxes were up just under $7 million.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

COVID-19 Decreasing Juvenile Detention Populations

May 27th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

There has been an unexpected consequence of COVID-19.

Populations at juvenile detention centers decreased significantly across the nation according to a new survey.

Florida has also put a priority on lowering the number of youthful offenders sent to such facilities.

The Department of Juvenile Justice has encouraged prosecutors, law enforcement and judges to seek alternatives to detention facilities for low risk youthful offenders in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Florida Police Chiefs Association President Kenneth Albano told us officers are taking the crisis seriously.

“We’re doing everything we can to help our adults and our juveniles to come through the crisis of COVID-19 without the additional burden, where absolutely possible, of being actually introduced into secure detention,” said Albano.

The survey measured juvenile detention facility populations across 30 states.

It found a 24 percent nationwide decrease in the month of March alone.

Mary Marx, President of the PACE Center for Girls hopes to see the trend continue.

“If we’re not committing those kids to detention because we’re concerned for their health and safety, once this pandemic is over why can’t we continue those practices?” said Marx.

Over the past decade Florida has seen dramatic improvement in its juvenile justice system.

Civil citations have increased and millions of dollars have been funneled into diversion programs.

And Marx said funding those programs is pivotal going forward.

“I think this is going to be particularly challenging as we enter the next budget year and what that state budget is going to look like,” said Marx.

And while efforts to decrease youthful offenders in detention facilities have been successful, COVID-19 cases have been documented.

There are 31 juveniles in Florida’s facilities who have tested positive.

Nationwide 488 juveniles in detention families have tested positive for the virus.

Six percent are in Florida.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Hurricane Sales Tax Holiday Approaching

May 27th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

While Floridians’ minds have primarily on the COVID-19 pandemic, another threat is looming just around the corner with the official start of hurricane season coming this Monday.

However, starting Friday many preparedness items will be tax free including tarps, batteries, flash lights and even generators up to $750.

Scott Shalley with the Florida Retail Federation said the seven day sales tax holiday is the perfect time to get ready for a storm and to help out local retailers.

“Well I think it’s a great reminder to people that hurricane season actually is here. We’ve already got our second named storm today, so I think it’s important. We’ve been a little distracted obviously with the COVID crisis and people need to get out and get prepared. So this provides a great opportunity to do that,” said Shalley.

The sales tax holiday runs through June 4th.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Federal Judge Rules Indigent Felons Must Be Allowed to Vote

May 26th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

As many as one million Floridians with past felony convictions are now eligible to vote after a federal judge ruled the state can’t prevent them from registering if they can’t afford to pay legal financial obligations related to their case.

When voters passed Amendment 4 in 2018 it was touted as the largest expansion of voting rights in recent history, but the expectations fell short when lawmakers tied the payment of fines, fees and restitution to a felon’s ability to register.

“This is a form of wealth based discrimination,” said Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Nancy Abudu.

Abudu, who represented plaintiffs in the case, said the 125 page ruling changes everything.

“Essentially the court ruled that Senate Bill 7066 is a modern day poll tax and struck it down for that reason,” said Abudu.

The ruling makes it clear, the state can’t block a felon from voting if they can’t afford to pay their financial obligations.

It’s expected to allow as many as one million felons to register.

“This court’s decision is a vindication,” said Abudu.

There will likely be some who still are required to pay, but the burden falls on the state to prove what a felon owes within a 21 day period.

And Clemency lawyer Reggie Garcia noted the ruling also states if you were appointed a public defender or had your financial obligations converted to civil leans you will be automatically allowed to register.

Court fees alone can also not block you from registering.

Time remains to be seen how many will take advantage of it. This I think at least creates more clarity than there’s been the last 18 months,” said Garcia.

Groups like the NAACP argued the law requiring payment of financial obligations disproportionately impacted black felons, but in the judge’s decision he ruled the law was not racially motivated.

The state is expected to appeal the ruling.

The question now becomes, will the appellate court in Atlanta allow the lower court’s ruling to stay in place while the legal battle plays out?

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Lawsuit Seeks to Speed Up Unemployment

May 26th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Lawyers spent almost five hours Tuesday, arguing whether Florida’s unemployment system was living up to the requirements of state law and whether a judge has the authority to order it to do more.

Lawyers for dozens who have not seen a dime argued the state knew the system would fail and didn’t do anything about it.

Unemployed Floridians testified about one horror story after another trying to apply for benefits.

“There no method. I couldn’t find out why I was denied,” said Amy Moore Rameriz.

They told the judge they spent as many as four hours a day trying to file or check on their claim with no luck.

“She called me at twelve o’clock in the afternoon. She got kicked off seven times. She reset my pin, I tried-to log in. The pin was not recognized,” said Michael Freas.

Attorney Marie Mattox told the judge the state had plenty of advance notice that the system wasn’t working.

She cited four state audits.

“Showing that they system was fatally flawed and there were 600 problems that were identified in the last audit, and nothing was done to fix these problems,” said Mattox.

Reginald Ellison, a recently laid off DEO call center employee was asked about information and even whole claims just disappearing.

“The main the piece of information that seems to be getting lost is the claimants income information,” said Ellison.

From the beginning of the hearing, the judge said he was sympathetic to the unemployed who haven’t gotten a check, but at the same time he questioned what authority he had to order any changes.

DEO called just one witness, its CFO Damon Steffens.

He testified on improved servers and how the claims process worked.

“The most common reasons people are ineligible is because of wages,” said Steffens. “Job history, wages, things of that nature.

On Saturday and Sunday the agency paid out more than $700 million, a two day record.

The hearing was scheduled for three hours.

It was still going on at 4:30 Tuesday afternoon.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

NRA Sends Demand Letter to Tax Collector

May 22nd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The National Rifle Association has sent a letter to Leon County Tax Collector Doris Maloy after she announced in-car driver tests and new concealed weapons permits would not be processed when the office reopens June 1st.

 

The letter puts the Tax Collector on notice that the NRA believes she is violating state law and the Governor’s executive order.

“The Tax Collector is violating the law and constitutional rights by refusing to process original concealed carry or firearms license when she reopens on June the first. She is singling out, picking and choosing what she has no authority to do what she will process.”

The letter is meant to be a warning for other tax collectors as they begin to open.

State law provides penalties for local public officials who do no adhere to the states preemption of firearm laws.

In the letter, the NRA asks Malloy to reverse her decision before she reopens on June 1st.

 

 

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Unemployment Skyrockets

May 22nd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s unemployment is now officially 12.9 percent for April, slightly lower than the national average, but nearly a hundred people who sought unemployment benefits are monitoring their credit after sensitive information was left unprotected.

Florida lost 893,000 jobs in April and a total of 989,600 since the first of the year.

That’s lower than the number of people who have applied for unemployment.

Thursday’s numbers show just over a million eligible claims have been processed, while 366,000 have been denied.

“We knew it would be significant,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

In Jacksonville, the Governor told reporters the number would likely have been higher if he had a heavier touch closing the state.

“And one of the reasons why I wanted to do a safe, smart, step by step approach to recovery is that if we can can get people back to work. Get some confidence back in the communities, you’ll start to see, hopefully, a lot of these jobs be recovered,” said DeSantis.

The highest unemployment in the state is in the Orlando area.

“Just look at the theme parks,” said DeSantis.

The numbers were released a day after we learned 98 Floridians got a letter telling them their names and social security numbers were inadvertently sent to an unsecured server.

No banking information was released.

And it is not the first time data has been compromised.

On November 5, 2013, as the current system was launching, we reported the first data breach.

“Something in the computer system was encoded incorrectly and resulted in an inadvertent disclosure,” said former DEO Executive Director Jesse Panuccio at the time.

As it did in 2013, the state is paying for a year’s worth of credit monitoring and data protection.

What we don’t know is if there have been more disclosures.

We’ve asked for the information and have not gotten a response.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Shutdowns Fueling a Bicycle Boom

May 22nd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

While many businesses have been starved for customers and struggling to navigate the stay at home order, there’s one industry that has been thriving.

Bike shops are seeing unprecedented sales across the state.

The Great Bicycle Shop in the state’s capital has never seen the level of business it has in the past two months.

“It’s absolutely the busiest I’ve ever seen at any bike shop,” said employee Douglas Parke.

With businesses, recreation and fitness centers closed or operating at a limited capacity, Floridians are taking to the trails.

“Being able to get out in the fresh air is certainly healthier than being cooped up,” said Parke.

The bike boom is statewide.

Ray Kennedy is with David’s World Cycle, which operates 18 stores across the state.

“There really are more new customers and new faces discovering biking or bringing bikes out of the garage that haven’t been serviced or ridden in 10-15 years,” said Kennedy.

He told us the newest trend is the switch to online shopping.

“Last we checked I think we’ve sold six o seven times as many bikes on our website this year compared to the same time last year,” said Kennedy.

And Floridians aren’t just buying bikes, they’re putting them to good use.

One bike trail near Tampa saw 100,000 additional riders in April compared to the previous year.

It’s about an 70 percent increase.

And if biking isn’t your thing, it’s never been better to trade in or resell.

“We really can’t keep trade in bikes in stock more than a day or two. They’re usually purchased off the floor, which is awesome,” said Kennedy.

Shelves are still stocked at the stores we spoke with, but due to the high demand and supply chain slow downs it can be more complicated than usual to get certain parts and models.

Looking forward its not clear if the bike boom will hold.

With the state beginning to reopen, Floridians will have more options for exercise and recreation.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

NRA Puts Tax Collector on Notice

May 22nd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The National Rifle Association has sent a letter to Leon County Tax Collector Doris Maloy after she announced in-car drivers tests and new concealed weapons permits would not be processed when the office reopens June 1st.

The letter puts the Tax Collector on notice that the NRA believes she is violating state law and the Governor’s executive order.

“The Tax Collector is violating the law and constitutional rights by refusing to process original concealed carry or firearms license when she reopens on June the first. She is singling out, picking and choosing what she has no authority to do what she will process,” said Marion Hammer with the NRA.

The letter is meant to be a warning for other tax collectors as they begin to open.

State law provides penalties for local public officials who do no adhere to the states preemption of firearm laws.

In the letter, the NRA asks Malloy to reverse her decision before she reopens on June 1st.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

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