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Inverness council to vote on property tax rate, other city business

The proposed lowered property tax rate for Inverness could see its first step to being set in stone when the city’s council meets Tuesday.

The council will take the first of two votes on Inverness’ 2022-23 ad valorem rate, reducing the millage rate to 7.7600 from the current 2021-22 rate of 7.8211.

If approved, it would mark the third consecutive year the city council has reduced the ad valorem rate.

Under the proposed millage rate, the city’s total revenues, including property taxes, charges for services, and fund balances and reserves, would be nearly $62.9 million.

And this is how the proposed millage rate effects property owners.

One mill in property, or ad valorem taxes, is equal to $1 for each $1,000 of the property’s taxable value. So if a property is worth $75,000, after homestead exemptions, the property owner’s city property taxes would be $582 if the millage rate remains at 7.7600. That does not include county or school taxes.

The rollback rate is the millage rate which would generate the same amount of property tax as the previous year. So if the value of taxable property in the city increases, the rollback rate decreases. The rollback rate for 2022-23 is 7.1673.

The council will meet 5:30 p.m., city hall, 212 W. Main St., Inverness.

The second vote on the millage will be Sept. 20.

Also in council business, the council will receive a presentation by the city’s public arts consultant about two public arts projects in support of this year’s Festival of the Arts.

Williams

Pamela Zeljak, with Civic Icon Arts, will give the council an update. This year’s art projects follow a successful 2021 mural project and Festival of the Arts.

Also in city business, City Manager Eric Williams will ask the council members whether they want to review the city’s special zoning exceptions.

As the city faces more development pressures, Williams wrote the council that there will be more cases where developers will request special exceptions for building projects. He said that some of those projects the city faces or will face include cellular towers, large gas station chains, and rare, special exceptions for planned developments such as the city’s recent Wyld Palms and Myrtles by the Lake.


Local
State eyes shift on property insurer ratings

TALLAHASSEE — Angry at a ratings agency that raised the possibility of downgrading 17 Florida property insurers, state leaders could be poised to look for an alternative.

The Joint Legislative Budget Commission this week is expected to consider a proposal to spend $1.5 million to hire a consultant that would look at options for property insurers to get adequate financial ratings.

Such ratings are important, in part, because mortgage-industry giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require homes to be insured by financially sound companies. If insurers lose satisfactory ratings, homeowners could be forced to find other coverage.

State insurance regulators scrambled in July after they said the Demotech ratings agency threatened to downgrade 17 insurers amid widespread financial problems in the property-insurance market. Demotech ultimately downgraded one company and withdrew ratings for two companies, according to the proposal going before the legislative panel next week.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis publicly questioned Demotech, with Patronis sharply criticizing the agency in letters to leaders of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

DFS Florida 

Patronis

“If (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) de-authorized a sizeable percentage of Florida’s insurers based on the dubious ratings of one company, it would create financial chaos for millions of Floridians,” Patronis wrote.

The Department of Financial Services, which Patronis heads, submitted the $1.5 million proposal to the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, which will meet Sept. 9 and has power to make mid-year budget decisions. The results of the consultant’s work would go to Gov. Ron DeSantis and lawmakers for possible consideration during the 2023 legislative session.

“Demotech’s business practices appear to have caused confusion and concern for Floridians regarding the Florida insurance market,” the proposal said. “Due to the concern of the methodologies used by Demotech and the impact that questionable downgrades will have on millions of Floridians, immediate action is required. The spending authority provided in this budget amendment will allow key stakeholders to research and explore more predictable and reliable financial rating services or alternative solutions.”

Demotech President Joseph Petrelli in July defended the company’s methods and said the company has rated Florida insurers since 1996.

Petrelli

“Demotech has worked diligently to be a positive force in the resurrection and sustenance of the Florida residential property insurance marketplace that was devastated by Hurricane Andrew,” Petrelli wrote in a six-page letter to Altmaier, referring to the massive 1992 hurricane. “Since 1996, Demotech has consistently applied its rating methodology and appeal process to all rated insurers. Our process does not guarantee every carrier’s financial success, nor does our process guarantee carriers an FSR (financial stability rating) at a level that they desire or require.”

The ratings issue has come at a turbulent time in Florida’s property-insurance market, as carriers have shed policies and sought large rate increases because of financial losses. Five insurers have been deemed insolvent since February and a large carrier, United Property & Casualty Insurance Co., announced last month it is exiting the homeowners’ market.

United Property & Casualty was one of the 17 companies targeted by Demotech, which downgraded and then withdrew the company’s rating.

After the initial downgrade of United Property & Casualty, the state Office of Insurance Regulation on Aug. 2 put the company into a new stopgap program aimed at making sure coverage would continue for homeowners.

The program involves the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. acting as a financial backstop for private insurers that get downgraded. Citizens took on a reinsurance role to help make sure claims get paid if insurers go insolvent.

The program is designed to satisfy Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in such situations. It uses an exception in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac standards that applies when reinsurers take responsibility for paying claims if insurers go belly up.


Local
Chaplain uses artistic talent to minister to people

As Christmas 2008 approached, Robert Ralph wanted to do something special for his wife, Alexis.

So, he asked her what she wanted, and her reply made him laugh at first, and then filled him with anxiety.

“I want you to draw me a picture,” she told him.

“I had just illustrated a book I wrote for our daughter, Christa, and the drawings were awful,” Ralph said. “They were stick figures, but not even good stick figures.”

He struggled with his wife’s request. On the one hand, it was something she wanted from him. On the other hand, he could do a lot of things well, but drawing was not one of them.

“But I did it,” he said. “I made a drawing, wrapped it up and put it under the Christmas tree. It was awful, flat-out awful.”

At 2 a.m. on Christmas Eve, Ralph woke up in tears, filled with dread.

He prayed, “Lord, I can’t give that to her! It’s just bad.”

He said he felt God answering him with a question: “Do you want help?”

“I said, ‘Yes!’ and God said to get up and start drawing,” he said.

So, he started drawing and 45 minutes later he could hardly believe what came from his pencil. It was a picture of the tree in their backyard that was as realistic as a photograph.

“When I saw that, I got on my knees and prayed,” he said. “I told God, ‘I don’t know why you’ve done this, but I will never take credit for your gift and I will use it for your glory.’”

Robert and Alexis Ralph, both Christian chaplains with the International Fellowship of Chaplains, recognized that God had given Robert, then 55, a talent that they vowed to use as part of their roles as chaplains, bringing comfort to people who are hurting.

Recently, the Ralphs invited the Chronicle to their Hernando home to talk about how art has the ability to touch hurting people’s hearts, souls and spirits.

Besides realistic nature drawings and colorful, whimsical Florida sea life drawings, Ralph also does portrait drawings from photos, often of people and pets who have died.

It wasn’t something he ever intended to do, but when someone asked him if he could do that, he didn’t think he could say no, not if it was something God wanted him to do.

A couple whose nephew had been killed by a drunk driver approached Ralph and said the young man’s mother was distraught and they wanted to do something to give her a bit of solace and comfort.

“I told them I would try and asked them to give me a few pictures of him,” Ralph said. “When I finished the drawing and showed it to the aunt and uncle, they cried.

“I’ve found that if you get the eyes right, if you get life in the eyes, that’s what people see,” he said. “Robert Ralph can’t do that; I’m not that good of an artist. But Jesus can do it through me – and I can’t do what I do without massive quantities of prayer.”

Another portrait was of a cat named Pete, a 60th wedding anniversary gift from a woman to her husband.

“Pete the cat had mange. He had a drooping eye and a tooth hanging out,” he said. “So, I drew what the cat probably looked like 10 years earlier, and the lady cried. This cat really meant something to them.”

Ralph said he is continually amazed at his own drawings, especially at the realism.

“When I’m at an art show, I actually walk around drawing because a lot of my stuff is so realistic that people need to see me actually doing it so they realize I’m actually doing it,” he said.

He said he prefers black and white realistic winter scenes – he and his wife are from Michigan – and his wife likes bright, bold primary colors.

He uses watercolor pencils on hot-pressed paper, which gives him the watercolor effect he likes as well as the preciseness of a pencil.

His favorite tool, he said, is a fine-tip eraser, perfect for creating feathery whiskers to a portrait of a cat.

Ralph displays and sells his artwork at local arts and craft shows, the Inverness Market at the Depot on first and third Saturdays, also at Anchored Souls on Citrus Avenue in Crystal River and A Cracker Canvas art supplies and gallery on County Road 486 in Hernando.

He said he would love to go to Alaska one day to do “plein air,” or outdoor, painting, but he’s more interested in and committed to meeting and ministering to the people God brings into his path.

This is his ministry, to which God has called him.

“I have never believed in accidental meetings but divine appointments,” he said. “These meetings scheduled by our Lord Jesus are why my wife and I do what we do ... share the love of Christ with others. (It’s) priceless, and my art has been that perfect door for people to walk through, and they just open up once they are there.”

Contact Robert Ralph by email at ArtistinResidence55@gmail.com, website at www.ArtistinResidence55.com or call 248-330-2350.


Local
Cities look to snuff out smoking on beaches

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Visiting from Johnson City, Tennessee, Paul and Gail Odom hadn’t noticed people smoking or cigarette butts strewn on the sand as they strolled along the lapping Gulf of Mexico waters Thursday morning.

But shortly after being told about a proposed change that would ban smoking cigarettes on Panama City Beach, they saw a pile of discarded butts in the sand.

Paul Odom said people shouldn’t leave cigarette butts in the sand, while saying smoking is “everybody’s individual choice.” Gale Odom, pointing to an area away from a line of beach chairs and the water, added “I think if they’re going to smoke, they should smoke like there, away from people.”

Mallory Archer, a Natchez, Mississippi, resident enjoying a final day of vacation by relaxing on the beach, was more straightforward in supporting the proposed ban.

“That’s easy for me to say because I’m not a smoker,” Archer said. “So, I recognize that.”

Panama City Beach is among several communities that in the coming weeks and months could move forward under a new state law that allows cities and counties to ban smoking cigarettes and vaping at locally controlled beaches and parks.

Sheldon

Panama City Beach Mayor Mark Sheldon said the city council is waiting for legal direction on the proposed change. But with the issue expected to be taken up later this month, he sees the proposal as helping the environment by limiting trash and simply being “the right thing to do.”

“We’ve seen smoking bans in other areas, whether it’s restaurants or public places, and this is another public place,” Sheldon said.

Florida voters in 2002 approved a constitutional amendment that prohibited smoking in enclosed indoor workplaces, including most restaurants and bars.

While that change drew opposition, Sheldon said he’s heard objections from only two people to the proposed beach-smoking ban since it came before the council several weeks ago. People who rent beach chairs have offered some of the strongest support.

“If somebody rents a chair from a beach vendor, and they’re out there with their family, and somebody rents a chair next to them, you can’t get away from it if they start smoking. You’re locked into that chair,” Sheldon said. “That’s your space. They don’t just move around those chairs. So, for them, we want to make a better quality-of-life issue. And that’s who we are. We’re the real fun beach.”

The state has long controlled smoking regulations. But the new law (HB 105), signed in June by Gov. Ron DeSantis, gives authority to cities and counties to ban smoking at beaches and parks that they own.

The law, however, included an exemption that prevents local governments from banning unfiltered cigars.

Gruters

Before the measure passed, Senate sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, drew a distinction between unfiltered cigars and cigarettes because he said filtered cigarette butts don’t quickly biodegrade.

“If you live near a beach, the number one picked-up item consistently on an annual basis over and over again, are cigarette butts,” Gruters said March 2. “What happens all the time is this second-hand smoke, to me, it is disgusting. But what’s even more disgusting is when you reach into the sand and pick up one of those butts. And those filters that are in the cigarettes are what ends up in the water, destroying the environment.”

But exempting unfiltered cigars drew some criticism.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, argued that not allowing local governments to ban all forms of smoking at beaches and could lead to discrimination.

Pizzo

“When you can have five guys sitting around smoking fat cigars and one Black kid over here smoking a Black & Mild, and the cop can go and exercise probable cause on that person and has to ignore the five, you have a problem,” Pizzo said during the Senate debate, referring to a brand of cigars with filter tips.

Along with Panama City Beach, communities such as Miami Beach and St. Petersburg are considering smoking bans.

Miami Beach commissioners at a July 20 meeting took an initial vote on a beach-smoking ban and are expected to take another vote this month. The proposal spells out fines up to $500 with the chance of up to 60 days in jail, though commissioners said they don’t expect anyone to spend time in jail for violating the ban.

Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg City Council is expected to move forward with a smoking-ban ordinance this month. Ben James, an attorney for the city, said the ordinance would prohibit smoking in all areas of public beaches and city parks, and violations could result in fines up to $500.

Hanewicz

“Some people may say, ‘Oh, is this overreach?’” St. Petersburg City Council member Lisset Hanewicz said during a committee meeting last week. “You know, we regulate smoking, as it is, indoors. And it’s been happening for a long time. The state of Florida a long time ago was the first to decide to sue the tobacco companies … because of the cost that we all bear because of the health costs.”

Under the St. Petersburg proposal, people would have about a 90-day period to become aware of the change, with enforcement beginning Jan. 1. Council member Gina Driscoll said the phased approach would give time to build awareness and put signs in parks.

“I hope that we can count on our non-profit partners that work with us on litter management to help spread the word and really work as a team to educate the public and make sure that this is seen as a positive thing, that’s really about litter and about good environmental stewardship,” Driscoll said during the meeting.

Sheldon said Panama City Beach might consider a similar phased approach.

Patricia DePlasco, executive director of Keep Pinellas Beautiful, told St. Petersburg council members that National Geographic has estimated between 4.5 trillion and 5 trillion cigarette butts aren’t properly discarded annually.

“There is a problem. And it’s unfortunate that smokers can’t put their butts where they belong,” DePlasco said.


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