Editorials

Editorials

Keys can’t afford to lose any County Court judges

Don’t expect Keys officials to take lightly a recommendation from the Florida Supreme Court that Monroe County needs one fewer County Court judge.

In December, that’s what the Supreme Court said in a report called Certification of Need for Additional Judges. The report lays out where the seven justices believe judicial jurisdictions have too many or too few judges. For Monroe (the 16th Judicial Circuit), they say the county needs three, not the current four, County Court judges based on an assessment of the jurists’ workloads.

Since then, the Supreme Court has issued an addendum to its report, “giving note of intent to monitor whether decertification of a second Monroe County Court judgeship is warranted in 2018.” If the Legislature, which largely finances the courts, agrees with the initial report and the addendum, it would mean that two of the four County Court judgeships would be stripped.

“We are not at the stage of a proposed second decertification yet. The [Supreme Court’s] order just gave heads up that it was looking at additional judgeships for future decertifications in the next year including one in Monroe County,” County Attorney Bob Shillinger wrote in an email.

In a county more than 100 miles long, losing judges makes no sense. Our county officials, state representative and state senator must fight the decertification of any of our judges because ultimately, it would be those who use the courts who would be most hurt. The first judge slot to go if defunded by the Legislature would be that of Wayne Miller, whose term is the next one to expire, in 2018.

County judges are known for presiding over misdemeanor criminal cases. But they also handle divorces, foreclosures, landlord-tenant disputes, traffic cases, small claims and mediation, among other things.

Monroe’s judges are Miller, initially elected in 1989; Peary Fowler, elected in 2004; Ruth Becker, elected in 1990; and Sharon Hamilton, who replaced Reagan Ptomey on Jan. 3. Ptomey retired and Hamilton defeated an opponent in last year’s primary election.

Miller and Fowler work out of Key West, Becker out of Marathon and Hamilton out of Plantation Key.

If the Legislature follows the Supreme Court’s recommendation and defunds a Keys judge, it would mean one County Court judge (we also have four Circuit Court judges who handle felonies) in each geographic area of the Keys.

To take it further, if a second judgeship were defunded, it would mean that at a minimum, anyone with an issue being handled by County Court could face a minimum of 100 miles on the road getting to and from a proceeding, depending on where he or she lives.

The Supreme Court says of its recommendations, “The court does not take this step lightly; rather, we do so recognizing that we must remain consistent in our application of the workload methodology” under state law.

We hope the court also recognizes the unique geography of our county and the burden stripping judgeships would have on customers of the court. And we note that County Court judges earn $138,020 annually, which wouldn’t even be a drop of a drop in the bucket of Florida’s current $82 billion budget.

Our county and state officials must convince the Legislature, whose two-month session starts March 7, that the Keys do not have an over-abundant number of judges.

Editorials

Somehow, we have to figure out how best to provide for the poorest

Keys children should be our priority. It’s cliche, but the holidays are truly a time for giving. But it’s certainly not just about giving gifts; it is as much or more about giving time and support for our community and those that comprise it. We have a sustainability issue in the Florida Keys. Efforts in Monroe County to control rents, commit to more affordable housing and re-examine building height limitations have been insufficient. Marathon is approving a lot of new residential projects but we suspect the rents will be out of reach for many. The number of permits allocated to build new affordable-housing units in the Florida Keys could run low in the near future because developers want to focus on market-rate housing. Why not? There’s more money to be made that way. In addition, rules that make building homes for “workforce” or low-income residents has significantly cut the remaining permits available, according to Monroe County staff. Recently, Lower Keys residents filed objections over a proposed affordable-housing development on Summerland Key — 6.5 acres of buildable land for a community of 163 to 180 units described as “deed-restricted affordable housing.” In Marathon, an affordable housing project proposed by Sarasota company WOB Beneficial Development was denied by the Marathon Planning Commission and City Council because of limited access to the property at mile marker 53 oceanside. Twice WOB has approached the Planning Commission and City Council and been denied. Conversely, a development on 48th Street bayside in Marathon that will potentially be called Casa De Palmas has been approved. Developer Keys Affordable Development was afforded the rights for the 55 units by Monroe County, but these are all the county currently has to grant. Our city and county leaders need to consistently and vigorously act to tackle this predicament. We hear support for the issue but often don’t see an equal part commitment to solving it. It’s a complex problem. There are many moving parts and no single silver bullet or magic wand will remedy this problem. And whether you live here full or part time, these statistics cannot be ignored: ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed households that earn more than the poverty level but less than the basic cost of living for the county. Forty-eight percent of Monroe County households are at ALICE level or below (12 percent are poverty level and 36 percent are ALICE). Three out of every five children in the Florida Keys live in an ALICE household. These families are essentially working poor without the ability to financially contend with a medical crisis, a major car repair or any situation that upsets their bare-necessity existence. Crisis situations for the financially insecure impact their quality of life and the ability to prosper, particularly for children. These severe household disruptions contribute to learning challenges among these children, plus emotional and behavioral issues, not to mention the stress experienced by their parents. The ALICE population is an important segment of our community. These residents fuel the engine that drives the Keys — tourism. These are the housekeepers, the maintenance folks, the cooks, servers and bartenders in our restaurants, the retail help. Countless workers travel by bus from Homestead daily to fill those positions as far south as Marathon because the jobs are available here but the housing is not. On top of that, they return to the mainland with their earnings and spend it on the mainland, not at Keys shops and stores. So that’s not helping our community. In the end, it’s all about cause and effect. Apartment rentals in Key West regularly exceed $2,400 a month. Keyswide, rentals commonly exceed $1,500 monthly. In many cases, even for a management-level employee or a dual income family in Monroe, this can represent 50 percent or more of income. Now you understand why not only ALICE families, but many others, are feeling the effects of such steep housing rates. Our high cost of living also makes filling jobs extremely challenging. Dozens and dozens of businesses are either giving up or operating with less, which impacts service and quality. While wages, in many cases, are not trending upward fast enough to keep pace with the cost of living, it wouldn’t take that much for current wages to support our cost of living if the latter wasn’t spiraling out of control. In this social media, me-me-me world, it’s intoxicating to shine the light on oneself. But how about we turn the camera lens around and look at those in the community that surround us and require our attention? How about redirecting some of that inward-pointing energy toward shoring up the one driver in our community that threatens to unseat us long-term? We can stem the erosion that’s taking place in our community, particularly as it affects our at-risk population, if we just commit the energy and focus to it. Let’s do it for the kids.

Editorials

Islamorada Village Council, Seat 5

The contest for Seat 5 on the Islamorada Village Council pits Councilman Mike Forster against Jill Zima Borski. Borski is a local writer who served on the council from 2008 to 2010, before terms went from two to four years.

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