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May 02,2019 - Hurricane shelter funding for Babcock Ranch included in state budget

By BETSY CALVERT Staff Writer

It seemed like a long shot, but $8 million in state funding for a hurricane shelter at Babcock Ranch has survived the Florida legislature’s budget negotiations.

Legislators on Tuesday agreed on a $90 billion-plus fiscal 2020 budget, including the shelter line item. They will not take a final vote until at least Saturday, though, due to a required 72-hour waiting period.

Gov. Ron DeSantis could still veto the line item, but the man behind the shelter idea, Syd Kitson, said he hopes that does not come to pass.

“We would hope that because of the nature of what it is we are trying to do, he (DeSantis) will understand how important this is to southwest Florida,” Kitson told the Sun.

Southwest Florida has the greatest shortage of storm shelters in the state, according to the 2018 Statewide Emergency Shelter Plan from the Florida Department of Emergency Management. According to that report, Charlotte County has no Red Cross-approved shelters, although it has a number of unapproved shelters.

Florida uses the “American Red Cross Standards for Hurricane Evacuation Shelter Selection” as the minimum for facilities to be considered safe as hurricane evacuation shelters.

The proposal was submitted originally by Rep. Michael Grant (R-Port Charlotte), and would lead to a privately owned field house to double as a storm shelter in times of emergency. It would be located in the undeveloped eastern part of the county, far from the coastal population and flooding. But population is increasing in the county’s interior with the opening of the Babcock Ranch community.

Not everyone is thrilled with the budget success.

“The funding is not our funding. It’s Syd Kitson’s funding,” said Charlotte County Commissioner Joe Tiseo Wednesday. “The appropriation request was crafted under false and misleading representation.”

Tiseo has been a persistent critic of the Babcock shelter plan since he learned of Grant’s legislative submission in March.

Tiseo’s main criticism is that the proposal includes a $2 million contribution from Charlotte County, which never came before the board in a public session. The state Appropriation Request notes a contribution of $2 million in “local” funding.

“I think the shame of this whole thing is, you’ve got millions of dollars of public money, and no hearings,” Tiseo told the Sun. “That’s a tragedy. This whole thing was done with back door deals.”

Public hearings were the first thing Kitson mentioned when asked about the next step for the shelter, now that funding appears possible.

“The next step is to put a team together and work with Lee and Charlotte counties,” Kitson said. “There’s no commitment from anyone right now to do anything. We have to see what level of engagement they want to have.”

Kitson did meet originally with commissioners one-on-one, and asked for first $8 million and later for $2 million, but that was after the legislation was filed. Not knowing of the legislation, Tiseo said he told Kitson he would not support the funding request. The other four commissioners have not commented on their meetings, and have declined to criticize Grant or Kitson in relation to the legislation.

Tiseo also said he believes the shelter will be of more use to Lee County.

In fact, Kitson said, it was a Lee County legislator, state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, who in the end, persuaded her fellow senators to buy into the plan.

“Sen. Benacquisto understood the need and really wanted to do something about it,” Kitson told the Sun.

Benacquisto filed a Senate version of the bill, which mirrors Grant’s bill. Both bills suggest funding for a field house/shelter could also require $3 million from Florida Power and Light, $2 million from local sources and $2 million from the federal government. From the state, funding would be $8 million this year and $8 million next year.

Public hearings after the fact do not redeem the project, Tiseo said. That would be rewarding bad actors, he said.

“If we set the precedent now that this is the way we establish board priorities, what about the next time?”