When it comes to deadbeat debtors, it’s hard to beat the state of Florida.
If you don’t believe me, ask the hundreds of thousands of Florida homeowners who’ve been waiting for more than a decade to be fairly compensated for the more than half-million healthy backyard orange, grapefruit, lime and lemon trees that were chopped down by the state during its ill-fated Citrus Canker Eradication Program between 2000 and 2006.
In an effort to protect the state’s $9 billion citrus industry, the state mandated that every healthy citrus tree within 1,900 feet of an infected tree be cut down and removed to prevent the spread of the disease through wind-borne rain.
Most of the trees cut down were in commercial citrus groves. But to protect those groves, tree trimmers working for the state went door to door through residential neighborhoods, searching in yards for citrus trees to chop down.
This led to the removal of more than 865,000 residential trees in Florida, including more than 66,000 in Palm Beach County. Most of the felled backyard trees were not infected with citrus canker, a disease that discolors the fruit and causes it to drop prematurely.
This went on until after the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 had spread the canker too far and wide to eradicate.
All that was left in this program was paying the bills.
State law requires Florida “to pay just and fair compensation” for the taking of private property. The state tried to satisfy this requirement by giving $100 Walmart gift cards to homeowners for the first healthy tree removed and $55 for each subsequent tree.
But homeowners thought their trees were worth more, and they filed class-action lawsuits in Palm Beach County and four other counties — Broward, Miami-Dade, Orange and Lee. The state fought the suits, paying private attorneys more than $3 million to argue that the healthy citrus trees were really worth nothing because they might eventually get canker.
It wasn’t a winning argument.
The courts found that the homeowners were entitled to much more money than the state had offered for their lost trees. In Palm Beach County, a jury two years ago found that each destroyed healthy tree was worth between $105.36 and $447.78, depending on the height.
The story was the same in the other suits. The state was repeatedly told to pay up. And its appeals had become exhausted. The only ongoing litigation remains in Miami-Dade County, where that class-action suit has yet to arrive at a final judgment.
After years of stalling, the Florida Legislature belatedly agreed this year to start paying these bills.
“We should pay a judgment that has been levied against us,” House Budget Chairman Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Doral, said. “Just kicking the can down the road for the next legislature is probably not the best idea.”
And with a $3 billion surplus on the books, this would be a good year to do that. So the legislature decided to begin to pay these homeowners for trees they lost as long as 16 years ago. But just some of them.
The first payments were set to go to the 70,036 homeowners in Broward and Lee Counties, for the 167,677 healthy trees cut down there. The compensation, plus lawyers fees, worked out to be a total of $37.4 million.
Then the idea was the homeowners in Palm Beach and Orange Counties would be paid next year. And then Miami-Dade’s homeowners would be paid whenever that suit ended.
That was idea. But it wasn’t Gov. Rick Scott’s idea, who was in a spending feud with the Legislature and looking for line items to veto after lawmakers slashed his funding requests for corporate relocation incentives and tourism marketing.
Scott said the citrus canker veto was appropriate because there was still “ongoing litigation” in the matter.
Scott’s veto earlier this month spurred an emergency petition to the Florida Supreme Court to intervene and compel the state to pay its citrus canker bills. The filing argues that Scott’s veto is unconstitutional, and that the ongoing litigation in the Miami case has nothing to do with the settled cases in Broward and Lee counties.
“The constitutional guaranty that full compensation shall be paid when the state takes private property for a public purpose will ring hollow unless Governor Scott’s veto of the Citrus Canker Final Judgment Appropriations is expunged,” the petition says.
So to recap: The state takes your stuff, then drags you through court for more than a decade to keep you from getting what you deserve. When it loses at every turn in its own courts, it finally agrees to pay you from its overflowing piggy bank.
But then at the last minute, a petty, vindictive fight erupts between two branches of the government, a fight that has nothing to do with you — except as collateral damage. And now you’re not getting your money from the state, no matter what its own court rulings ordered.
I believe that’s the definition of dealing with a deadbeat.