Palm Beach County heads to legislative session with new point person

More money for beach restoration. Money for various water and roadway projects in the Glades. And help in combating the opioid and heroin epidemic.

Palm Beach County’s wish list is long. And with the Florida Legislature set to open this year’s session on Tuesday, the county has turned over management of that list to Rebecca De La Rosa, who has succeeded Todd Bonlarron as legislative affairs director.

De La Rossa, 43, is no stranger to the state capital, having lobbied for a Miami construction firm and the Tallahassee office of the Greenberg Traurig law firm.

Now, she’ll serve as the county’s point person in Tallahassee, charged with making sure the county gets funding for its projects while at the same time blocking bills that would curtail its authority.

That work hits high gear Tuesday and Wednesday, when De La Rosa leads a contingent of county officials to Tallahassee for Palm Beach County Days, the annual meet-and-greet session with legislators who can turn the county’s wishes into reality.

De La Rosa, hired in June, has already made the rounds in Palm Beach County. During her first month on the job, De La Rosa said she traveled 1,500 miles within the county to meet elected officials and business officials to get a feel for their needs and priorities.

Many of those officials will join her in Tallahassee this week to lobby legislators. This year’s contingent of 225 people is the largest ever, said Bonlarron, adding that members of the group will be staying at three hotels.

For De La Rosa, the move to head up legislative affairs for the county is a natural one. She has worked in government affairs for two decades and has known Bonlarron, now an assistant county administrator, for 17 years.

The two met when Bonlarron was a legislative affairs staffer for the county and De La Rosa was an aide to then state Rep. Kim Berfield, R-Clearwater.

Bonlarron said it was De La Rosa’s familiarity with county officials, as well as her knowledge of environmental, transportation and housing issues, that made her the right person for the job.

“She had expertise in our issues,” Bonlarron said. “It was an easy decision for all of us.”

Bonlarron said it was also important to get someone familiar with the inner workings of Tallahassee.

For her part, De La Rosa said success in the Capitol isn’t just about getting money for projects.

“Oftentimses, we’re working on defense, especially with certain bills that would take away rights,” she said.

This year, De La Rossa and other county officials will be playing defense against House Bill 17, sponsored by Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County.

HB 17 would limit local governments’ ability to regulate businesses, leaving such regulation to state government instead.

“Government, unchecked, will always come up with new things to regulate,” Fine has said. “I want to do what I can to make it easier for businesses to grow.”

Local government officials, however, see the bill as only the most recent attempt by Tallahassee to usurp their authority.

De La Rossa said the legislation, backed by the Florida Retail Federation, would void county issued permits and contracts, curtail the county’s ability to regulate land development, special events, the hours of alcohol-serving establishments, the practices and zoning of adult entertainment businesses and pain management clinics. The bill would also bar the county from determining what types of businesses can’t be located near schools, she said.

Bonlarron said he’s seen legislation like this before.

“This one is a little more sweeping than others in the past,” he said.

De La Rosa has already gone to work in an effort to keep HB 17, which currently has no companion in the Senate, from becoming law.

“We’ve been working closely with all 67 counties and the Florida Association of Counties to insure that all members understand the impacts of this bill,” she said. “Most, if not all, are opposed to HB 17.”

In addition to the fight against the business deregulation bill, the county wants to get state assistance in battling the opioid epidemic and regulating sober homes.

A one-page handout the county has prepared for legislators points out that there were an estimated 500 opioid-related deaths in Palm Beach County in 2016.

Those addicted to opioids often seek care at sober homes, which the county wants to see regulated. Neighbors have complained about increased traffic, crime and drug paraphernalia in and around sober homes.

“Anyone is capable of opening a sober home and does not need credentials and/or accountability standards to operate one,” the county fact sheet states. “Additionally, there is no requirement to have any life-safety inspections or background checks of the owners/operators, which may present public safety issues for tenants of these sober homes. Some of the sober house operators have partnered with laboratory facilities and/or medical providers and are engaging in insurance fraud and/or patient brokering, which is illegal but very hard to prove as the homes do not have to register with any entity or agency.”

Affordable housing, sidewalk, road and water projects in the Glades is another area of focus for county officials. The county is requesting about $15.5 million from the state to help with projects in those areas.

Waterway and environmental projects are another big ticket item on the county’s wish list. The county is asking the state for about $38.5 for those projects.

With the session ending in May, county officials say it’s important to get off to a good start this week in the race for funding. Having a large contingent of local officials, business and non-profit leaders helps, too.

“It’s great to have that kind of support up there,” Bonlarron said. “It sets the tone for the session. No one can say, ‘Hey, how come you didn’t come to see me earlier?’”

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