EAST LAKE — The Council of North County Neighborhoods is a nonprofit organization comprised of 30-plus homeowners associations boasting more than 24,000 resident members, and the turnout for many of their monthly meetings is typically high.
But for CNCN’s annual state legislator update, held via Zoom call June 15, less than 40 people virtually attended, a far cry from the dozens that packed the East Lake Community Library’s conference room for the same session last year.
Despite the unusual conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, CNCN officials still managed to corral state lawmakers Sen. Ed Hooper, Rep. Chris Sprowls and Rep. Jamie Grant, Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers, Palm Harbor Fire Chief Scott Sanford, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton and Tarpon Springs Mayor Chris Alahouzos for the organization’s first public meeting of the year.
“Turnout was a little lighter than I’d expected,” CNCN president Tim Lima said via email the next day. “Like our elected officials, I’d much prefer an in-person meeting/gathering, but given COVID-19, the board unanimously felt a Zoom meeting was the best approach for this June meeting.”
While Lima admitted the situation wasn’t ideal, especially with his lack of Zoom expertise, the lawmakers, who’ve become accustomed to meeting with constituents virtually over the past three months, praised CNCN for continuing to provide a platform to give updates and receive feedback on important issues affecting North Pinellas County residents.
“CNCN accounts for a large portion of the North Pinellas community and the issues they discuss affects what we do as a delegation,” Sprowls, a 36-year-old Republican who represents Florida’s 65th District, said, adding, “A lot of bills we file come from our conversations with CNCN.”
Following their opening remarks, Lima relayed questions covering a variety of topics mostly centered on the COVID-19 crisis, including how the pandemic would affect things like HOA and insurance rates, local and regional infrastructure projects as well as potential budget cuts.
“No doubt these challenges are stark, and the next budget session won’t be fun,” said Grant, a 37-year-old Republican from Tampa who represents Florida’s 64th District. “But leadership remains committed to govern within our means and doing what we can to navigate our state through some pretty challenging times.”
Hooper, a former Clearwater firefighter who was elected to represent Florida’s 16th District in 2018, agreed.
“You can’t cut budgets without impacting someone in the health care world, so it’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “And I’ve got to worry about Mayor Alahouzos’ turning basin budget getting the axe!”
Indeed, massive infrastructure projects like the Anclote River Turning Basin Dredge and the overpass planned at U.S. 19 and Curlew Road were cited as projects that must rely on cooperation from all branches of government to be completed in light of budget cuts caused by the pandemic.
“One project that’s a great example of non-traditional infrastructure with the state, local and federal governments working together is the Turning Basin Dredge in Tarpon Springs,” Sprowls said, noting U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis, Hooper, Eggers and Alahouzos have worked tirelessly the past several years to make the multimillion-dollar, multiphased project to restore the river to its original depth a reality. “It’s a great example of government working together and … it will have a huge economic impact on Pinellas County.”
Hooper noted the Curlew Road flyover project, which will alleviate traffic at the notoriously congested intersection, is currently out for bid while the Tampa Road overpass is probably four to five years away.
“There’s also (traffic alleviation projects) on Alternate 19 in downtown Palm Harbor and in the industrial section of Oldsmar in the works,” Hooper said, referring to a roundabout planned for the intersection of Alt. 19 and Florida Avenue and the Burbank Road extension in Oldsmar.
In response to a question about closing some segments of the state in the wake of the recent rise in positive coronavirus cases, the lawmakers said they would be hesitant to stop the restart.
“We’ve got more testing, so cases are going to go up,” Sprowls said. “That’s elementary school math.
“But there’s so many unknowns, the reality is most experts in the world don’t have an answer because if they did, we’d have a vaccine already.”
“For me, it would take an extreme set of circumstances to support another shutdown,” Grant said, adding he would “rather present the facts and maintain safety” because “the data backs up a safe and effective approach and I think that’s the course we need to continue.”
Hooper added he “trusts the task force the governor has put together to make the right decisions.”
In closing, the legislators were asked if they were ready to get back to face-to-face meetings, and the response was unanimous.
“I’m definitely ready,” Sprowls said.
“It depends,” added Grant, who said he normally conducts a lot of business nationwide via video conference. “So, it’s not as big an adjustment for me … but I’m ready to get back to some sense of normalcy.”
“This has gone on long enough,” Hooper said. “It’s time to mute all of us and get back to reality.”
Lima said CNCN officials also plan to get back to hosting public meetings, including their popular Primary Candidate Forum in July. He noted board members decided to forgo the presentation of two $1,000 checks to seniors at East Lake and Palm Harbor high schools due to the online-only finish to the school year and instead unanimously approved a $2,000 donation to F.E.A.S.T. food bank in Palm Harbor “due to the great increased need at food banks in our area.”
The Council of North County Neighborhoods held its first public meeting of the year via Zoom call June 15, and while the virtual attendance was lower than usual for the annual state legislator update, the 90-minute session included state Reps. Jamie Grant and Chris Sprowls, Sen. Ed Hooper, Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers and Tarpon Springs Mayor Chris Alahouzos.