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Letter Grades For Cities & Counties? Rep. Ingoglia's Plan Gets Pushback From Local Government

For more than two decades, Florida has graded its public schools from "A" to "F." It was a key element of former Governor Jeb Bush's A-plus plan, and it has been controversial ever since. Now the Legislature wants to take the concept a big step further and apply letter grades to every Florida city and county. 

Supporters say it's a big step for accountability. Under a plan being pushed by Republicans, every city, town and county in Florida would be required to report data to the state every year and would receive a grade from "A" to "D" in areas for spending, borrowing, the cost of government, crime and schools. Voters would be mailed their local reports, at state expense, each year.  

"The problem is, if you're sitting in your county, you don't know how your county is doing, how your county is matching up...compared to other counties of similar sizes," said Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill. 

When House Bill 7069 came before the House Appropriations Committee, Democrats were highly skeptical. 

"If you're spending a lot of money in your municipality, taking really good care of your residents, does that get you a bad grade, or a good grade?" asked Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura.

"Well, if you're living in 'D' municipality, it's time to move to an 'A' municipality. So its a way to compare government spending, school grades, all of that," Ingoglia responded. 

Cities and counties say they support transparency in spending, but they do not support the bill. Local government lobbyists testified that a letter grade won't tell the whole story, and that cities are diverse and have very different spendinf priorities.

"For example, if you're a heavily tourist-impacted area and you have very few residents who are funding that, your government spending per-capita will seem quite high. On the alternative end, if you're a hurricane-prone area and you have to expend a lot...for debris removal...you're government spending per-capita is going to go u," said the Florida League of Cities' Amber Hughes.

Democratic Representative Margaret Good of Sarasota, an opponent, said local communities could  wrongly be penalized for raising taxes and addressing local needs that cost money.

"Some local governments decide to pass milleges to create more parks or better fund their public schools...would this kind of grading system make those local governments think twice about promoting those kind of ideas, which actually make people's lives better?"

The bill would place the local government report card system in the Department of Financial Services, which is under the control of an elected official, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a Republican. The biill includes an annual appropriation of three million dollars for the CFO's office, mostly for the cost of mailing the reports to voters. 

Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.