Many Retailers Counting On School Sales Tax Holiday For Bump In Sales

July 30, 2014

The Florida Retail Federation fully supports the upcoming three-day sales tax “holiday” on back-to-school items, with stores expecting to see a 30 percent increase in sales for the weekend.

However, the retail-industry lobbying group would have preferred the holiday period to be, as Gov. Rick Scott requested, at least a week longer. The three-day period begins at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

“Not everybody gets paid on the same schedule,” said John Fleming, a spokesman for the group. “The people who get paid at the end of the month, they’ll be fine. But there are people on that two-week cycle of paychecks. And we have always thought if you extend it to two weekends in a row you’d get more people to take advantage.”

Still, even at one weekend — the same length lawmakers set the previous four years — retailers should see an increase in shoppers from 2013 because of a couple of changes, according to state economists.

The first change raises the tax-free bar on clothing, bags and backpacks from a maximum of $75 per item to $100.

The second waives the collection of sales taxes on the first $750 of computers and related gear, regardless of the overall price of the electronics. Last year, when computer equipment was first introduced into the discount period, items had to cost less than $750.

“I do think it’s going to allow (electronics retailers) to sell more of their product line,” Fleming said. “This expands the ability for people to buy what they need.”

During the discount period, the collection of sales taxes will also be eliminated on certain school supplies costing less than $15 each, such as notebooks, pens and lunch boxes.

Florida economists have projected the “holiday” period will reduce state revenue by $32.3 million and local revenue to the tune of $7.3 million.

The projections are a jump from 2013, when a similar three-day “holiday” hit state revenue by $28.3 million and local government income by $6.4 million.

The projected increase this year is in part due to a higher demand for electronics.

The changes were included as part of the wide-ranging “patchwork of awesomeness” tax package approved by state lawmakers this spring. When combined with a rollback in vehicle-registration fees, the package gave Scott his election-year request for $500 million in cuts to taxes and fees.

The patchwork (HB 5601), so named by one of its chief architects House Finance & Tax Chairman Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, offered a wide array of tax cuts. They included two other sales-tax holidays: discounts from May 31 to June 8 on hurricane supplies and another tax-free period that will run from Sept. 19 to Sept. 21 on the first $1,500 of the sales price of new Energy Star and WaterSense products.

by Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida

Seniors Can Earn Income As Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions

July 30, 2014

The Council on Aging of West Florida is seeking individuals 55 and older in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties who are interested in earning a tax-free stipend and additional benefits while sharing their wisdom, time and talents as a participant in its Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion programs.

Benefits include: a monthly stipend set by federal guidelines at $2.65 per hour; an annual physical; transportation provided or reimbursed at .445 cents per mile; insurance coverage for on-the-job injuries, and on-going training.

Opportunities are available to both men and women. To qualify for participation, individuals must: be age 55 or older; earn an annual income of no more than 200% above federal poverty guidelines; possess a sincere ability to work with others; be physically capable of working a minimum of 20 hours per week, and pass required background screenings. Bilingual participants are encouraged to enroll in both programs.

Foster grandparents work with children in schools, HeadStart programs and child care centers. Activities may include helping with classwork, reinforcing values and caring for children with disabilities. Foster grandparents generally work four hours per day, Monday through Friday.

Senior companions help their less mobile peers live independently in their own homes by providing friendship and assistance. Activities may include helping with meals, socialization and providing respite to family caregivers.

The Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion programs are national programs of Senior Corps, funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The programs are sponsored in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties by Council on Aging of West Florida. For more information, please call Robin Stevens at (850) 432-1475 ext. 605 or visit www.coawfla.org.

Mississippi Downs Blue Wahoos

July 30, 2014

The Pensacola Blue Wahoos dropped their fourth straight to the Mississippi Braves, 4-3, on Tuesday night at Trustmark Park in Pearl, Miss. Robert Stephenson (L, 5-7) was plagued by seven walks over his 4.2 innings of work despite striking out six Braves hitters.

Mississippi scored their first run on a passed ball to match the Blue Wahoos first-inning run and tie the game early. Pensacola re-claimed the lead with a run in the third when Ryan Wright scored from second on a hustle double into shallow centerfield by Travis Mattair.

The Braves did the lion’s share of their damage in the fifth. Robert Stephenson fought his control with three walks in the fifth inning and he allowed just one single before exiting with the bases loaded and two outs and the game tied at two. James Walczak allowed a single to the first batter he faced, Braeden Schlehuber, which scored two runs and gave the Braves all they needed.

Stephenson allowed 4 R/3 ER over his 4.2 inning and matched his season high with seven walks to go with six strikeouts. He surrendered just three hits in the losing effort.

Braves starter Ryan Weber (W, 4-4) picked up the win after allowing just 3 R/ER on eight hits over 6.0 innings. Ryan Kelly (S, 2)came in to work a scoreless ninth for his second save of the year.

The Blue Wahoos will try to stop the skid on Wednesday with RHP Michael Lorenzen (4-5, 2.70) on the mound against Braves RHP Mitch Atkins (5-0, 4.65). First pitch is slated for 7:00 p.m. from Trustmark Park.

by Tommy Thrall

Field Corn Variety Tour Held

July 30, 2014

A Field Corn Variety Tour was held Tuesday at the UF/IFAS West Florida Research and Education Center near Jay.

During the tour, producers and ag officials from across the region had a chance to learn about about 20 different varieties of corn, including heirloom varieties, plus crop and weed management. The event was a joint project of UF/IFAS, the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, and Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

Pictured top and bottom: The Field Corn Variety Tour Tuesday at the UF/IFAS West Florida Research and Education Center near Jay. Pictured inset: A tall heirloom variety of corn. Photos for NorthEscambia.com, click to enlarge.

Poll: Overwhelming Support For Medical Marijuana In Florida

July 29, 2014

Young and old Floridians overwhelmingly support letting sick patients get high for medical reasons, according to the latest poll on the issue, but getting voters to put medical marijuana into the state constitution is still not a guarantee.

A poll released Monday found that almost 90 percent of Florida voters want doctors to be able to order marijuana for patients. The poll by Quinnipiac University found widespread support for medical marijuana. Eighty-eight percent of Florida voters — including 83 percent of voters age 65 and older and 95 percent of those between 18 and 29 — approve of medical marijuana

“Even though a proposal to legalize medical marijuana, on the ballot this November, must meet a 60 percent threshold, these numbers make a strong bet the referendum is likely to pass,” Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll, said in a prepared statement accompanying the results.

But even supporters of the proposed constitutional amendment acknowledged that the poll results may overestimate Floridians’ support.

“The poll is just another demonstration that support for this is broad,” said Ben Pollara, executive director of United We Care, the group responsible for getting the proposal on the November ballot and working to get it passed.

The poll shows “that the vast majority of Floridians support the general concept of medical marijuana,” Pollara said.

Critics of the proposal, who’ve pumped at least $3 million into efforts to kill it and are prepared to spend more, blasted the semantics of the poll, as well as its findings. The proposal that will appear before voters in November, bankrolled by Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, would allow doctors to decide whether patients who have debilitating medical conditions could receive medical marijuana. Doctors could not “prescribe” the substance, which would be distributed by state-licensed operators.

“This poll has been, and continues to be, a complete outlier in support of medical marijuana because it asks a question that won’t be on the ballot. Amendment 2 doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription,” said Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for the “Vote No on 2″ campaign.

Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University, which frequently conducts polls in Florida and other states, found bipartisan support for legalizing medical marijuana, with an 80-19 percent split among Republicans — whose level of support was the lowest of any subgroup.

“Forget the stereotypes of stodgy old folks living out their golden years playing canasta and golf,” Brown said. “Almost nine in 10 Floridians favor legalizing medical marijuana and a small majority says adults should be able to possess small amounts of the drug for recreational purposes.”

The groundswell of support, mirrored in other polls, gave cause for cheer to backers of the proposed constitutional amendment. Experts estimate that both campaigns might spend up to $20 million on the issue.

“This poll clearly shows that the disingenuous arguments being put forth by organizations like Drug Free Florida and the Florida Sheriffs Association are not fooling Florida’s voters,” Pollara said. “Floridians understand this is an issue of compassion, and they are ready to put these kinds of health care decisions where they belong: in the hands of patients and their doctors, not politicians.”

Opponents are likely to rely on polling showing weakened support for the issue when linked to adolescents’ use of medical marijuana.

GOP legislative leaders and other Republicans who oppose legalization of medical marijuana signed off this spring on a form of marijuana that purportedly does not get users high but is believed to relieve seizures in children with a rare form of epilepsy. The Department of Health is in the process of creating rules for the new law, which authorizes strains of marijuana that are low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD. The law also allows patients who suffer from severe muscle spasms or cancer to be put on a “compassionate use registry” for the low-THC product as long as their doctors approve.

Under the law, doctors who order the substance for their patients must also file their treatment plans with the University of Florida pharmacy school. The university would also be eligible for $1 million in grants to study the efficacy of the low-THC treatment for children with severe forms of epilepsy.

But university officials say that participating in that research could cost them millions more in federal grants for other programs.

“Federal law prohibits possession, cultivation, manufacturing and distribution of marijuana. Violating federal law threatens the federal funding UF receives. As a state agency, UF is required to comply with the law. An outside counsel review of the laws reached the same conclusion,” University of Florida spokeswoman Janine Sikes said Monday.

The university may in the future find a researcher who could evaluate the effectiveness of the low-THC, Sikes said in an e-mail.

That research would only pertain to “outcomes measurement of patient care — not a drug or plant study,” Sikes said.

Rep. Katie Edwards, a Plantation Democrat who has gathered reams of research on the topic and was instrumental in passage of the low-THC legislation, had hoped that the University of Florida would be the conduit into the state for medical marijuana. She said she was disappointed in the university’s position but remained hopeful “that another entity that fits the criteria laid out in the statute will step up and assist the many patients who are desperately seeking this treatment.”

The Department of Health is holding a second rule-making workshop on the low-THC issue Friday in Tallahassee.

Edwards, like others, remains concerned that federal laws making marijuana illegal could pose problems getting the substance into the state to kick-start the low-THC program.

“Very quietly,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican lawyer who sponsored the legislation, said at the last rule-making workshop when asked how authorized growers will obtain seeds or plants. “But I know a few parents of children with intractable epilepsy who will be happy to go get it for you.”

But Edwards, also a lawyer, indicated that the state needs to come up with a better plan.

“I would never counsel a client to break the law and turn a blind eye,” Edwards. “That’s why I’m trying to find a solution that will work.

The poll released Monday also showed that Florida voters support allowing recreational marijuana by a 55 percent to 41 percent margin, but men and women are split on the issue, the poll found. Men support allowing Floridians “to legally possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use” by 61 percent to 36 percent while women are more skeptical, with 49 percent approving and 45 percent opposed. Young voters support the idea by a 72 percent to 25 percent margin, while voters 65 and older are opposed by a margin of 59 percent to 36 percent.

Seventy-one percent of voters also would support having a medical marijuana dispensary in the town where they live. The lowest level of support for having a dispensary in their neighborhoods comes from voters over age 65, with 57 percent in favor and 37 percent opposed.

“No ‘Not in My Backyard’ mentality here. By an almost 3-to-1 majority, Florida voters would allow a medical marijuana dispensary near where they live,” Brown said.

And the poll found that 44 percent of Florida voters say they have tried pot, including 51 percent of men, 39 percent of women and 48 percent of voters ages 18 to 29. Just 23 percent of voters over 65 say they’ve tried marijuana.

The poll was conducted from July 17 to July 21. It surveyed 1,251 registered Florida voters with a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

by Dara Kim,  The News Service of Florida

Local Forest Service Firefighters Deployed To Fight Western US Fires

July 29, 2014

Local area firefighters are among dozens being sent from the Florida Forest Service to help battle blazes in the western United States.

There are six Florida Forest Service firefighters from the Blackwater District — which includes Escambia and Santa Rosa counties — that have been been deployed so far to various western states, according to Joe Zwierzchowski, spokesman.

So far this season, the Florida Forest Service has deployed 52 wildland firefighters to western wildfires, including Oregon’s 396,000-acre Pine Creek wildfire and Washington’s 250,000-acre Carlton Complex of wildfires.

“The Florida Forest Service will continue to fill requests for help as we receive them,” said Jim Karels, State Forester. “The experiences that our firefighters gain out West will build upon their first-class training and experience fighting wildfires here in Florida.”

Deployed wildland firefighters will fill a variety of roles, including front-line firefighting, aviation, safety regulation, logging, heavy equipment management and more.

“The Florida Forest Service is a talented group of some of the most skilled firefighters in the country,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam. “Thanks to current low wildfire danger levels in Florida, we are able to lend support to other states for the protection of people, structures and natural resources.”

12 Elementary Schools To Add Extra Hour Due To Low Reading Scores

July 29, 2014

Due to low reading scores, a  dozen Escambia County elementary schools will have an extended school day when classes begin next month.

The extra hour per day was mandated by the State of Florida for the 300 lowest scoring elementary schools. Students will spend the extra time each day working on reading and comprehension skills.

The extra hour was mandated for Ensley Elementary, Holm Elementary, Montclair Elementary, Myrtle Grove Elementary, Navy Point Elementary, Oakcrest Elementary, O.J. Semmes Elementary, Sherwood Elementary, Warrington Elementary, West Pensacola Elementary, C. A. Weis Elementary and the Global Learning Academy.

None of the elementary schools in North Escambia or District 5 will be required to have the extra hour, and for those schools it will be the normal school day when classes begin August 18.

Doctors Will Appeal ‘Docs Vs. Glocks’ Ruling

July 29, 2014

Doctors and gun-control advocates said Monday they will appeal to the full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals a ruling that upheld Florida’s controversial “docs vs. glocks” law.

A three-judge panel, in a 2-1 ruling last week, said the state Legislature had the right to pass the law, which includes provisions restricting doctors and other medical providers from asking questions about gun ownership during medical visits.

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which is helping represent Florida doctors fighting the law, announced the appeal Monday.

“If the appellate court’s decision is allowed to stand, the corporate gun lobby and its political cronies will be given license to silence the medical community from speaking the truth to patients about the real risks of guns in the home, and any powerful industry will be able to dictate whether families get complete, honest information about the dangers posed by its products,” said Jonathan Lowy, director of the center’s Legal Action Project.

Supporters of the 2011 law, which was backed by the National Rifle Association, say doctors might turn away patients who own guns or who don’t answer questions about gun ownership. Critics argue that doctors need to know what’s in a patient’s home so they can offer safety advice.

by The News Service of Florida

Four Busted For Commerical Burglaries

July 29, 2014

Four people have  been arrested in connection with a series of commercial burglaries in Escambia County.

Last Friday morning, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office responded to multiple  burglaries and attempted  burglaries at local businesses. They first found a large commercial moving truck had been stolen from the Ellyson Field Industrial Park.  According to the truck’s GPS data, the vehicle was driven to other nearby businesses where deputies found that two other burglaries had occurred.

A business in the 8000 block of Grow Road was burglarized with copper stolen, while a building in the 3000 block of a Bill Metzmer Lane was also burglarized.

The vehicle was then driven to the area of Palafox Street and Brent Lane where deputies located another burglary and attempted burglary.

GPS data showed the vehicle was driven to Attapulgus, GA, where it stopped for a period of time before traveling back to Quincy, FL

Deputies in Quincy were notified, and they located the truck abandoned on the side of the road.

Deputies in Decatur, GA, approached a house where the truck had stopped. They observed four males in a vehicle in the front yard.

ECSO Investigators traveled to Georgia. Based upon interviews, forensic evidence and the recovery of stolen items, four arrests were made: Damarkus Larrell Mathis, 26, Bainbridge GA; Victor Lamar Bodison, 36, Bainbridge,  GA; Derrick Wilson Hill, 36, Orlando; amd Derrick Joseph Reaves, 24, Orlando. Investigators believe these suspects are responsible for additional burglaries across the Southeast, and the investigation is ongoing.

Braves Claim Third Straight Win Over Wahoos

July 29, 2014

Make it three nights in a row that the Braves have claimed a 6-2 win over the Pensacola Blue Wahoos at Trustmark Park. The Braves used a five-run first inning on Monday night to put the Blue Wahoos away in the middle game of the five-game set.

Jon Moscot (L, 5-10) was met with early adversity when he surrendered a three-run home run to Kyle Kubitza after starting the game with back to back walks. The Braves mounted a second rally in the first inning after two were out. Mississippi strung together four straight two-out hits to go up 5-0 before the first-inning ambush came to an end. Moscot settled down and retired the next seven batters he faced, and 10 of the next 12.

The Blue Wahoos got on the board with a pair of runs in the fifth. Juan Duran’s triple started the threat against M-Braves starter Williams Perez (W, 4-6). Brodie Greene knocked him in with his second single of the game, and Greene came home on a base hit from Yorman Rodriguez. Those were the only runs the Wahoos could put on the board against Braves pitching.

Greene was one of three Wahoos with a multi-hit contest. Duran and Travis Mattair had the other, and both finished 2-for-4.

Moscot was saddled with the loss after going 6.0 innings. He gave up the 5 R/ER on eight hits with two walks and four strikeouts. Perez picked up the win for the Braves after allowing 2 R/ER on seven hits over 6.0 innings.

Pensacola will try to snap their skid with RHP Robert Stephenson (5-6, 4.12) on the mound Tuesday night against RHP Ryan Weber (3-4, 4.54). First pitch is set for 7:00 p.m. from Trustmark Park in Pearl, Miss.

by Tommy Thrall

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