ICYMI: Tampa Bay Times: Homeowners have a question for Adam Putnam: Where’s our money?

Wed, May 2, 2018

May 1, 2018
For Immediate Release
Contact: Kevin Donohoe
603-531-3998
HIGHLIGHTS:
  • A circuit judge in February ordered the state to pay up and spend about $17 million to compensate Stroh and the owners of nearly 12,000 parcels in Lee County.
  • But Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican candidate for governor, challenged the decision in the Second District Court of Appeal, ensuring that the homeowners won't be paid, despite having won multiple courtroom victories over the years.
  • "He has done absolutely nothing to see that this money is paid," Stroh told the Times/Herald. "It has to be paid. The Constitution of the United States says if you take somebody's private property, you have to pay for it."
  • Stroh, a lifelong Republican, says she won't vote for Putnam, and says she hopes all of her neighbors won't either.
By Steve Bousquet
Lois Stroh of Cape Coral is 81 years old, and she's been waiting for 15 years to be paid by the state of Florida for damage to her property.
Stroh is among thousands of homeowners whose prized fruit trees were destroyed as part of the state's failed effort to prevent the spread of citrus canker.
But she'll keep waiting.
A circuit judge in February ordered the state to pay up and spend about $17 million to compensate Stroh and the owners of nearly 12,000 parcels in Lee County.
But Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican candidate for governor, challenged the decision in the Second District Court of Appeal, ensuring that the homeowners won't be paid, despite having won multiple courtroom victories over the years.
"He has done absolutely nothing to see that this money is paid," Stroh told the Times/Herald. "It has to be paid. The Constitution of the United States says if you take somebody's private property, you have to pay for it."
Stroh and her husband, Chuck, left Toledo, Ohio, and retired to Southwest Florida in 1997, joining the millions of Midwest residents who followed a well-worn path along Interstate 75 to Florida's west coast.
They bought a home in a subdivision in Cape Coral and planted a single fruit tree that produced a steady supply of juicy Florida oranges, until the day the police and a work crew showed up one day in April 2003 and tore down her tree.
Florida's Citrus Canker Eradication Program (CCEP), paid for with federal money, began long before Putnam was elected in 2010.
In February, five years after the homeowners won the case, Circuit Judge Keith Kyle ruled in February that the Strohs and every other Lee homeowner has waited long enough for their damages of $285.25 for every one of nearly 34,000 trees that were destroyed in Lee County.
After the 2013 verdict, the state appealed and eventually lost after more years of litigation and delays.
Stroh, a lifelong Republican, says she won't vote for Putnam, and says she hopes all of her neighbors won't either.
Putnam, a leading Republican candidate for governor, says it's the Florida Legislature's responsibility to appropriate the money.
The Legislature did, last year. But Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the money, which left the homeowners still waiting for justice.
"The lawful process for the payment of these judgments requires a legislative appropriation of the funds," said Putnam's chief spokeswoman, Jennifer Meale. "The Legislature has appropriated funds for payments in two counties, which we are currently paying, and when the Legislature appropriates funds for Lee County, we will quickly and efficiently pay the judgments."
Joe Dolliver,  73, a retired real estate agent in Fort Myers, had 18 trees destroyed in his yard.
"The state took our property. The state should pay. The state has refused to pay," Dolliver said. "We're talking 15 years here."
"They're waiting so long, everybody is going to be dead," said Dee Klockow, 75, of Cape Coral, a retired school teacher and restaurant owner.
She and her 76-year-old husband John, who are also still waiting, had five "beautiful, mature trees" torn down at her back yard overlooking a canal.
"It grieves me so. Justice delayed is justice denied. It's very frustrating. It's not like they didn't know it was coming," Dee Klockow said. "We're actually bitter about the whole thing."
She was cleaning boxes in her garage and came across a copy of a bulky old videotape. It was the deposition she gave in the case — in 2004, when she was 61.
A few years into the litigation, the state offered the homeowners an olive branch: $100 coupons, redeemable at Walmart, for the first tree destroyed and $55 for every subsequent tree.
Dolliver considered the offer an insult and never cashed in the coupons.
The attorney for the homeowners, Robert Gilbert of the Grossman Roth law firm in Miami, said Scott's 2017 veto inaccurately cited "ongoing litigation" in the Lee County case.
The state had lost another appeal by then, and Putnam did not challenge the decision in the Florida Supreme Court.
The homeowners appealed Scott's veto to the Florida Supreme Court, but justices said Scott had the right to veto the money.
Then the case went back to Kyle in Fort Myers, who ruled in February that the homeowners have waited long enough.
"The rationalizations and excuses offered by respondents in this case are without merit and wholly unacceptable," Kyle wrote.
The judge criticized Putnam for not asking the Legislature to appropriate the money, which in Lee County now totals nearly $17 million.
In Putnam's latest filing with the court, his office notes that the 2018-19 state budget did not include money to pay the Lee County judgment.
"The department favors the ultimate resolution of the constitutional issues in this case by the Florida Supreme Court," Putnam's attorneys wrote in the latest appeal, filed April 5.
The Second District Court of Appeal rejected the homeowners' request that the Lee case be certified as one of great public importance requiring immediate resolution by the state Supreme Court.
Every day the case drags on, the interest due on the Lee County judgment grows by about $2,200, a bill that Florida taxpayers eventually will have to pay.
"The state just keeps kicking the can down the road," Lois Stroh said.
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