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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Feb. 13, 2004 15 years ago

Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

This week's items: Chief judge stands behind Rapkin's decisionSignature Bank provides the Science Center of Pinellas County with a new automated external defibrillatorFlorida business leaders hope to salvage a market-based solution to our he

Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

Chief judge stands behind Rapkin's decision

12th Circuit Chief Judge Robert Bennett says Judge Harry Rapkin acted within his scope as a jurist when he refused to jail Joseph P. Smith on a probation violation for failing to pay $170 in costs assessed for a drug conviction.

In video footage that was eventually shown around the world, Carlie Brucia's Feb. 1 abduction by a man, authorities say is Smith, was filmed by a security camera at a Sarasota car wash. Smith is charged with the kidnapping and murder of 11-year-old Brucia.

Many people are second-guessing Rapkin's December decision to not jail Smith for the probation violation. The judge has suffered harsh criticism.

But Rapkin's decision, the chief judge says, was based on the law.

"Every appellate district in Florida, including the Florida Supreme Court, has ruled that when a person is placed on probation or community supervision, and is ordered as a condition of the community supervision to pay money like court costs, before you can violate that person and sanction that person for that violation, by placing them in jail or whatever that sanction might be, you must be able to find that the violation has been willful and substantial," Bennett says.

"If I'm on probation and ordered to pay money, if I don't have the ability to pay that money I can't be violated for that reason. Every circuit judge in the state is aware of that."

Practically speaking, taxpayers would be footing the bill to jail someone for not paying costs, running up the tab even further.

Rapkin is an honorable and ethical man, the chief says, adding, "The impact on him is just devastating, personally and professionally. How could it not?"

Signature move

The award for best marketing by a local financial institution this month has to go to Signature Bank.

The St. Petersburg bank, with $112 million in assets, opened a new branch in the Tyrone section of the city in late January. But the bank delayed the official ribbon cutting until this week. With Valentine's Day in the air, the bank decided to make a donation of life-saving equipment at the same time.

Signature is providing the Science Center of Pinellas County with a new automated external defibrillator. After all, February is Heart Month.

The ribbon-cutting and heart-restarting donation took place at an invitation-only reception that the bank threw at the new Crossroads Shopping Center branch on Feb. 12.

The other two Signature offices, downtown and in northeast St. Petersburg, will celebrate along with the new branch by offering special deals for the rest of the month, according to David Feaster, the bank's chief executive.

To market, we should go

Florida business leaders hope to salvage a market-based solution to our health insurance crisis. They are nervous a government-run system is gaining favor, thanks to recent rises in both employee premiums and the ranks of the uninsured.

"Will we continue expanding taxpayer-funded health care, or will we advance policies that reinvigorate the employer-sponsored coverage system and free Floridians from the uncertainty of rationing and spending cuts?" asks the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber has compiled a policy paper on health insurance and held a news conference in Tallahassee earlier this month to push its brand of reform.

Proposals include rejiggering the tax code, the approach most favored by Republicans. Give tax incentives to business to insure more workers. Let workers set up flexible savings accounts to curb spending on medicine and treatment.

But the Governor's Task Force on Access to Affordable Health Insurance is limited in recommending tax overhauls. Only so much can be accomplished that way in a permissive, low-tax state. The sales tax, Florida's main government funding source, "is not easily adapted into a health insurance purchasing incentive," the chamber notes.

Fussing with property taxes would require cooperation from local government, which just about rules that out.

In the end, "the chamber suggests a partnership with the federal government." Health insurance reform, it seems, runs through Washington, D.C., not our state capital.

Net down, but stock up

Manatee County's 1st National Bank & Trust hired more loan officers last year to boost the lending portfolio in its booming market. Net loans grew 14% in the first nine months of the year.

But that wasn't enough to overcome the nearly $400,000 increase in payroll on top of heavier-than-expected mortgage prepayments. Blame persistently lower interest rates. So the bank's holding company, First National Bancshares Inc., is reporting a 15% drop in net income for 2003.

Investors scarcely noticed. They actually bid up the stock as the year wore on. (Ticker symbol: FBMT. Trades on Nasdaq.) The stock is just a quarter or two below its 52-week high of $24.63, after dipping as low as $18.67 during the summer.

What does the market find so appealing? It's probably a combination of things.

Somebody might want to buy the bank, for one. First National, a one-bank holding company, pays dividends.

The bank has been in business for almost 18 years, with the holding company created in 1999. The chairman, chief executive and biggest shareholder, Francis I. duPont III, 58, leads a stable board that includes Beverly Beall of the Bradenton-based department store chain, Bradenton lawyer Robert G. Blalock, and Manatee Community College President Sarah H. Pappas. (One of the MCC trustees is duPont.)

Net interest income is headed in the right direction, although at a slow pace. The $243-million-asset bank set aside less for loss reserves, despite the loan growth. Bank executives attribute that to fewer charge-offs since they got out of indirect car lending in 2001.

The bank's investment and trust assets grew 29% in 2003. And, by April, First National is expected to complete its acquisition of The Trust Co. of Florida, a 3-year-old estate planner based in Englewood. Three executives of the trust company have agreed to stay on.

But First National is probably most attractive because of where it does business. The Manatee deposit market is $3.5 billion, with a projected growth rate of 7% to 10% a year for the foreseeable future. The bank has four branches from Anna Maria Island to Ellenton, in addition to its west Bradenton headquarters.

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