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Providing nicely for outgoing senator

Longtime GOP state Sen. John Grant, appointed the first statewide guardian, will likely earn $125,000.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- It appears more and more likely that the first statewide guardian will have an office at the University of South Florida.

He would receive a salary of $125,000, about $8,000 more than the governor.

And the man who will fill the job just happens to be a longtime Republican state senator who is leaving office because of term limits.

When Gov. Jeb Bush appointed retiring Sen. John Grant of Tampa to be executive director of the statewide Public Guardianship Office in November, he didn't say where Grant would work. The early thought was that the job would pay about $110,000 a year. A bill that has passed committees in the House and Senate this spring cleared up both of those questions.

But not without controversy.

"I'm not really interested in feathering the nest of another legislator," complained Rep. John Cosgrove, a Miami Democrat who objected to the salary figure.

The new guardianship program Grant will head is designed to help some of the state's most vulnerable citizens at times when they need someone to help them conduct their daily lives.

Grant will take the new job when the Legislature completes its 60-day session May 5.

Grant said he is staying out of the fray over the Legislature's guardianship bill so no one will accuse him of conflict of interest.

"I can afford to take this," Grant said. "I will be closing a law firm I've had for 32 years and cutting my income in half. But I am at a point in life where I can afford to do it and give some public service."

Grant said he will be glad to work for whatever salary the Legislature sets. He said he has long donated his legislative salary (now about $27,000) to charity.

Grant, 56, also will receive another benefit when he retires -- a state pension that counts his 14 years as a lowly paid legislator but bases the amount on his best five years of income.

On Tuesday a House committee approved a bill filed by Rep. Larry Crowe, R-Palm Harbor, that establishes the new program in Tampa and sets the salary at the same amount earned by the public defender in the area. A similar bill has already been approved by one committee in the Senate and is awaiting fiscal review.

Cosgrove attempted to amend the bill so it would limit the salary of the public guardian to the starting salary received by teachers after noting that Grant would be making "almost as much as the governor." Other committee members voted against the drastic salary reduction without commenting.

The average starting teacher in Florida is paid about $24,400, while the governor currently receives about $117,000. The salary the guardian will receive is about the same amount received by circuit judges and the public defender in Tampa.

Grant said he doesn't know why Cosgrove is so critical unless it's because Cosgrove is currently running for state insurance commissioner, which pays more than $100,000.

Grant said Cosgrove ought to be celebrating the fact that a legislature that has talked about fixing the badly broken public guardianship system for 10 years has come up with a plan for fixing it.

Grant has been a guardian and attorney for guardians in his private legal practice. He has been designated as a probate and guardianship specialist by the Florida Bar.

If the guardianship bill becomes law, the new office will be housed at the Florida Mental Health Institute's elder affairs section, where an office, computers, telephones and a secretary have already been provided, Grant said.

The guardian will review the needs of the state's 67 counties and complete a report on the situation by Jan. 1, 2001. Legislators envision the appointment of a guardian in each of the state's 20 judicial circuits.

Public guardians are appointed to handle the financial affairs and make decisions for certain elderly or disabled citizens who can no longer handle their own affairs. Reports of theft and abuse on the part of guardians have been widespread for years.

Grant said he thinks the new system will provide more protection for vulnerable citizens who have become the victims of unscrupulous guardians.

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