JaxPoliticsOnline.com

Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

Crist Backtracks and Signs Controversial Water Bill

Despite a prior statement that he was “leaning towards” vetoing SB 2080, the controversial water resources legislation that would severely limit accountability in the water consumption permitting process, Charlie Crist backtracked today and signed SB 2080 into law.  JaxPoliticsOnline.com had written about this legislation on more than one occasion and nearly every major newspaper in the state (as well as Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton) had called on the Governor to veto it.  He had previously given every indication that he would.  Until he quietly signed it today.

It’s a sad day for Florida’s aquifer and the St. Johns River.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics, , , ,

GOP Senate Primary Starting To Heat Up

With today the last day of fundraising for the 1st quarter reporting of the US Senate race, the Republican primary is starting to look interesting.  Incumbent Governor Charlie Crist entered the race as a hands-down favorite, but former Florida Speaker Marco Rubio is beginning to make some headway.

According to a new Mason-Dixon poll released yesterday, Rubio’s support has surged among Republican voters.  While Crist still leads the race by an impressive 51% to 23%, Rubio appears to be gaining ground.  According to the poll, only 52% of GOP primary voters had heard of Rubio.  But, among those who were familiar with the former Speaker, Rubio trails Crist by only 2 points—33% to 31%.

More details are available at the St. Pete Times.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics, , ,

FL Representative Under Fire For Stock Trades

The Cleveland Plain-Dealer has named US Rep Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Brooksville) as one of the members of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee who engaged in the trading of financial stocks as the bottom fell out of the market last year.  The trades were ironic, the Plain-Dealer said, because these same Representatives would later sit in judgement of these same companies, criticizing them for “greed.”  Some of the trades occurred on the same day Congress voted on bank bailout legislation.

According to the Plain-Dealer, Ms. Brown-Waite purchased up to $15,000 in Citigroup stock the day before the House passed the bailout legislation.  Less than two weeks later, on the same day Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was pressuring banks to accept the bailout money, Ms. Brown-Waite purchased up to $15,000 in Bank of America stock.

Of course, the lesson here might be to never look to a member of Congress for investment advice.  On October 2, 2008, Citigroup stock was trading at $22.50.  It closed on June 29, 2009 at $3.02.  On October 13, 2008, Bank of America stock was trading at $22.79.  It closed on June 29, 2009 at $13.19.

Ms. Brown-Waite was certainly not the only member of Congress involved in the trades.  The full article can be found here.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics, , , , , ,

To Hike Taxes or Not To Hike Taxes, That is the Question

As Jacksonville prepares to enter a tax hike debate that is certain to eclipse the contentious Trail Ridge debate, a civilized conversation about the future of Jacksonville and its finances is looking like a goal that may be rather difficult to acheive.  Several days ago, JaxPoliticsOnline.com published an article that included some of the public responses to the Mayor’s millage rate increase proposal.  The responses reviewed, which came from the Times-Union public message boards, were overwhelmingly negative.  While some were politely worded and focused on opposing the concept of a “growing government” and tax increases, many were devoid of civility in stating their opposition.  Part of the reason for the harsh tone may be a defensiveness of taxpayers who are nervous about the current economic state of the country, but a great deal of it might also lie in the manner in which the Mayor rolled out his plan.

Radio talk-show host and former Florida House Representative Andy Johnson was one of the most vocal in expressing his displeasure with the Mayor’s approach.  Johnson called the Mayor’s discussion of closed fire stations “unfair”.  Johnson argued that it was “wrong” for the Mayor to “threaten that [he would] close fire stations if [he] didn’t get what he wanted.”

Johnson’s reaction was hardly unique, as another e-mail respondent insisted that the Mayor “stop these fear tactics.”  Another e-mail from Don Welfare, a city employee, asked the Mayor if he planned on personally embracing some of his own recommendations by having he and his staff take the furloughs he proposed for the rest of city employees.

In Sunday’s paper, the Times-Union editorial board said it best when they expressed their concerns over “another rush job” by the Administration.  Perhaps more than anything, that “rush job” is at the core of what troubles Duval County voters.

The Mayor has cited the recent JCCI study that called for additional revenue sources in proposing his tax increase, but he has chosen to ignore another crucial recommendation in that JCCI study—rebuilding public trust.  An Administration with a series of high-profile missteps will not rebuild public trust by proposing a property tax hike without first engaging the public.  That failure to engage before a major decision is something that has plagued John Peyton from day one.  People do not wish to be told you are “open to listening” after you spring a “recommendation” on them, they want to see you out listening before the “recommendation” is made.  Jacksonville’s budget woes are hardly new, so why the need to spring a tax hike on voters with barely a month for voters (and the City Council) to react?  Wouldn’t it be likely that responses would be less reactionary if an ongoing conversation between the Mayor and voters had been taking place for several months?

Tax hikes are never easy and the public is rarely thrilled.  However, increases are much more palatable when the public is firmly convinced that its government has taken every possible step to ensure existing dollars are being well spent.  While Duval County’s millage rate is one of the lowest of any major metropolitan area in the country, there are still concerns over the expenditure of current tax revenues.

In early May, JaxPoliticsOnline.com published an article that discussed the continued growth of AMIO positions.  For those not familiar with these positions, AMIO’s are Assistant Management Improvement Officers and are often special positions that are typically filled through a process that involves no formal job qualifications, established responsibilities or pay ranges for the positions.  While the Mayor pledged to reform this process four years ago, these positions have grown dramatically—from 125 AMIO’s making $7.5 million in 2005 to 166 AMIO’s making nearly $11.2 million today.  The individuals in these positions currently include the children of a former council member and a former mayor, as well as a former council member himself.

The situation with AMIO’s is hardly unique in Jacksonville government.  Voters have repeatedly expressed frustration over issues ranging from the ongoing pension crisis to the assertion that the budget for the Mayor’s Office and the City Council has burgeoned over the past eight years.  All of these unaddressed issues make acceptance of a tax increase incredibly difficult for the average Jacksonville resident.  The many who are passionate about funding the arts, believe in the missions of the city’s non-profits and are absolutely convinced the city must invest in its decaying infrastructure, are wary of a tax increase being proposed before they have witnessed a good faith effort to clean up wastefulness within the existing budget.

With the cat already out of the proverbial bag it’s hard to know where to start on the current proposal.  It’s problematic to have a discussion when one party’s mind is already made up before the conversation begins.  Nevertheless, it is time Jacksonville begin a conversation on our future.  If the Mayor has any hope of convincing a wary public to back his plan, he might want to restart the process.  If he could rush through a tax hike, perhaps he could also move quickly to engage the unions on the pension issue.  He could move to immediately scale back AMIO’s within his Administration and eliminate any position that exists without clearly defined job responsibilities, qualifications and a pay range.  He could also trim his staff, as well as the City Council’s.  He should engage the public in requesting recommendations for areas that can be trimmed.  Then, and only then, should he move forward with a tax increase.

The hike may very well be inevitable, but shouldn’t it be the last step in solving our budget woes, not the first?

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday Night Detour: A Michael Jackson Tribute

By this point, Michael Jackson’s music has pretty much been on a 24-hour spin cycle.  But, as a child of the 1980’s, I can’t help but post a MJ video.  This one, on which he appeared, was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.  It’s full of THE stars of the 80’s, some of whom have now passed on.  “We Are The World.”

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Contemplating Tax Hikes

The next month is certain to be filled with heated discussions over tax hikes in Jacksonville.  This year’s hike, proposed as an increase in the property tax millage rate, is already beginning to elicit strong feedback from the community, particularly from homeowner’s who feel they are being unfairly targeted.  (For what it’s worth, increases in property taxes also impact renters, whose rent is typically increased to cover the property taxes charged to their landlord.)

Tomorrow, JaxPoliticsOnline.com intends to look at how Jacksonville can have a civilized and constructive conversation over the proposals.  There are; however, a few items that should be considered must-reads as the City begins the discussion.  On Friday, Ron Littlepage implored voters to “look at the facts” before opposing the property tax hike proposed by the Mayor.  Yesterday, David Hunt looked at the $31 million the Mayor has identified as having been trimmed from the budget over the previous three years—and the fact that city spending has actually increased by $102 million during that time period.  Today, the editorial board of the Times-Union takes a look at what they call “another rush job” by the Administration.  They fault the Mayor for a lack of community involvement on the front end, leaving voters (and the City Council) barely a month to vet the proposal before it must be voted on.

Much, much more to come on this subject in the ensuing week and month.  Stay tuned.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , ,

The Ghost of Shipyards Past, Part 2

The Ghost of Shipyards Past is a 3-part series.  Part 1 was published on Sunday, June 14th.

According to Carlton Spence, the Spence family never intended to be developers.  Their original intent when they purchased the Shipyards property was to use it to expand their cold storage business.  After pressure from John Delaney; however, Spence says that the family developed the idea for the $865 million development that would be known as The Shipyards.

One of the plan’s biggest proponents, according to Spence, was Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney.  His support was instrumental in obtaining the $75 million committed by the city to assist in developing the project.  “Of that amount,” Spence told Susan Brandenburg in her book Guts, “$40 million was to be in the form of bonds with the money apolied to the cost of developing a 16-acre public park and completing the North Bank River Walk.”  That development was to take place while TriLegacy moved forward with other aspects of the project.  The remaining $35 million was set to come in the form of tax abatements.

Shortly after announcing the Shipyards development and securing financial support from the JEDC, TriLegacy Group LLC was selected by the city to develop the former Cecil Field Naval Air Station.

The Shipyards, One Shipyard Place, rolled out their condo models at Epping Forest Yacht Club on the morning of Sept 11, 2001.  It should have been a harbinger of things to come.

The US economy tanked after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and development on the project moved along slowly.  Nevertheless, the development moved forward and in late 2003, construction of One Shipyard Place was beginning to look like a reality with the development only a few reservations short of the 60 pre-sales needed to begin construction.

At that same time, Brandenburg recalls in her book, Jacksonville landed a major coup when it convinced Fidelity National to move its national headquarters to Jacksonville.  The Spence family began negotiating with Fidelity to possibly develop on part of the Shipyards project.  Those discussions were held directly with Fidelity and the Spence’s wondered in retrospect if that’s what became their downfall.

Two days before Christmas, Jeff Spence was contacted by Kirk Wendland, then the Executive Director of JEDC, to inform him that the city was missing a document that would confirm that the city and TriLegacy had agreed upon an appraisal that had been done for Cecil Field.  Spence recalls that Wendland and he agreed that the issue was a “technicality” and was something that could be addressed after the holiday season.

Trouble was on the horizon.

Check back next week for The Ghost of Shipyards Past, Part 3.


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Tax Hike Proponents Ask “What Kind of City Do We Want To Live In?”

One of the themes that emerged from the recent JCCI study on Jacksonville’s finances was the question that kept coming up:  What Kind Of City Do We Want To Live In?

The Mayor and his staff have continued to ask that question as they announced their plans to call for a 1.2 mill property tax increase to patch holes in next year’s city budget.  The same question will likely be asked as the Duval County School Board weighs a quarter-mill tax increase to fund reserves.  For some, the answer to the rhetorical question might be clear cut, but answers actually vary widely among Duval County residents.

“It’s not that I don’t believe we need more revenue,” a recent e-mail said, “I just still don’t have faith that our city government is spending the tax dollars I am already paying wisely.”

That e-mail, which arrived in response to an article that had mentioned the possibility of a tax increase specifically targeted to fund indigent care, was not an isolated response.  In e-mail and in-person conversations with countless Duval County residents, I have learned firsthand that there is an underlying distrust of how taxpayer dollars are being spent in this city.  Interestingly enough, the very same JCCI study that pointed out the flaws in the city’s current revenue structure spoke to the same issue—the taxpayers of Duval County remain suspicious of their local government.

As the Mayor moves to make his case to Duval County residents, he will have to prepare himself to make a case to many people who fundamentally disagree with his vision of Jacksonville. A review of public responses on the Times-Union message boards show that even the scenario described by the Mayor, where libraries are closed and fire stations are shuttered, failed to move some Jacksonville residents.

Picture 8

Libraries, according to more than one message board poster, are something we can live without.  In fact, more than one respondent was fine with cutting services out altogether.  In fact, he was even willing to forgo garbage collection.

Picture 7

One of the common themes from all opponents of tax increases; however, is that many feel social services should be cut out altogether.

Picture 3All of these complaints point to a harsh reality the Mayor will have to face as he prepares to make his case before the City Council—most of whom will be facing an avalanche of e-mails and phone calls expressing opposition to the Mayor’s plans—Jacksonville has not yet decided what kind of city it does want to be.

It is time we have a serious discussion about the type of city we want to live in.  Hopefully, we will all approach the conversation with a willingness to listen and learn.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville

New Council President Off To Rocky Start

Richard Clark, the Intracoastal-area councilman who assumed the reigns of City Council President on Wednesday, has seen his tenure begin under a cloud of controversy.  After facing a public outcry over the various conflicting answers he gave to local media about who was funding the recent trip he and his wife took to Paris to attend the Paris Air Show, Clark recently elicited further controversy by requesting emergency legislation to request the Council fund the installation of batting cages at the city park where his child plays Little League baseball.

Diane Melendez, a long-time city activist, first raised concerns last week that Clark was attempting to push through “emergency legislation” that would have expended over $168,000 of taxpayer dollars without the benefit of a request for proposal or public input.  One of the most controversial pieces of the news; however, was the revelation that Clark was using bond money for his district to benefit a park that was not his district.

The batting cage dilemma has merely been the tip of the iceberg that Clark has faced when balancing his new role as incoming council president with parent and little league supporter.  Clark has engaged in a back-and-forth with several other little league parents via his city e-mail account.  Some, including another league board member, have complained that the incoming council president has impugned their character and replied rather abrasively to their concerns—even going so far as to hang up on them.

After reviewing the batting cage matter, the City’s Ethics Commission concluded that there were no violations in Councilman Clark’s requesting of the emergency legislation.  The Commission also reminded the public that the council does have the right to waive the bidding process.  That being said; however, Mr. Clark’s introduction of the legislation—and his skirmishes with his district constituents and other little league parents—leave questions about his political skills in leading the council at a very crucial time in city history.

In the end, Clark withdrew the “emergency” aspect of the legislation after fellow council members raised concerns over the nature of the request, but the month leading up to his appointment as council president has been less than reassuring.  Clark’s closing comments at this weeks council meeting showed many, including Nick Callahan, a District 3 constituent, that he still “doesn’t get it.”  Addressing the batting cage controversy, Clark pointed out his 7A Tee Ball team made the state championship and stated that he could only “imagine what he could have done with a batting cage”.

A prominent political activist who asked not to be named, expressed concern that Clark “would be eaten alive” as council president.  At this juncture, its hard to wonder if that sentiment will not indeed bear out.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, , , , , ,

State Farm Continues Pullout After Crist Vetoes Bill

After Gov. Charlie Crist announced that he was vetoing House Bill  1171, widely known as the “State Farm Bill”, State Farm announced that they planned to continue with their plans—expressed on Tuesday—to exit the state’s home insurance market within the next two years.

Crist had previously expressed reservations over the bill, stating that it had “no provisions that [allowed] consumers to renew options and make a choice that best [fit] their needs.”  According to State Farm and their supporters; however, the bill would have allowed them to raise rates to more “realistic” levels to cover potential losses, without being subject to state regulation.

The Republican-controlled Legislature, which overwhelmingly supported the bill, is not pleased with Crist’s veto.  House Speaker Larry Cretul called Crist’s veto a “disappointment” and prominent leaders in the House and Senate are now hinting at efforts to override the Governor’s veto.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics, , , , ,

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