Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

The Hometown Democracy Debate Heats Up

Amendment 4, also known as Hometown Democracy, will be the ballot initiative to watch in 2010.  The highly-controversial amendment cleared another hurdle yesterday when the Florida Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion to Attorney General Bill McCollum stating that a revised financial impact statement now complied with state law.  

“Local governments will incur additional costs due to the requirement to conduct referenda,” the court opined.  The impact on state government; however, “will be insignificant.”

Amendment 4 would require that any comprehensive land use plan changes approved by city councils or county commissions go before the public in the form of a ballot referendum.  Critics say that requiring the public to vote on all comprehensive changes would clog up local ballots and could necessitate dozens of referenda throughout the year.  On the other hand, proponents contend that local politicians are too dependent on large developers for campaign funds and have been quick to approve amendments in the past.

The recent legislative session only served to further heighten the stakes as the Legislature moved to strip much of the existing growth management policies currently in place in an effort to jump-start the state’s flagging real estate industry.  To the dismay of many, Charlie Crist—a self-proclaimed environmentalist—went along with the Legislature’s efforts. As a result, many previous opponents of Amendment 4 are beginning to change their tune, including Florida Times-Union Columnist Ron Littlepage.  Littlepage cited the Legislature’s near-stripping of concurrency requirements and the on-going Craig Airfield controversy in announcing his shifting position on the initiative.  (Interestingly enough, several local governments, including Weston, Key Biscayne and Miami Beach, have filed suit to block the rewrite of growth management laws.  They argue that eliminating concurrency created “unfunded mandates” for local governments.)

Despite their opposition to the recent moves by the Legislature in regards to growth management, the St. Pete Times Editorial Board is not convinced that Amendment 4 is the answer.  They cite the “St. Pete Beach experiment” in detailing their distaste for the initiative.  St. Pete Beach, the Times said, demonstrates that “land planning via referendum is a messy, unpredictable business that leads to higher government costs due to litigation and a stalemate when it comes to development.”

On its face, some argue that the amendment demonstrates an abdication of voter responsibility.  If the voting public is unhappy with politicians rubber stamping the requests of developers, they argue, then voters have an obligation to show up at the polls in support of individuals who pledge their commitment to uphold the comprehensive plan.  

One thing is for certain—it will be a high-stakes, expensive war as the Florida Chamber, developers and real estate interests make an all-out effort to prevent the amendment from reaching that magical 60%.  

The ad wars on YouTube have already begun.  A sampling, including a satirical reprise of the 1970’s era “Crying Indian” PSA, can be viewed below. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: 2010, Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , , , , , , , , ,

Florida Last In Stimulus Dollars

Charles Dharapak

Charles Dharapak

Despite Charlie Crist’s very public embrace of Barack Obama and Obama’s federal stimulus plan, Florida ranks dead last in dollars received per person according to a study by the Palm Beach Post.  Crist’s endorsement of the stimulus, which brought the Governor considerable heat from deficit hawks within his own party, gave the President a much-needed bipartisan boost as he sold the plan to the American public earlier this year.  That involvement seems not to have paid off to many Floridians.

Florida TaxWatch’s Dominic Calabro placed the blame on Florida’s elected officials.  In an interview with the Palm Beach Post, Calabro alleged that the low return per resident showed “how inept Florida’s government officials are.”

The Post questions the ability of the stimulus to improve Florida’s unemployment rate—something the President promised would be a result when he touted the stimulus in a Florida stop in February.

The low distribution has left many Floridians confused and left the President potentially vulnerable in a battleground state.  Read the Post’s article in its entirety here.

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

FBI Now Looking Into Former House Speaker

Ray Sansom, the Republican Speaker of the Florida House who stepped aside earlier this year after being indicted on felony charges by a Tallahassee Grand Jury, now faces the prospects of an FBI investigation.  According to the St. Petersburg Times, the FBI has begun inquiring about the case and is beginning to collect documents.

The case involves an appropriation that Sansom singularly directed to benefit Jay Odom, a panhandle-area developer, and Northwest Florida State College.  Odom is a big-time contributor to the Republican Party of Florida, donating more than $1 million to the party.  He, Sansom and Bob Richburg, the former president of Northwest Florida State College, all currently face state charges.

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

Crist Should Veto SB 2080

“Imagine if a county administrator in Florida could make development decision in secret, without asking the county commissioners?  Only if the administrator denied a request would the commissioners have a say.”  That’s the question the Palm Beach Post asked in a recent editorial.  They were speaking, of course, in reference to SB 2080, which is currently sitting on the desk of Gov. Charlie Crist.

SB 2080 would eliminate public hearings that take place before the governing boards of Florida’s five water management districts and place one individual—an appointed executive director—completely in control over the approval process for removing water from Florida’s aquifer and rivers.  In fact, if this legislation had been passed (and signed into law) during the last legislative session, the hundreds who turned out to oppose the recent request from Seminole County to drain 5.5 million gallons of water per day from the St. Johns river…well, there would have been no hearing for them to speak at.  The withdrawal would have simply been approved by the Executive Director and the public would have had no input.

Volusia County Council Member Andy Kelly is one of those opposed to the new legislation.  He told the West Volusia Beacon that he had concerns over the political pressures that would be exerted on water-management executive directors when large, for-profit developers came requesting permits.

“I know that I wouldn’t want to be in that position,” Kelly told the Beacon.  “I would deny each one, so that it would go back to the Governing Board for public input and broad public discussion.”

Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton has been one of the rare Jacksonville politicians that have spoken up in opposition to this dangerous legislation.  Peyton penned a letter to Charlie Crist asking him to veto the bill.

As Jacksonville’s Riverkeeper so clearly states, this bill is a “poison pill” and should be vetoed.  Voice your concerns with the Governor by e-mailing him at Charlie.Crist@MyFlorida.com or calling him at 850-488-7146.

Let your voice be heard.

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

Charlie Crist Attacks Home Rule

One of the hallmarks of Charlie Crist’s single term as Florida’s Governor is a continued erosion of the rights of municipalities and counties.  The concept of “home rule” is an old one, and one that has traditionally been Republican.  In fact, Republican candidates throughout the country are continuously talking about state’s rights and the encroaching powers of the federal government.

In Florida, the issue is the continued consolidation of power in Tallahassee and its encroachment on home rule.  The single individual most responsible for the continued expansion of Tallahassee’s powers is none other than Republican Governor Charlie Crist.

Crist’s latest move, a veto which stripped Jacksonville’s City Council of its right to pass a sales tax surtax with a two-thirds vote of the City Council put Jacksonville in a position that is fundamentally unfair. According to the Florida Times-Union, every other county in the state is able to levy surtaxes without voter referrendum, other than the one other consolidated government in Florida—Miami-Dade.  Miami-Dade had worked out a fix for their issue, Crist has now vetoed Jacksonville’s, which places funding for indigent health care in serious jeopardy.  Once again, Charlie Crist has placed his own personal political ambitions over the rights of local governments to determine their own sources of revenue.

Jacksonville, and indeed cities and counties throughout the state, has continued to suffer from continued unfunded mandates from Tallahassee.  All the while,  Governor Crist and the Legislature have moved to repeatedly strip power from local governments.  It’s time for Florida to return to the uniquely American concept of home rule.  Tallahassee needs to allow Jacksonville to handle its own affairs.  We may struggle with that, yes, but voters can then hold local politicians responsible for those failures.

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

Mayor Urges Crist Veto of Water Permitting Bill

In a letter dated June 4th, Mayor Peyton urges Governor Charlie Crist to veto Senate Bill 2080.  This is the bill that would require that the water management district’s executive director issue water use and wetland permits and delete the governing board from the approval process, unless the executive director recommended denial of the permit.  If signed into law, this legislation would prevent the public from having input to the water management district’s governing board on water use and wetland permits, except in cases of permit denials.

Read the Mayor’s letter here.

Filed under: Florida Legislature, Jacksonville, Mayor of Jacksonville,

Sen. King Recovering From Surgery

From the Herald:

Sen. Jim King, diagnosed last month with pancreatic cancer, today underwent a lengthy surgery at Mayo Clinic in his Jacksonville district to remove the cancerous tumor.

Friends and family say the surgery was a success. He will remain in the hospital for 10 days before returning home for further recovery.

Filed under: Florida Legislature, Florida Politics,

Taxpayers to Feel the Cost of Sprawl

Late yesterday afternoon, without fanfare or a public signing ceremony, the Governor quietly signed the growth managment legislation (SB 360) into law. Charles Pattison, Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Florida, shares his thoughts in a Tallahassee Democrat editorial column today.

This year’s growth management bill, SB 360, was opposed by most of the leading newspapers and conservation, planning and advocacy organizations, including 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties. The governor signed the bill Monday afternoon, despite many requests to veto it.

The good stated intent of this bill was to promote a jobs and economic recovery strategy with incentives for new growth and development locating into “dense urban land areas” where it is appropriate while preventing sprawl into rural and undeveloped agricultural and natural areas.

Who could argue with that? That would be anyone who understood that “1,000 people/square mile,” the qualifying standard, misses the mark by a factor of 10. A density of one dwelling unit/acre or less is hardly urban, and it certainly is not dense. Although changes were made to tighten this definition, it was not enough, as evidenced by the 245 cities and eight counties that automatically “qualify.” There is even a generous additional allowance for nonqualifying cities and counties to designate certain areas for the same incentives.

Those incentives include waivers for transportation concurrency and the elimination of the Development of Regional Impact (DRI) program within the qualifying areas. These incentives were seen by most advocates as positive so long as they were focused in the “correct” areas. But when these incentives are given across too broad an area, areas that are not really urban or dense are included.

In waiving transportation concurrency, the local government financial underpinning for dealing with transportation impacts will be undercut. Local governments will have to develop “strategies” within two years to fund and implement transportation options, but that is much less certain and clear-cut than were existing statutory options for creating concurrency-free zones. Losing the ability to deal with substantial transportation impacts caused by DRIs, and the elimination of the flawed but important proportionate-share cost requirements, rightly alarmed local governments and the public.

Add to this the elimination of a coordinated local-government process for addressing real extra-jurisdictional development impacts, and you have the makings for ending any coordinated growth management.

For the Tallahassee area, this new law would mean that projects inside our urban services area, such as Fallschase, Welaunee Plantation and SouthWood, would have paid no road-improvement costs. With impact fees, that would be different, but we don’t have them in Tallahassee. Unless the public wants to pay, all of those impacted roads will only get more congested. Similar examples exist statewide.

Job creation is important if “relaxing” some of the current growth controls helped. The problem is the current backlog of more than 300,000 vacant dwelling units, but this is not the whole story. There are hundreds of thousands of additional approved but unbuilt dwelling units and millions of square feet of commercial and institutional space. Not included are the even larger numbers that the Department of Community Affairs has to consider now in numerous plan amendments. Relaxing growth controls has nothing to do with “creating” jobs — the jobs are there, and the projects are ready to go, but the financing is missing.

The development of a mobility fee to replace the balkanized transportation concurrency process, and the community land-trust language added as part of an extensive affordable-housing amendment, are positive. However, in addition to the other problems already noted, there remain unnecessary limitations on new affordable-housing developers, mandatory recognition of existing residential densities, and the option of designating urban service areas for the “lessened” growth controls without substantive state oversight.

What was intended as a scalpel for some selective, focused growth-management improvements turned into a sledgehammer with many unintended consequences.

Think of this as a “tax” either falling onto taxpayers to cover what should be legitimate developer costs or a further decline in our quality of life, which is already strained.

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

The Yellow Brick Road

With the recent opening of the Riverside Arts Market, the Jazz Festival on Laura Street, the Sail Jacksonville Tall Ships this weekend, and the Mayor’s announcement that he would focus his last two years in office on the river and downtown, it seems like downtown is becoming the place to be.  While these are great developments that are badly needed in Jacksonville, it may be wise to take a step back and lay a foundation to ensure the continued success of the urban core area.  In addition, the City also needs to lay the groundwork for a great mass transit system.  (Of course, that’s a little hard to do when the JTA folks don’t show up to their own public meetings.)  Otherwise, we’re potentially building our efforts on shifting sand – with one shot events that never have enough substance to result in a permanent or vibrant downtown.

In order to see where we want to go as a city, exercises like the recent Reality Check are certainly helpful to picture exactly how we would like Jacksonville to look.  However, in order for that vision to be successful we have to build the “regulatory” structure to ensure that we are encouraging the right development in the right place.  And that means we should examine the existing structure – the comprehensive plan, zoning code, subdivision regulations – and investigate new options such as urban growth boundaries and other measures that will discourage greenfield development and revitalize neighborhoods, protect open space, keep housing affordable, and provide more transportation choices.

Jacksonville is unique in its consolidated government, but that uniqueness has also caused us to have growth problems.  Other municipalities have boundaries within incorporated areas; our municipal boundary is the county line, giving lots more opportunities for sprawl than normally found in other cities.  While Jacksonville is more similar to Miami-Dade County, even Miami-Dade has numerous cities within the county boundaries. It also has an established urban growth boundary.

For many years, I-295 was Jacksonville’s defacto urban growth boundary.   Many developments sprang up, with the common joke being that the City rarely met a development it didn’t like.  Comprehensive plan amendments were passed out like candy treats.  Rezonings occurred in some cases with zoning signage laying down on the ground of the property to be rezoned, effectively eliminating input from potentially affected parties.   In  addition, transpostation concurrency funds paid by developers and intended to mitigate impacts to existing roads went missing from city accounts.  In some cases, roads or other improvements were not built ahead of the new or additional development, but rather waited until development was finished, if the improvements were built at all.  (See Council Auditor Report # 621.) Then in 2007, the Legislature passed HB 7203.  This legislation began a pilot project for several commuities, including Jacksonville, that allowed them to avoid state review for numerous development projects.  And so we find ourselves in the current situation – crowded streets, long commutes, and car-dependent.

This year, the Legislature passed what was supposed to be a glitch bill (SB 360) to fix some of the unintended consequences of previous growth management legislation.  However, the bill that passed will be of no help to Jacksonville’s growth management and mass transit advocates.

According to the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), although SB 360 was intended to direct growth into urban areas, its implementation will present significant isssues and challenges.  For example, the legislation eliminates transportation concurrency and the DRI process (the primary regulatory tools for mitigating local and regional transportation impacts of development) without providing for any alternative methods of addressing these impacts.  Eliminating these tools without putting anything in their place will weaken the state’s growth management process according to the DCA.

In addition, if SB 360 becomes law, Jacksonville, along with 200+ cities, will automatically become a transportation concurrency exception area shortly ater July 1, 2009.  The legislation does not provide any transition period for Jacksonville and the other cities to adopt local replacements to transportation concurrency.  According to DCA”s analysis, the abrupt termination of transportation concurrency is likely to cause confusion and controversy and generate litigation over the power of local governments to adopt replacements for transportation concurrency.  DCA states that already there have been suggestions that local governments may need to adopt moratoria to give time to adopt new regulations.   The lack of regulatory certainty and predictability may impede, rather than encourage, economic development.

The Act contemplates future adoption of a mobility fee to replace transportation concurrency, but there is no guarantee that the Legislature will adopt a mobility fee system.  DCA and the FL Department of Transportation are required to put together recommendations for a mobility fee system to be provided to the Legislature by December 2009. However, even if the Legislature should adopt a mobility fee system in 2010, implementation may take a year or two.

According to DCA, the Act also creates substantial new workloads for local governments and DCA without providing any new resources to accomplish the tasks.  As a transportation concurrency exemption area, Jacksonville is now required to adopt land use and transportation strategies within 2 years to support and fund mobility, including alternative modes of transportation, such as mass transit.  Additionally, other local governments are authorized to adopt urban service boundary amendments that would also trigger these same requirements.  This could be a very expensive and onerous task – yet no financial support or new revenue sources have been provided to undertake this planning.

Further, until December 2011, local government commitments to provide potable water, wastewater, drainage, parks, solid waste, and public schools will not be subject to a demonstration that improvements adequate to achieve and maintain level of service standards will be supported by committed funding in the first 3 years of the capital improvement schedule.  This is critical for water supply, where the Legislature has mandated that the water management districts and local governments adopt 20 year and 10 year, respectively, water supply work plans, the first 5 years of which must be in the capital improvement schedule.

Finally, the legislation may create a stampede of plan amendments to take advantage of relaxed planning requirements.  DCA reports that it has already experienced an increase in the volume and geographic scale of future land use map amendments over the past two years.  DCA speculates that some of these increases may have been due to increased concerns over the Hometown Democracy constitutional amendment which may be on the ballot in 2010.

Numerous local governments, growth management advocates, newspaper editorial boards, and now CFO Alex Sink, have called for Governor Crist to veto the bill.  In addition, in a recent Jacksonville Business Journal poll, voters were 2 to 1 against relaxing growth management laws.   Governor Crist has yet to show which way he’s leaning, but with the deadline for gubernatorial action fast approaching (June 2nd), rumors have abounded that Crist may allow the legislation to become law without his signature.  If SB 360 does become law, Jacksonville potentially could be without a meaningful growth management regulatory structure for up to three years.

As Adam Smith, a reporter for the St Pete Times, recently tweeted: If Crist signs a growth management bill panned by all enviros and editorial boards – groups he cares about – should we assume his motivation is strictly donors?

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , , , ,

A Transparent Florida on the Way

Some good news for Florida’s citizenry:  on Wednesday, Governor Crist signed the Transparency Florida Act into law – making it easier for citizens to track state spending down to state workers’ cell phones and agency cable television charges. The legislation requires the Governor’s Office to create a website that provides information on every appropriation found in the General Appropriation Act for each branch of state government and state agency. At a minimum, the data must include expenditures, appropriations adjustments, the status of spending authority for each appropriation, and position and rate information on state employees (but not their names).  

The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee will oversee the website and will propose additional phases of information to be made available. The committee will provide a proposal by March 1, 2010, to be submitted to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, that will include a schedule of additional phases of information by the type of information to be provided for specific governmental entities, including local government units, community colleges, state universities and other government entities that receive state appropriations.

The first installment of expenditure information will likely be available to taxpayer scrutiny by July of this year.  While the Transparency Forida Act is not necessarily everything one could want in terms of level of detail (the required information for now is restricted to information currently available in the financial management system and for expenditure information extends to the name of the payee, the date of the expenditure, the amount of the expenditure and the statewide document number), it certainly is a big step in the right direction.

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

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