Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

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.

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JTA Stepping into Sign Ordinance/1st Amendment Buzzsaw

I wonder if Mike Miller, JTA spokesperson, has a death wish or is just into masochism. He, and JTA, are back – attempting to get City Council to pass exemptions from the sign ordinance for ads in transit shelters – a continuation of an ongoing JTA campaign covering at least 4 years and now 2 separate legislative efforts. 

Let’s go back in time to 2005 and the beginning of JTA’s first campaign push for bus shelter ads – a controversial proposal from the very beginning of its introduction by Councilman Art Shad.  JTA’s pitch went something like this: Establish public-private partnerships wherein private companies would build bus shelters and maintain them and their company ad would be placed on or in the bus shelter in return – just as long as it didn’t advertise certain subject matters. 

Proponents of the legislation argued that allowing bus shelter ads and these public-private partnerships would result in more bus shelters being built and more people riding the bus.  Interestingly, the Times Union happily jumped in and ran numerous editorials supporting Shad’s proposed legislation.  As it turned out, the Times Union’s parent company, Morris Communications, also happened to own (and still does to this day) Fairway Outdoor Advertising – an outdoor advertising/billboard company – jading the public’s view of the newspaper’s objectivity in  its calls for passage of the legislation. 

Opponents of the legislation argued that bus shelter ads where nothing more than billboards disguised as a bus shelter.    Former councilwoman Suzanne Jenkins argued that allowing ads on bus shelters would undermine sign regulations aimed at at fighting “visual pollution” and halting the spread of signs across Jacksonville.  (The sign ordinance had been promoted and passed as a citizen initiative in 1987 in response to a 1985 Jacksonville Community Council, Inc. study on visual pollution recommending the elimination of bus bench advertising throughout the City.) 

In addition, opponents of the proposed legislation clearly pointed out to City Council that the City couldn’t restrict the subject of any bus shelter ads due to constitutional free speech concerns.  Joining in along the way to support former Councilwoman Jenkins were some of the architects of the City’s sign ordinance and its strongest supporters: names still recognizable as major players today – Bill Brinton and Bill Scheu – along with two current City Council members – John Crescimbeni and Denise Lee. 

True to expectations, Shad’s proposal hit several snags.  Just as it was to be voted on in February 2006, Shad pulled the bill from the City Council agenda after a meeting with opponents.  Although things appeared to be smoothed over with opponents after that, the bill’s troubles were definitely not over.  In August 2007, the Planning Commission also opposed the proposal and recommended denial of the legislation.  City Council once again asked for additional time to consider the proposal.

Fast forward to 2009, now.  On April 29th, the 2005 bus shelter ad legislation was administratively withdrawn from City Council, and just two short weeks later, 2 new proposals were introduced.  On May 12th, Councilpersons Jones, Joost, and Johnson introduced legislation that provides an exemption from the sign ordinance for ads in transit shelters and restricts the subject matter of the ads (closely tracking the original 2005 legislative proposal). On that same date, Councilman Crescimbeni also introduced a bill; but Crescimbeni’s bill proposes to prohibit ads in transit shelters.

Enter one Mike Miller, JTA spokesperson and apparent masochist, on the scene once again. In a recent Jax Daily Record article, Miller pointed to a 9th circuit court of appeals decision saying that the situation for bus shelter ads had changed because of that decision.  According to Miller, the court decision stated that ads in bus shelters were permissible, especially if those shelters were for a public purpose.  I’m not sure what definition of “permissible” Miller is using, but my dictionary defines permissible as “capable of being allowed” – not required  to be allowed, so I’m not really sure exactly what the court decision changes.   Of course, I’m no lawyer, but then neither is Miller, so I guess that means our opinions stand on equal footing –  on this issue at least. 

Miller was further quoted in the Jax Daily Record article as saying that some potential ad subjects would be taboo if the exemption to the sign ordinance were passed.  Specifically, “alcohol, tobacco, firearms, gambling, political ads, anti-abortion, pro-choice and religion are among the topics banned.”   Even though I am no lawyer,  I recognize that under the First Amendment we all have the right of free speech and that right hasn’t changed since 2005 when it was originally pointed out that the City couldn’t restrict the subject matter of any bus shelter ads.  Of course that right to free speech does come with some restrictions.  For example, you don’t have the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.  But  certainly ads for alcohol, tobacco, firearms, etc.  on bus shelters could not be restricted – at least not without a potential court fight. 

So, if in renewing their efforts to get public-private partnerships with bus shelter ads in place, Miller and JTA are looking for another fight over the City’s sign ordinance and advertisers’ First Amendment rights, I believe they may have just found themselves one.  A public hearing on Jones, Joost, and Johnson’s proposal is scheduled for the next LUZ committee meeting on June 2nd and an additional City Council hearing has been scheduled for June 9th.

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What’s In a Name?

The City is proposing to change the name of the Animal Care and Control Division.   A bill (2009-428) will be introduced to City Council on Tuesday, May 26th, to rename the division to Animal Care & Protective Services.  If you recall, the division was slammed in a report issued back in January. Let’s hope the new name signals a positive change.

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The First Trail Ridge Hearing

There was a lot of information to digest in yesterday’s City Council Committee of the Whole Hearing in regards to the proposed Waste Management contract to run the Trail Ridge Landfill.  In the end, however, it does not appear as if any minds on the City Council were swayed.  

The debate was dominated by coordinated efforts on both sides, leaving scant time at the end for “regular people” to voice their thoughts on the matter.  By the time “regular people” approached the podium, many of the Council members had already left.  There were fresh charges of contract violations, SEC violations and lack of transparency in City Hall decisions.  There were fireworks, most notably when Councilman Daniel Davis suggested swearing in Republic Services’ lawyer on the spot and asking them to bid for the contract during the meeting, something [the swearing in] that was not requested of the Mayor’s staff.  Councilwoman Denise Lee seized on that suggestion and others to turn it in to a rather lively meeting. Read the rest of this entry »

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Dates Set for Controversial Landfill Hearings

According to  Flog, the Jacksonville City Council has now set the dates for the Trail Ridge Landfill hearings.  The hearings will be before the Committee of the Whole, which will include all 19 of the Council members, at which the Committee will discuss and hear public comment on April 9 (Thursday) at 2pm and on April 23 (Thursday) at 4pm.  Pending their decision, the legislation would then go before the full Council.

The Council had been waiting to hear the recommendation of their Auditor, Kirk Sherman.  As we reported, Mr. Sherman released his report which called for the contract to be bid out.  The moment of truth, as they say, is now fast approaching as the Council will be forced to choose between following the advice of their own Auditor or allowing themselves to be steamrolled by the Mayor who negotiated a contract without bothering to seek their input.

For those unable to make a 2pm or 4pm meeting, their input is no less crucial than those who will be there in person to speak.  Vist our “Government Contacts” page to find the contact information for your Council Members.  (Remember that, in addition to your District Council Member, you are represented by all five At-Large Members.)

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Nobody Can Read the State’s Budget

From the Orlando Sentinel:

Sen. Carey Baker said he met with the Senate’s budget chief, J.D. Alexander, this morning [Monday] to plot an ambitious goal: put Florida’s budget on the Internet in an easy-to-read format, down to every penny the state spends.

“That would give you — and everyone else — the same access as our staff,” said Baker, R-Eustis, who added the state’s $65 billion budget is unreadable in its current bill form. “You can’t do it individually. There’s just too much data.”

The online budget would list all of the state’s expenses — down to office rent to cell phone bills for state employees to airfares for executives, Baker said. Staff members say it could be up and running by July, Baker said, but the logistics seem daunting.

“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to need everyone on board,” he said.

Senator Baker is the Chair of the Senate’s General Government Appropriations Committee, so if anyone has heard complaints about the State budget format, I’m sure it’s been him.  

IMO, transparency like that is a great idea. 

And while we’re at it, let’s put the City’s budget on line like that as well. 

How about it, City Council?

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

Mayor digging in his heels on Waste Management no-bid contract

I just finished reading the latest developments in the Waste Management no-bid contract to operate the City’s Trail Ridge Landfill on the TU tonight.  Three – count them, three – companies have now come forward and want to bid on the Trail Ridge Landfill contract in a fair contest with Waste Management (and their negotiated no-bid contract) using the City’s bid process as required by the City’s ordinance code. 

And what does the Administration do?  They spout off garbage rates supposedly from other areas with absolutely no back up facts mentioned in the article, so you can’t even tell if they are making a fair comparison. 

And then, they have the chutzpah to say that anybody who wants to bid on the landfill needs to demontrate that they will be cheaper if they assume all the same liabilities and responsibilites that Waste Management has agreed to, even though the companies have already committed to doing  just that.  Ummmm, Mr. Mayor and Mr. Hollingsworth, isn’t that exactly what the City Ordinance requires be done in the bid process? 

To add insult to injury, Mr. Hollingsworth boldly states that  the companies who want to bid “must be willing to back the city if Waste Management files and wins a lawsuit.  “The real question is, are these opponents to this deal willing to pay those lawsuit damages in the event the city loses in court?” he said. ”

Funny,  I don’t see him making that same demand of Waste Management. 

Wouldn’t  the Mayor’s Office demands be more plausible and fairer if they also required that Waste Management meet those same conditions?  Shouldn’t Waste Management also be willing to back the City and pay the lawsuit damages, if the companies that want to bid file lawsuits and the City loses in Court?

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And now another word from our sponsor – Trail Ridge Landfill

Lots of questions remain to be answered on the Trail Ridge Landfill issue.

One interesting little find I came across regarding the Trail Ridge Landfill –  it seems the City’s Ordinance Code has some very interesting requirements in Chapter 656.  Specifically, the disposal area or footprint for any Class I sanitary landfill must be at least eight miles from the disposal area or footprint of any operational or fully permitted Class I sanitary landfill, which is fully permitted, under construction or operational or which has received a certificate of public convenience and necessity under Chapter 380, Ordinance Code, for the operation of a Class I sanitary landfill.

So let’s see, the footprint of the existing Trail Ridge Landfill is  144 acres according to the City’s original position.  And according to the TU article, the City wants to build Phase I of the landfill expansion right next to the current footprint.  Is that going to meet the 8 mile distance requirement in the City Ordinance Code?  But, if  the original footprint of the landfill was the entire site as Waste Management has argued, then wouldn’t they have to go at least 8 miles away from those 978 acres to build a landfill?  I wonder if someone may have to apply for an exception to the Ordinance Code in either case?

I wonder if the 500 acres the City purchased in January 2009 from ICI Villages for expansion of the landfill is still zoned agriculture? It was nothing but timberland when ICI Villages bought it in 2006.   And I don’t think they had done anything to it before they sold it to the City under threat of eminent domain.  I wonder if someone may have to request a rezoning of this newly acquired land to change it to PBF – now that it’s going to become part of a Public Buildings and Facility zoned site?

You know, there are several interested bidders and lots of angry citizens out there who are not in favor of the no-bid contract.  Could defending a lawsuit for awarding the contract to Waste Management without putting it out to bid be just the start of the City’s legal woes over the Trail Ridge Landfill?

Giving someone a 35 year contract and having them agree to take on all of the liabilities for the operations, closure, and post-closure requirements is akin to essentially selling the landfill property and its operations. That raises another question.  If it’s akin to selling the landfill property and its operations, why doesn’t the City just sell the landfill property and its operations to the highest bidder, making a deal as to the rate the City will pay for it’s trash for the life of the landfill (or adjust the purchase price so the City doesn’t have to pay anything), and then have the new owner pay property taxes on the 978 acre property valued at just under $2 million? 

Wouldn’t that be a better deal?

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

SMG: A study in no-bid contracts

With all the hoopla being raised over Mayor Peyton’s efforts to convince City Council members to waive City ordinances and award a 35-year $750 million contract to Waste Management Inc to operate the city’s landfill, I thought it might be interesting to look at one of the city’s other vendors.  As I mentioned the other day in my post about the dire state of the city’s finances,  SMG manages all of the city’s major venues—the Arena, the Stadium, the Baseball Park, the Performing Arts Center, the Convention Center and the Equestrian Center.  As the Council Auditor’s most recent review of the city’s finances noted, these venues aren’t exactly prospering.  In fact, the report expressed grave concerns over the abilities of these individual venues to meet their current obligations.  

So, why are these venues struggling?  Are they managed properly?  Did SMG bring the strongest bid to the table when they were awarded the contract and are they the best entity to manage these facilities?

These are questions we may never know.

The SMG contract was awarded as if it were a sole source contract.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Council Auditor Very Concerned About City’s Finances

The Council Auditor is out with a summary of the City’s finances for the most recent quarter (it’s Report #661)—December 31, 2009.  The picture isn’t pretty.  While the general fund has a projected favorable variance (the City’s Finance Director states that it’s $4 million while the Auditor states that he views it as $10.3 million), the overall outlook for many of the Sub-funds is quite troubling.  In fact, the list is so extensive it’s hard to know exactly where to begin.

For starters, the Clerk of Court is projected to have a negative variance of $651,661.  This is directly traceable to declining recording fees because of the current real estate slowdown.

The Building Inspections Sub-fund is facing a negative projected variance of $1,956,241.  This is primarily due to a dramatic decrease in revenues—down nearly $3,000,000 from what was budgeted.  In Fiscal Year 2007/2008, the City used a transfer from Fund Balance of nearly $3.6 million dollars to balance this fund.  However, there was only $1.8 million appropriated this year to balance the fund, meaning that the City will need to increase revenue or dramatically cut expenses to balance out this fund.  Of course, this is also traceable to the slowdown in the construction industry.

Perhaps the most troubling news; however, comes from the city venues managed by SMG.  The language under each of these sub-funds is quite repetitive, and that’s not a positive thing.  For starters, Memorial Arena… Read the rest of this entry »

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