In a sense, Jacksonville is the cradle of Republicanism.
The city has a politically active Republican mayor.
The City Council: majority Republican.
Republican Governor. Republican Legislature.
What could go wrong? How about the imminent end of the economic boom?
Look at what’s happening to CSX.
Hunter Harrison, 72, was brought in to run the operation, imposing a “Logan’s Run” management style, in which those with real experience were shown the door.
Sure, the company was top-heavy. But the reality is a lot of people are losing a lot of good jobs.
Where will they find new ones?
The job creation events, a staple of the early part of Mayor Lenny Curry’s term, have dried up — a function of corporate unease over imperiled Enterprise Florida.
Their attitude: “if you lack the money, honey, we lack the time.”
Pension reform is a big story — and we’re covering it a few stories below the lede.
But there is an irony that in a city and a state where Republicans maintain control over all levers of power that economic development (flawed though it may be) is even up for discussion.
Lenny Curry, Rick Scott tag team for incentive push
In Jacksonville Wednesday for a “military roundtable” messaging on behalf of Enterprise Florida, Gov. Rick Scott and Mayor Curry said all the right things.
Scott lit up local legislators, like Jason Fischer and quasi-local ones, like Palm Coast’s Paul Renner, for voting against incentives.
But Scott didn’t serve up the fiery rhetoric he did when in Jacksonville earlier in the month.
“Along with keeping Enterprise Florida alive, we need to keep the Florida Defense Alliance,” Scott said. “We’ve got some House members who already voted to eliminate the Florida Defense Alliance.”
Bean called it a “happy visit.”
Bradley, lauding the governor’s “underrated sense of humor,” said substantive issues, from EFI and Visit Florida to medical marijuana to water, were discussed — as was the “absurdity of the political process.”
Seal of approval
Though Gov. Scott appreciated Mayor Curry stopping in to help sell the doomed “Trumpcare” plan — which didn’t even get a House vote — the fact is the effort failed as we wrote last week.
It wasn’t Curry’s fault, or Scott’s fault: they weren’t buttonholing the Freedom Caucus or the Tuesday group. They featured in a last-minute pitch for the plan — on Curry’s turf — and Team Trump couldn’t sell it.
Curry, of course, is a party guy. Scott is looking toward Bill Nelson’s Senate seat. And sure, Florida voters have the long-term memory of fruit flies.
But this one hurt Florida — and Jacksonville — as a place the administration can sell initiatives.
The VP decided to make his stand here, giving Rutherford a platform because neighboring Ted Yoho and Ron DeSantis weren’t feeling this bill. The governor came in and got his moment in the spotlight. And Mayor Curry made the stop before going on spring break.
And all of it added up to nothing. Even Ted Yoho and Ron DeSantis, who were supposed to be pressured by the Pence push, were unmoved.
In Jacksonville Wednesday, neither Curry nor Scott demonstrated regret over the failed push, despite evidence of a Trump pivot.
“The message was ‘repeal Obamacare.’ The message remains to those Republicans in Washington: ‘repeal Obamacare,’” Curry said.
“I’ve spent a good amount of time with President Trump. I know he listens. And my hope is that we can come up with something that all Americans can embrace,” Scott added.
Water issues, near and far
Coverage over the last week has focused on regional water issues — and with good reason, as Mark Woods and A.G. Gancarski contend.
In the Florida Times-Union, Woods describes how “Old Florida” once looked: “Miles and miles of ‘perfect beauty,’ of a grand forest of cypress robed in moss and mistletoe, of cypress knees looking like champagne bottles set in the current to cool, of palms and palmettos, of gleaming water and grinning alligators.”
Jacksonville, Woods observes, isn’t like that anymore. And neither is much of North Florida, including the Keystone Lakes, as Gancarski reported for FloridaPolitics.com.
“Decades back, Lake Geneva was full — kids swam in the water that used to be underneath the raised pavilion. Out on the lake, water skiing contests and other events supported local businesses and brought tourists from miles around to this corner of Old Florida,” Gancarski wrote.
Now the lakes are drying up. Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Bobby Payne are carrying a bill to allocate $35M of Amendment 1 money for North Florida water needs, with the Clay delegation members’ priority being to restore those lakes via pumping in water from flood-prone Black Creek.
It will help to restore the aquifer, the legislators claim.
The bill is further along in the Senate than in the House. But for the sake of the Keystone Lakes, it needs to be signed into law this year.
Pension bills filed in Council
Back in January 2016, Lenny Curry’s pension reform plan (close the current defined benefit plans and cap that $2.8B unfunded liability, extend the ½ cent local sales tax to pay for them, and lock new city hires into defined contribution plans) seemed like the heaviest of lifts.
However, the Curry administration went into Charles Atlas mode, getting Tallahassee’s OK, getting 65 percent on a referendum OKing the tax extension, and negotiating generous DC plans with the unions.
And they stiff-armed their old nemeses at the Police and Fire Pension Fund board in the bargain, saying that the PFPF had no say so in this going forward.
Now? The final step is approval from the Jacksonville City Council.
Three bills to watch
Bill 2017-257 would, if passed by the council, levy the half-cent discretionary sales tax approved by voters via referendum in August.
Bill 2017-258 affects the general employees and correctional worker plans; 2017-259 implements revisions to the Police and Fire & Rescue plans, closing extant defined benefit plans to those hired after Oct. 1, 2017. It commits the city to a 12 percent contribution for those general employees and a 25 percent contribution for correctional and public safety officers hired after October.
Councilman Bill Gulliford, a principal architect of the 2015 pension reform plan, spoke positively.
“The direction we’re going in is the right way to go,” Gulliford said, especially considering that “there are not a lot of alternatives.”
Gulliford has not seen the financial projection, but he believes “the numbers will support the proposal.”
The first date to watch: April 6, when the council will spend four hours hearing about the financial projections for the plan — data which the Curry administration has kept under wraps thus far.
Journey to 55
Here’s to your health, Duval County. You need all the help you can get.
Duval County is down seven points in the state’s yearly health rankings, from 48 to 55.
Bad optics for Mayor Lenny Curry, who put Duval on a “journey to one” last year.
“Duval County ranked 49th in length of life, 54th in quality of life, 36th in health behaviors, 10th in clinical care, 35th in social and economic factors and 58th in physical environment (physical environment looks at air pollution levels, drinking water violations, housing issues and commute times),” reports the Florida Times-Union.
St. Johns County, of course, has that No. 1 spot — and advantages which include a lack of the problems big cities face, a lack of legacy costs and industry, and a wealthier commuter population.
Vitti does Detroit
Detroit is known for many things: techno music, mass production of cars, and Motown.
Soon, the local school district may also be known for poaching Duval County’s School Superintendent, Nikolai Vitti.
Vitti, widely seen as the front-runner in the two-man race, has Detroit “in his DNA.”
The often-controversial super went back to the Motor City Wednesday to interview for that district’s top job.
“I will not lead from my office. I will lead in schools, with the staff and the community,” Vitti said in Detroit — an accurate depiction of his work in Jacksonville.
More ironic, though, was his call for continuity.
“I think one of the tragedies, as far as the history of public schools in Detroit, has been an instability of leadership and constant changes so every leader wants to put their own fingerprint on a body of work and that means disrupting the previous leader’s work,” Vitti said.
The same could be said about Duval County — the district he would leave.
Some have suggested Clay County Superintendent Addison Davis replace Vitti.
Davis, Vitti’s former right-hand man, was elected in Clay last year. If he left the job, he’d leave Clay in the lurch.
But that would be Clay’s problem. Not Vitti’s, or Duval’s.
Spies Like Us
Jacksonville is a neighborly town, where someone is always watching over you. It is especially true if you were a protester of recent vintage, WJXT reported this week (piggybacking on a Times-Union report).
The issue: a JSO contract with “Geofeedia,” a company which keyword tracked social media phrases like #BlackLivesMatter … though, in what had to have been an oversight, not #AllLivesMatter.
Geofeedia was cut off from social media platforms this year after the American Civil Liberties Union balked at the data-harvesting.
JSO’s Geofeedia deal lapsed; however, those at protest events had better be ready for the spotlight, as rallies are recorded.
“You never know what is going to happen,” is the rationale for that.
Unconventional convention center
Jacksonville’s Prime Osborn Convention Center is heavily booked these days, reports the Florida Times-Union.
For trade shows, though, rather than conventions.
And for those advocating that Jacksonville build a new convention center — a contention made by many stakeholders over the years, one crystallized in Mayor Curry’s transition team recommendations in 2015 — millions of dollars are at stake.
Council President Lori Boyer contends “in terms of the size of the facility and of the amenities offered in the facility compared to what larger and newer convention centers elsewhere offer, we’re certainly at a disadvantage.”
However, Boyer and others agree that a convention center has to come with other upgrades: more hotels, being closer to the action, a revitalized entertainment district.
Can Jacksonville make up for decades lost to places like Orlando and San Diego regarding chasing conventioneers? That very much is an open question.
JIA CRA sunset
Community Redevelopment Agencies, or CRAs, are under fire in Tallahassee and Jacksonville both, as we reported Wednesday.
On the state level, a bill is moving through the House to end them … but appears to be stalled out in the Senate.
Locally, one CRA — that of the Jacksonville International Airport — has been recommended for sunset in 2019 by its trustees.
While they claim that the CRA accomplished its goals of blight reduction, councilors are pushing back, saying that there is plenty of real blight in the area that was not addressed
In fact, the “blight” the JIA CRA addressed mainly involved replacing trees with the River City Marketplace, a shopping center which has helped to put Dunn Avenue and Gateway Mall on life support.
The disconnect between the CRA board and the councilors speaks to a fundamental lack of communication as to what the CRA was supposed to do.
Ironically, that only helps to make the case that thus far has been more persuasive in the House than in the Senate.
Down with LNG?
Liquefied Natural Gas, or LNG, is a big part of the region’s energy strategy — with evidence of that surfacing last week by two 260-ton storage tanks housed at JAXPORT.
“The tanks — each one-half the length of a football field — are each able to hold 100 million liters of LNG fuel, which means enough for 14 days of travel — two round trips to Puerto Rico,” reports WJXT.
Crowley Maritime has dropped $500M into the technology, about which one corporate rep said Jacksonville was “leading the world.”
Flagler residents tell Paul Renner they want home rule on vacation rentals
A standing-room-only crowd packed into the Hammock Community Center last weekend to tell Republican Rep. Renner that they don’t like the vacation rental bills moving through the Florida Legislature this year.
Hammock residents said they don’t like companies such as Airbnb coming into their neighborhoods to rent single-family homes to vacationers, and they say the argument that vacation rental companies are keeping cash-strapped homeowners from facing foreclosure is baloney.
“There’s really absolutely no truth in the fact that these are struggling people trying to keep their house. These are investors who are preying on us, ruining our community,” one homeowner said to applause.
Renner seemed responsive to his constituents’ pleas at the town hall, whereas the area’s senator, Travis Hutson, hasn’t been.
Renner said he’d vote no on HB 425 when it comes up in committee this week, and that he’ll vote against it if it reaches the floor. Hutson, who was not at the town hall, hasn’t made his opinion known on the bill, which would curb local control measures on vacation rentals that he pushed through the Legislature in 2014.
A word with Marty Fiorentino
The president of The Fiorentino Group in Jacksonville, spent the past few weeks shuttling back-and-forth to Washington, D.C. to help Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, a longtime friend, get things up and running at the federal agency. A transportation expert in his own regard, we caught up with Fiorentino to talk about his relationship with Chao and transportation issues on the horizon.
FP: Tell me a little bit about your history with Secretary Chao.
MF: During the administration of President George H.W. Bush, I served as counselor to the Deputy Secretary of Transportation, who was Elaine Chao. After moving back to Florida, we remained friends over the years. She later became head of the Peace Corps, President of the United Way and Secretary of Labor for eight years under President George W. Bush. She was named Secretary of Transportation by President Trump. She asked me to come up to Washington to assist her as things got up and running at the Department of Transportation and I was honored to help.
FP: From an outsider’s perspective, the Cabinet confirmation process seemed to be tumultuous. As someone on the inside, what was it like working with Secretary Chao through the transition?
MF: Actually, Secretary Chao’s confirmation process was relatively uneventful. She is well-known by the Senate and has had a distinguished career of public service. In fact, she was one of the first cabinet members confirmed by the Senate.
FP: How do you think the Secretary will work to implement the president’s campaign promise for massive infrastructure spending?
MF: The president has made infrastructure funding one of his highest priorities. An interagency group has been established at the White House led by the National Economic Council to develop a national infrastructure plan. Transportation issues cut across numerous departments and involve everything from pipelines and broadband to the energy grid, roads, bridges, ports, airports, permitting and public-private partnerships and finance. It involves Treasury, Energy, EPA, DOD, OMB, Interior, Commerce and, of course, USDOT. The Secretary has a working group that meets internally and weekly with the White House to develop this plan and DOT will have a big part in implementing it.
FP: As a Floridian, what infrastructure projects do you think should be a top priority for Secretary Chao and President Trump?
MF: Florida of course! Actually, the time it takes to permit transportation projects is a terrible economic burden and job killer. If we can shorten that process it will unlock a lot of economic prosperity and expedite long needed transportation projects that are under design and development. Governor Scott has been to Washington and Secretary Chao and I had lunch with him. He was a strong advocate for Florida’s highway, rail, port and airport projects. Personally, I think the Governor has been spot on with his early support of Florida’s seaports and willingness to put the state’s money behind them.
Jacksonville Zoo LEGO-themed Safari EGGscursion
Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens hosts Eggscursion, its annual spring event, April 15 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The theme of this year’s hunt will be a LEGO Egg Scavenger Hunt. Guests will crisscross the Zoo searching for hidden LEGO eggs throughout the park. Participants that register guesses with the correct number of eggs found will be eligible to win a Grand Prize! Also included are bounce houses, photo ops, games and crafts and goody bags on the Great Lawn. Eggscursion is free with Zoo admission.
Trailer Bridge boosts service from JAXPORT to Dominican Republic
Trailer Bridge, Inc., is now offering added service to the Dominican Republic from JAXPORT’s Blount Island Marine Terminal. The company will offer two sailings per week to Santo Domingo, in addition to its longtime weekly call from JAXPORT to Puerto Plata. The vessels also call San Juan, Puerto Rico during the twice-weekly rotation to Santo Domingo.
Trailer Bridge serves the Dominican Republic trade lane with larger, 53-foot containers which the company says significantly reduces per-unit cost over traditional 40-foot containers. Trailer Bridge has been serving the Caribbean market through JAXPORT for more than 25 years.