A.G. Gancarski, Author at Florida Politics

A.G. Gancarski

‘Bring him home’: Jacksonville remembers its missing adults

How long does it take to forget, when a loved one has gone missing?

Those who were on hand in the atrium of Jacksonville’s city hall on Friday morning can tell you.

The answer is indeterminate.

Grieving parents and loved ones were there for one of the more emotionally wrenching events on the city calendar – the Florida Missing Adults’ Day, hosted by the John Rowan Jr. Foundation and the Justice Coalition.

The slogan of the event – “missing, not forgotten” – is a great reminder.

Whether a person went missing in 2015, 2000, or 1982, the search continues.

There is no closure.

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Luckily for most who go missing, and for their families, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has a good clearance rate for adults that go missing.

In 2016, all but four of a total of 823 missing adults were found in Duval County, adding up to a 99.5 percent clearance rate.

Some cases, of course, are more difficult to clear than others – and a recent example of a case of a missing infant who became a missing adult before she was found illustrates the process.

Kamiyah Mobley, located in South Carolina’s Lowcountry recently, was abducted from a local hospital just after she was born.

Almost two decades later, Mobley was found.

The search was exhaustive.

Undersheriff Pat Ivey noted that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office had followed up on 2500 leads over the past 18 years.

“By the grace of God,” Ivey said, Mobley was reunited with her birth mother.

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Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, focused on public safety throughout his time in office, spoke by way of issuing a proclamation.

“I can’t imagine what you are going through … have gone through,” Curry said, before giving yellow roses of remembrance to those still searching

Indeed, for those who have not been through the specific hell of waiting and hoping, of knowing part of one’s heart is gone and knowing there is no fix and scant likelihood of a resolution – much less a good one – it is hard to imagine.

The raw emotion of the event was unmistakable.

Never more evident was it than when John Rowan sang a song for his son who had disappeared 16 years prior, however.

The haunting refrain: “Bring him home, bring him home.”

The Irish tenor voice, with heartache piercing through the notes, echoing off of the cavernous walls of the city hall atrium.

John Rowan, Jr. was declared dead over a decade ago.

Yet his memory lives on. And so does hope, a quality every bit as ineffable and stubborn as faith itself.

Lenny Curry outlines Jacksonville’s legislative priorities, talks pension and Enterprise Florida

This is a pivotal time in Jacksonville’s city hall.

With complete turnover in the city’s delegation to Washington and opportunities created by the new President, majority turnover in the city’s representation in Tallahassee, a revolutionary pension deal currently being approved by the city’s unions, and the imperiled fate of Enterprise Florida, this is a make or break time for Mayor Lenny Curry.

He discussed all these topics with us – exclusively – on Friday.

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Expect more from D.C.: The mayor met with Rep. John Rutherford on Wednesday.

“We caught up … talked JAXPORT, public safety,” Curry said.

In addition to leaning on Rutherford, an ally of long standing, Curry also will take advantage of connections within the Donald Trump administration – including Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

“I’ve already got messages in to the Trump Administration. I’d like the federal government to be able to help us in some form in Jacksonville. I don’t know what that looks like yet. But we’re going to leverage every relationship we have to get help here with issues we’re facing, specifically on the public safety front, and the port is a huge issue,” Curry said.

Jacksonville is uniquely positioned in terms of the Trump administration. Ballard Partners employs Susie Wiles, a city hall veteran and a close ally and friend of Curry, and she will be doing work in the nation’s capital in addition to Jacksonville. And Marty Fiorentino is in Washington right now also, doing consulting for Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

The city contracts with both Ballard and Fiorentino on the state level.

“Certainly we have relationships [in D.C.],” Curry said. “I have direct relationships as well with Reince Priebus and others. We have an RFP [in process] regarding lobbying for the feds. Expect to see movement there.”

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Duval Delegation: There have been grumbles from inside city hall about the relative effectiveness of the Duval County Legislative Delegation.

Committee assignments: weak. Bills filed: often ancillary to city priorities. Leverage with leadership: dubious.

However, Mayor Curry was focused on what could be done.

Despite the relative paucity of appropriations requests on many key issues, Curry noted that he’d been “working with our delegation on priorities I’ve laid out. One of the big ones is septic tank removal. The city’s looking for a match – a big match. That is an issue that’s environmental … that will help us honor promises that were made pre-Consolidation.”

“I’m working with the delegation toward the priorities that I have, and I think we’ll work very successfully,” Curry said.

In a related note, Curry’s office announced Friday that the Florida Department of Transportation has committed $250,000 to a study of the Hart Bridge ramps.

Curry rolled out a potential $50 million ask to remove the antiquated ramps, which present public safety and aesthetic concerns, last year to the Duval Delegation.

Traffic would be routed on to Bay Street under the latest conceptual proposal for replacement, creating a direct route into the Sports Complex and a developing entertainment district close to the river.

That request got de-emphasized, however, and looks more likely to be done in a more gradual manner than the mayor’s office initially wanted.

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Pension Deal Will Save the City Money: Jacksonville’s Fraternal Order of Police overwhelmingly voted to approve the city’s pension offer on Thursday.

One union – the Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters – is left to approve the pact, which will offer raises to current employees and defined contribution plans to new hires.

Curry was reflective on the process.

“This has been a very long road, this pension reform. Yet we’ve traveled this road aggressively and in a short window. It hasn’t even been a year since the last legislative session,” Curry said.

In fact, the referendum passed less than six months ago – which kicked off the collective bargaining that appears to be reaching its conclusion.

“So we are close. The yes vote by the police membership [shows] they recognize that this is good for them, it’s good for taxpayers, and it’s good for the city of Jacksonville. We’re going to continue to work for the fire membership vote, and the Police and Fire Pension Fund vote, and then the city council vote – and then be done with this,” Curry said, noting that the proposal yokes two of his campaign priorities – public safety and budget discipline.

“When this pension reform is done and final,” Curry said, “our budgets will be responsible and they’ll allow us to fund the things that I said I’d focus on – the things that voters voted me into office on.”

Yet questions remain, still, about whether this plan saves money for the city

The actuarial projections used in 2016, when last released to the public, were predicated on 10 or 12 percent contributions from the city to the employee’s retirement, far short of the 25 percent in the current proposal.

Though the actuarial projections have not been released and likely won’t be for at least a bit longer, Curry contends the plan will save the city money on its public safety retirement plans.

“Right now we’re spending 119 percent of [salary] for [pension costs] for every JSO employee and fireman,” Curry said. “If we hired you today, we would take your salary and put 119 percent of that in the pension fund. That’s not sustainable.”

“25 percent is a fraction of 119 percent. It works. It will attract and retain people.”

“As to when the numbers will be made available,” Curry said, “City Council will have to vote on this, and all of these numbers will be laid out before them, which is how the budget process works.”

“The public will see them, the council will debate it, people will be able to make their opinions known at the time, and I think they’ll have a favorable opinion.”

The Police and Fire Pension Fund will also have the data needed to make a decision, Curry said, before the Mar. 15 deadline.

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Enterprise Florida: Slowly but surely, locals are compelled to take sides on the Enterprise Florida debate.

The JAX Chamber endorsed the concept Thursday. And on Friday, Mayor Curry offered insight as to why.

One issue that many in the Florida Legislature have not considered: for cities like Jacksonville, Enterprise Florida has offered meaningful benefit, as Curry told us.

“Let me speak specifically to Jacksonville and how we work here,” Curry said.

“We use incentives – local incentives and state incentives through Enterprise Florida – and we use them successfully,” Curry contended.

The city’s scorecard, which ensures ROI for taxpayers when incentives are offered, is designed to ensure an “inflow of tax dollars that exceeds that investment.”

“I would say that incentives are important to us. They’re used in a way that respects the taxpayers. Without the state funding,” Curry said, “we would have had trouble closing some of the big deals that we closed.”

“They’re talking about reforms over there [in Tallahassee],” Curry said. “I can tell you how we do business locally. We use our tax dollars in a way that’s responsible to taxpayers, and we’ve been able to use the state incentives the same way. I hope they can figure out a way to continue to give us the opportunity to have access to state incentives.”

Aaron Bowman makes second try for Jacksonville City Council VP

The race for Jacksonville City Council VP is heating up, as Aaron Bowman threw his hat into the ring this week.

Bowman had run in 2016, though questions were raised at the time about his run, such as whether or not he was running “too early” in his term, and how independent he would be from his day job at the JAX Chamberwhere Bowman is the VP of JAXUSA (which recruits businesses to come to town).

The councilman tells us that his decision to withdraw from consideration in 2016 came down to that race being the “last chance” for Doyle Carter to run.

The hope at the time: that he could come in behind Carter.

Carter, of course, did not win. But Bowman is still on schedule. And with two years of council experience, the former Mayport commander has his sea legs on the council dais.

As well, he is more of a known quantity now. Some of those who criticized his run last year, such as second-termers Jim Love and Matt Schellenberg, have become friends and allies.

Love co-sponsored the HRO expansion bill.

And Schellenberg?

“Matt and I have a close and tight relationship,” Bowman said. “And as far as HRO goes, that wasn’t the Chamber, that was Aaron Bowman.”

Bowman joins Scott Wilson in the race.

Wilson launched his run this week; like Bowman, he is a first-term Republican who supported HRO expansion (a condition which creates room in the race for a social conservative.

Expect this race to see more entrants and more intrigue in March.

The winner replaces John Crescimbeni as VP.

Crescimbeni, who is expected to make a play for the top job, won a contentious race in 2016, abetted by a supporter of his opponent flipping at the last minute.

Speaking of the presidency, Bowman would be interested down the road.

John Rutherford draws criticism in absentia at ‘constituent town hall’

Thursday afternoon saw a “constituent town hall” outside the Jacksonville district office of Rep. John Rutherford.

The event, which drew roughly 200 people at its peak, was organized days ago: a reaction to the congressman choosing to forego the kinds of town hall events seen in other GOP districts during this congressional recess, events where dissidence has been the watchword.

Rutherford was not there: he spent a big part of the day at NAS Jax, including attending the Change of Command Ceremony of Rear Admiral Mary Jackson and Rear Admiral Bette Bolivar at NAS Jax.

That said, staff did talk to some from the group, and Rutherford will read the written comments left behind by those who showed up Thursday.

Thursday’s event saw participants in various groups – Move On, Organizing for America, Indivisible, and the Women’s March – on hand, under the umbrella of Rebuild the Hope, to make their concerns known … although the congressman was not going to be there.

By the time the noon hour arrived, roughly 150 had assembled – counterpointed, as is the case as these events, by Gary Snow, a gentleman in his thirties who carries and uses props such as an oversized Donald Trump sign and a pre-amp to offer his responses to left-liberal events.

Snow made his presence felt throughout much of the event, getting his share of attention from the broadcast media, but his provocations didn’t result in any confrontations that were reportable.

Chants of “Where Is John” and “Do Your Job” were audible throughout the office-park parking lot, with attendees taking turns asking questions to an empty chair – a stand-in for the congressman, who was of course not there.

“If I had the authority, I’d fire him … and in two years, I will” – a rough paraphrase of the sentiments of one speaker.

A former employee of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, Letitia Smith Hodo, worked in corrections for 21 years (until 2012) and spoke to those assembled.

Her take: Rutherford was an adherent to the “good ol’ boy” system and wasn’t accessible to employees, especially corrections workers, as sheriff.

A young mother named Lindsay – she didn’t want to give her whole name – was one of the silent people on the periphery of the crowd.

She had a stroller at her feet and a toddler in her arms, but felt it was important to expose her children to a simple principle.

“If there are outcomes in this world we don’t agree with,” Lindsay said, “there are things we can change.”

On Facebook Thursday afternoon, Camille Leigh Tinnin – organizer of the event – noted that her group is “in this for the long haul.”

“Even though Congressman Rutherford did not show up,” Tinnin wrote, “our voices will be heard.”

Many people aired grievances and concerns over the hour the group was assembled, on issues ranging from health care to Russian influence on the President.

Whether they will impact Rutherford’s thinking is hard to say at this point; that said, the former sheriff enthusiastically stumped for President Trump as the general election approached, and locals are desirous of a better relationship with Trump than was the case with President Obama.

Jacksonville police union overwhelmingly approves pension deal

Jacksonville is another step closer to long-term peace with its labor unions, as the Fraternal Order of Police resoundingly voted to accept terms of the tentative pension deal on Thursday.

64.5 percent of officers, sergeants, and bailiffs voted for the deal.

81.4 percent of lieutenants and captains accepted terms.

A deal was agreed to on Feb. 11, bringing to a close months of protracted, theatrical negotiations.

The deal offers long-delayed raises to current employees (a 3 percent lump sum payout immediately, and a 20 percent raise for police and fire over three years) and gives all classes of current employees the same benefits.

As well, all police and fire officers will have DROP eligibility with an 8.4 percent annual rate of return and a 3 percent COLA.

The deal, if approved without modification, will bring labor peace through 2027 — though it can be renegotiated by the city or the unions at 3, 6, 9, and 10 years marks in the agreement.

For new employees, however, the plan is historic — a defined contribution plan that vests three years after the new employee for police and fire is hired.

That is one of the first DC plans for public safety employees in the country, and the trade off for the unions are terms that look rich in the private sector.

The total contribution: 35 percent, with the city ponying up 25 percent of that — and making guarantees that survivors’ benefits and disability benefits would be the same for new hires as the current force of safety officers.

The Police and Fire Pension Fund and the Jacksonville City Council have to approve the deal. The PFPF has qualms about the specifics of the deal, and have balked at a Mar. 15 deadline to accept it.

The mayor’s office has vowed to allay the PFPF’s concerns, and it’s hard to imagine the fund bucking the unions.

The city council, meanwhile, likely will move quickly on ratifying the deal.

That deadline is intended to facilitate budget forecasting for the city, a major concern for district council members with wish lists. And Mayor Curry played ball with them on the HRO issue, by not vetoing the bill and letting it become law immediately after passage — risking antipathy from much of his base in the bargain.

The city had rendered optimistic budget projections for a DC plan for new hires last year, but those were predicated on a 10 percent employer contribution.

Since collective bargaining is still ongoing, the city does not have to produce those projections until it wraps. But questions are being raised as to what the ultimate financial impact of pension reform will be on the city, as it struggles with a $2.8 billion unfunded pension liability.

Jax Chamber: Yes to Enterprise Florida

On Thursday, the Jacksonville Chamber sent a message of sorts to the Duval Legislative Delegation.

That message? Ensure that Enterprise Florida, and its job incentive programs, remains whole and functional.

“Jacksonville economic development leaders have worked closely with Enterprise Florida to bring thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in capital investment to our community.  Regardless of the size of your business, economic growth has a huge impact on our city,” said Daniel Davis, JAX Chamber CEO and President.

“Performance-based economic incentives are critical when we fight to bring new jobs to Jacksonville. We believe protecting hard-working taxpayers and improving the incentive process is critical for our state. We are committed to working with state leaders to reach a solution that allows us to remain competitive,” Davis added.

The Chamber’s position is deliberately timed, at the end of a week when Gov. Rick Scott has aggressively counter-messaged those in the Florida House who would scuttle Enterprise Florida.

It also illustrates unique pressures on conservative legislators from bigger cities.

Do they buck the Speaker? Or the Chamber?

The fight over economic incentives is finally, yet firmly, localized.

For Jacksonville leaders like Mayor Lenny Curry, job creation is central to the narrative — and the key to solving difficult quality of life quandaries.

We’ve reached out to the mayor for his take: does he stand with House Speaker Richard Corcoran? Or with local allies, like the Chamber, and Gov. Rick Scott?

Jacksonville ex-offender jobs bill gets deferred by council panel

A bill filed earlier this year in the Jacksonville City Council to ensure more job opportunities for ex-offenders got deferred in its third committee stop Thursday.

The Associated Builders and Contractors pushed back on the bill throughout the committee process, and council members fell in line, with increasing resistance in Wednesday’s committees leading to the pause on Thursday.

Councilman Garrett Dennis’ bill (2017-35) is intended to affirm requirements that companies doing business with the city of Jacksonville, via construction and remediation and related fields, hire ex-offenders that have gone through rehabilitation programs funded and authorized by the city.

The bill was originally intended to reinforce a local ordinance already on the books, requiring companies doing $200,000 or more of business with the city to commit to hiring ex-offenders who graduated from the city’s third-party service provider re-entry programs.

By the time the legislation made it to Finance on Thursday, it came yoked to a number of amendments that removed various reporting requirements and replaced them with a “sworn statement” that a contractor contacted an ex-offender program provider to see if there were any ex-offenders available for employment.

But those amendments were like a band aid on a bullet wound, seemingly calling attention to perceived flaws in the bill rather than fixing them.

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Dennis, in Finance, noted that the city is the “owner” in the contractual relationship, and can therefore set terms to “someone who wants to do business with the city.”

“If they do not want to do business with the city of Jacksonville, there’s plenty of other places they can do business,” Dennis said.

Councilman Bill Gulliford, a critic of the legislation in previous committee stops, restated his concerns about the “burden on the contractor.”

If the amount of bids are reduced, Gulliford said, the bids will be higher, thus raising costs for the city.

Gulliford advised that incentives for hiring contractors might be the better way to go.

“Let’s throw out the procurement code. Let’s just have the wild, wild west for contractors,” Dennis said, frustrated by the pushback on his bill.

The pushback continued, followed by the deferral motion.

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Councilman Matt Schellenberg moved for deferral, and Gulliford seconded it quickly.

“It clearly is not ready,” Schellenberg said, advising a noticed meeting to work out myriad glitches in the bill.

“I don’t like the bill. I don’t like the amendment. We are overreaching … burdening people with just $200,000 worth of business,” Schellenberg noted.

Councilman Aaron Bowman, “reading the tea leaves,” was pessimistic about the bill’s ability to pass in light of pervasive “confusion” on the legislation.

Councilwoman Brown likewise backed deferral.

“It’s not that I’m not supporting the bill,” Brown said, “I just want to make sure everyone’s concerns are answered.”

Public notice meetings to discuss this bill are pending.

Hurricane Matthew had $53M impact on Jacksonville city coffers

In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, estimates were that the storm could have inflicted as much as $100 million in financial impact to Jacksonville’s treasury.

However, asserts the latest auditor report from the Jacksonville City Council (discussed in the Finance Committee Thursday morning), things weren’t as bad as initially feared.

“The Finance Director’s report projects the financial impact of Hurricane Matthew will be approximately $53.0 million. As of December 31, 2016, the City incurred expenditures of $22.3 million related to Hurricane Matthew,” the report asserts.

The money is sitting in a special revenue fund. The other $30M + will go to repairing the pier and the dunes, and insurance reimbursements will go to that fund also, said Angela Moyer from the mayor’s budget office.

“It is important to note that only 87.5% of the total allowable expenses are subject to reimbursement, leaving the City to fund the remainder. This could result in an estimated $6.625 million negative impact to the GF/GSD that is not included in the first quarter projections,” the report adds.

Notable: the city of Jacksonville had a good budget year last year, and the city council’s finance committee pushed recently to boost the emergency reserve fund to 6 percent of the general fund. The city’s part of the financial hit can be absorbed, as it looks now.

Other highlights of the auditor’s report:

— More evidence of a surfeit of public safety workers was provided, with a total of $8.6 million in overtime costs at the end of 2016 between the police and the fire & rescue departments.

In the Finance Committee Thursday, Council Auditor Kirk Sherman confirmed that phasing in replacements for vacancies created the overtime hit.

Regarding the fire department, Councilman Matt Schellenberg said “there are plenty of applicants, but the diversity is not there.”

“I understand there’s plenty of people for the class,” Schellenberg continued, “but diversity is an issue.”

Attrition and retirement/DROP have created issues throughout public safety, and because of the training of classes taking months, these problems won’t be resolved soon.

Jax City Councilwoman’s business hit with yet another foreclosure suit

Hours before the Thursday morning meeting of the Jacksonville City Council Finance Committee, we can report that a member’s business faces a foreclosure suit.

CoWealth LLC, the family business of Jacksonville City Councilwoman Katrina Brown, was named Tuesday as a co-defendant in a foreclosure suit filed by BizCapital of New Orleans.

Other co-defendants include two more Brown family businesses, Basic Products and KJB Specialties, along with Jerome BrownJoAnn Brown, the city of Jacksonville, the State of Florida, and FirstSun Lenders.

The Browns’ business troubles have been reported on by this outlet with a numbing regularity of late, as cash flow problems and leveraged out borrowing have led to what appears to be a state of perpetual arrears and debt delinquency.

The irony: though even one financial issue like this would disqualify someone from even a cubicle job in the financial services industry, Councilwoman Brown continues to participate in decision making regarding the city’s finances, both on the Finance Committee and the council at large.

The latest property being foreclosed upon, according to the Lis Pendens notice, is bordered by Ellis, Broadway, and Commonwealth Avenue on the Westside.

This property corresponds with the Browns’ barbeque sauce plant (5638 Commonwealth Ave.), which is currently listed at $1.3 million — down from $1.5 million months ago, indicating a motivated seller. That asking price is less than half of Biz Capital’s claim: $2.772M is what they claim is owed.

(As well, a second property (1436 Bassett Road) is listed in the latest Lis Pendens also. Jerome Brown has not paid property taxes on that since 2013, continuing a long recent history of the Browns not paying property and sales taxes in a timely manner.)

CoWealth originally borrowed $2.65 million from Biz Capital, in addition to $380,000 from the city. The city’s interest is subordinate to that of Biz Capital.

The Browns, via shell companies, received in 2011 an economic incentive package of $640,000 in loans and grants from the city of Jacksonville to create 56 jobs in the plant.

No jobs were created, however, and Jacksonville filed suit two weeks ago against CoWealth for $210,000, as a clawback for failed job creation.

Councilwoman Brown is a registered managing member of CoWealth, though that can change at any time, if the recent history of the Browns’ businesses means anything.

Two days ago, we reported on the aforementioned KJB Specialties being sued in a foreclosure action on a building at 1551 Edgewood Ave. W., the location of Jerome Brown BBQ.

The Browns moved Katrina off of the Sunbiz listing for KJB before hiring an attorney who specializes in Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases.

Katrina Brown was dogged by claims of slipshod financial management throughout her 2015 campaign for city council, with an opponent making an issue of an overdue property tax bill even then.

Katrina Brown, a Corrine Brown “Quick Pick”, won that election narrowly.

But the questions about the Browns’ business operations are clearly unresolved.

Automated shuttle to Baptist Health? Yes, if a Florida House bill passes

Could self-driving shuttle buses come to Jacksonville in the near future? A bill filed in the Florida House may make that happen sooner than later.

HB 3831, filed by Rep. Jason Fischer, seeks $500,000 for a local deployment of the Olli minibus, a Local Motors vehicle made in part with 3D printing and powered by IBM Watson technology.

The Watson technology allows passengers to communicate with the vehicle, much as an iPhone user might with Siri.

That half a million dollars would bring two Olli shuttles to Jacksonville and Baptist Health Complex as the first working example of this technology anywhere in Florida.

The shuttles would be used for medical transport — Elite Parking Services of America would, in conjunction with Baptist Health, start up this two shuttle system.

The system would be the first in Florida, and could serve as a pilot to see if the program is practicable in areas of urban density.

The program is supported locally, including by the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, home of the downtown automated Skyway system, a people mover that was expected to be a prototype for a future that didn’t exactly arrive.

Elite Parking Services is a name known beyond Jacksonville; its owner and proprietor, Dane Grey, is a connected Jacksonville Republican who was honored by Gov. Rick Scott in 2016’s State of the State address.

Grey, who also received a gubernatorial Young Entrepreneur award, is an unlikely candidate for the veto pen, should this bill clear the Florida Legislature.

The lobbyist of record on this bill: Kevin Doyle of Wexford Strategies.

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