Jax Archives - Florida Politics

Cyndi Stevenson talks Florida House Select Committee on hurricanes

House Speaker Richard Corcoran rolled out his select committee on hurricane preparedness Tuesday, and one of the more interesting members is Rep. Cyndi Stevenson.

Stevenson came to the Florida House after a stint as a St. Johns County Commissioner, in which she dealt with the unique needs of a rapidly-growing county, one that has felt the wrath of Hurricanes Irma and Matthew both in recent years.

We got her perspective on storms, and what unique perspective she will bring to the committee.

Stevenson asserts that St. Johns County was well-positioned for Irma’s onslaught.

The county “prepared to take care of their own as well as how to give and receive support from outside agencies,” Stevenson said.

In a statewide event like Irma, self-reliance was critical, as was effective disaster management.

“This storm threatened the entire state, as a result,” Stevenson asserted, “preparation to be self reliant was critical. Resources from counties across our state were locked down, because most of our counties were in the path during the storm. We were all under the gun.”

St. Johns County was aided by some forward thinking, Stevenson related.

“Because of the size and path of this storm,” she asserted, “having a centrally located storm worthy Emergency Operation Center and strong emergency radio communications was key.”

The Sheriff’s reverse 911 notification system also helped save lives,” Stevenson added, “and was the primary way some people got information during the storm including notice that they were in an evacuation zone.”

“Because of this infrastructure we were able to communicate within the county between our residents, traditional first responders, public works, water and electric utility providers, animal control, department of health, SJC Schools, and charitable agencies so we could respond to needs within the county and to the State EOC and other agencies,” Stevenson continued.

All of that bodes well. Yet improvement is possible, Stevenson contended.

“We have a real opportunity to learn from these recent storms and be even better prepared to deal with the next one.  That is not just state or local government’s jobs or our utilities.  That duty lies with every family and businesses in Florida.  It always has.”

Some families and businesses are better positioned than others. Those with the most damage are often in “older parts of our development area, built before storm water management systems and the adoption of stronger building code standards,” Stevenson asserted.

As well, there is a bit of a cash crunch from last year’s storm.

“My understanding is that the county is still waiting for FEMA to reimburse for Mathew debris removal. This was discussed with our DC delegation when they came to visit after the storm,” Stevenson said.

In Jacksonville Wednesday, members of the Florida Delegation asserted that money would be fast-tracked. This goes along with Gov. Rick Scott‘s assertion Tuesday that advance funds would be available for reimbursement requests in process.

For Florida Delegation, Irma aid trumps partisan politics

Wednesday saw House Speaker Paul Ryan stop briefly in Jacksonville, as part of a three-stop tour of Irma damage in Florida.

A corollary, equally important story: the Florida Delegation setting aside partisan concerns to meet the post-storm needs of the Sunshine State, while discussing the way forward.

In Jacksonville, Ryan saw the Duval Emergency Operations Center, then followed that up with a visit to Riverside’s Memorial Park — which suffered epic storm surge flooding during Irma.

Many members of the Florida Delegation were by Ryan’s side, as the Speaker’s trip was intended to underscore the case for federal resources.

And though the Speaker bypassed the waiting press on his way to a bigger market (Miami), Delegation members spoke at length about what the trip means — both in terms of a “bipartisan” commitment for action on this front, as well as resources to ameliorate current suffering and, perhaps, mitigate against some of the major crisis points that popped up during Irma.

Rep. John Rutherford, a first-term Jacksonville Republican, noted that local Councilwoman Lori Boyer — the most recent past Council President — educated the Delegation on the havoc Irma wrought in Jacksonville.

Rep. Al Lawson, a first-term Democrat whose district runs west from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, noted that he’d “been on the ground since last week” and had seen much of the damage and suffering that accompanied it.

“Rutherford and I are in constant communication,” Lawson said, noting that other delegation members on hand — Reps. Darren SotoTed YohoVal DemingsRon DeSantis, and Neal Dunn — shared concerns.

“How can we get more resources down here as quickly as we can to make sure we can get people’s lives back in order,” Lawson said. “We had a lot of devastation here.”

“Our job and that of our colleagues is to make sure we take care of the people,” Lawson said.

Councilwoman Lori Boyer noted that Jacksonville had yet to get its roughly $27M in reimbursements from Hurricane Matthew yet … and she made that case to the delegation, Speaker Ryan, and House Appropriations Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen, saying that Jacksonville hadn’t “fully recovered or received resources” from that 2016 storm yet.

Boyer was confident her message got through, with the Delegation “working together … as a team, both from a regulatory standpoint and a resource standpoint going forward.”

Indeed, Rutherford said the money was “in process.”

“That money is already in process for Matthew,” Rutherford said. “In two or three weeks, they’ll have that money for Matthew.”

Rutherford also noted that Congress had passed a $15.25B Hurricane Harvey relief bill, in addition to a continuing resolution to help fund FEMA and disaster relief.

“Those funds are there, now. Available,” Rutherford said.

Rep. Yoho noted that it was “great to see the Speaker here, bringing the chair of the Appropriations Committee.

Yoho added that Floridians needed to see that “the funding was there, to bring Floridians back to a normal way of life.”

“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue,” Yoho said. “This is the spirit of America.”

Rep. DeSantis, a Republican who represents St. Johns, Flagler, and Volusia Counties, likewise spoke to the fuel for that return to normalcy: federal dollars, including backlogged reimbursements.

“One of the things we’ve been impressing on the federal government is these communities are having to spend a lot of resources on things like debris removal. They need to have that money reimbursed in a timely fashion,” DeSantis said.

“You still have a lot of localities that are waiting to be reimbursed for Matthew,” DeSantis added. “That’s a bureaucratic process that’s got to be improved. We’ve been talking to and engaging FEMA about that.”

DeSantis lauded President Donald Trump for making it “very easy” for the federal government to meet post-storm needs for Florida.

“He’s basically said ‘whatever you need, we’ll give it to you’,” DeSantis asserted.

Looking to the future, Rep. Soto noted that underground power lines are among the fixes that could help avert power outages going forward.

“We have to start looking at prevention and intervention,” Rutherford said, noting that electric companies “hardening the targets” is already in process.

Rutherford also believes that hurricane prep “is a national security issue.”

“Florida responds very well,” Rutherford said, “but I think we can do better.”

And it seems like the Florida Delegation, uniting in response to a common crisis, may find a way forward, leveraging a bipartisan approach and a relationship with the White House that may not have been in place with the previous President.

“We have a responsibility to all the people in the state,” Rep. Lawson said, noting that “this is one of those issues where everybody is coming together.”

“Politics will come in ’18,” Lawson added.

At least in this moment, politics — among the Florida Delegation — are held in abeyance to real human needs.

Lenny Curry renews vow for ‘real reform’ in Jax kids’ programs

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry rolled out his re-org of Jacksonville children’s programs, the Kids Hope Alliance, amid hoopla this summer.

While no fewer than 14 Jacksonville City Council members made a vow to co-sponsor the measure at a presser in early August, momentum has stalled since.

The bill is deferred in committees for a second straight two-week cycle this week, after meeting resistance in the Jacksonville City Council Finance Committee in August budget hearings.

For Curry, this plan to roll up the Jacksonville Children’s Commission and Jax Journey into one omnibus board appointed by the Mayor’s Office is a major priority, one that Curry says will be back in committees in the “near-term” future.

However, hopes to have the legislation pushed through in time for the budget that will be passed Tuesday apparently have been dashed.

So where do things go from here? We asked Curry Wednesday morning,  at an event where the Mayor was joining solid waste collection crews to start off an expected 1m cubic yards of debris pickup over the coming weeks.

Curry called the Kids Hope Alliance bill “real reform,” saying “I will see it through to the end.”

“I’m not going weak on this,” Curry added.

Regarding discussion among some legislators that significant changes are needed to the bill to make it palatable, Curry stood his ground, saying the aftermath of Hurricane Irma led to a temporary pause in the reform push.

“I met with experts,” Curry said, “tweaking it. But the delay right now is storm-related.”

Curry also “fundamentally rejected” the central “premise” in a Florida Times-Union article by Tessa Duvall on the reform process. Duvall made the case that the program was devised in secrecy, outside of the sunshine and looping out certain stakeholders and experts.

“I think we laid the record out pretty clearly that I started talking about reforms many, many, many months ago,” Curry said.

“I directed an audit, convened conversations, and as with everything I do, I create a plan and product that makes sense, and then it goes before City Council and is debated in the public sphere,” Curry added.

We also asked about the attrition of pre-pledged co-sponsors for the legislation, which as yet does not have 14 Councilors helping to carry the bill.

“It’s process right now,” Curry said. “We’re tweaking it. I’ve met with a number of experts because we want it to be right.”

“Once we get through this hurricane stuff,” Curry added, “you’ll see the final bill and a discussion in city council in the near term.”

We asked if the entire seven-person board would be comprised of Mayoral appointees, as was the case in the originally filed legislation.

“I don’t want to speak to the final product until we get there,” Curry said, “but I think you’ll see that it accomplishes the intent that I said needs to be accomplished.”

Rick Scott: Advance payments a possibility for Jax FEMA reimbursements

The city of Jacksonville’s IOUs are starting to pile up from FEMA. The city is owed $26 million in reimbursements after Hurricane Matthew, and expectations are that Irma will cost even more.

 Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry again addressed the shortfall Tuesday.

“We’ll get through this storm,” Curry told reporters, “but my team will be aggressively working with the team from FEMA” for the purposes of reimbursement.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott sees President Donald Trump as his partner in the White House, yet Jacksonville and other Northeast Florida cities haven’t seen the helping hand of general fund reimbursement from FEMA.

But help may be at hand, Scott told reporters Tuesday in Orange Park.

“I talked to the administrator of FEMA about this last week,” Scott said. “They can do advance payments.”

Scott noted caveats, such as “still having to go through the process,” and that — if the reimbursement is not approved — cities have to pay the feds back.

“What I’ve told everybody is get it to our office. I’ll get it to FEMA,” Scott added, “and what they’ve told me was they’d work with cities or counties to do advance payments.”

Jacksonville, at last count, has somewhere around $150 million between operating and emergency reserve accounts — a good chunk of change in a $1.27 billion general fund budget, but one with caveats — including statutory minimum levels that must be maintained.

Jacksonville is still awaiting reimbursements from the federal government — 75 percent of an approximate $50 million in storm related damage. Application technicalities, such as Jacksonville’s local commitments to small and emerging businesses and locational criteria for vendors, apparently are not honored by the feds.

“We have to front the money for years,” the Jacksonville city council auditor said in August, well before Irma’s onslaught. “We are probably $26 million negative cash even without doing repairs [with expensive] debris cleanup.”

While these impacts are real, Gov. Scott’s vow to help move things along should reassure Jacksonville — and other Florida cities that have been impacted by two major storms in less than a year.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry spoke to the possibility of advance payments Wednesday, saying that his Administration intended to make the case to House Speaker Paul Ryan — in town Wednesday — that Jacksonville should get money owed to it by the feds.

Rick Scott gets hero’s welcome, talks Irma recovery in Orange Park

Northeast Florida avoided the Irma landfall impact, but wind damage and rampant flooding were — and in some places, are — major impacts.

In Orange Park, flooding impacted residences by the river and — a bit south of town — along Black Creek. Tuesday saw Gov. Rick Scott in town to discuss the path forward.

Apartment complexes and condos were deluged, as was the city’s public works yard and other low-lying areas.

“The flooding was horrible up here,” Scott said. “It’s unbelievable how much water they got.”

Though the flooding has largely abated, Scott saw the goal of this visit to find out what “unmet needs” there are, vowing to bring federal and state resources to help.

One such need: a bridge on SR-218, damaged by the storm; a Clay County Commissioner noted that Scott — “the infrastructure governor” — could help with that.

Another such need: help for farmers whose agriculture was damaged by flooding.

“I was down in Hendry County Saturday, and they were talking about the devastation to the citrus industry,” Scott said, wanting more detail on how to match resources to needs.

The general feeling around the table: while the process of recovery is ongoing, stakeholders gave high marks to the Governor’s handling of the crisis.

CFO Jimmy Patronis called Scott’s marshalling of resources “miraculous,” noting that his office seeks to ensure that people — specifically insurance policy holders — don’t get “damaged after the storm” by “fraudsters.”

“There are people cold [knocking] on doors,” Patronis said, attempting to bilk the unwary into repairs after this “150-year storm event.”

Scott noted that over 300 people were rescued from storm flooding in the Black Creek area, rescues abetted by state and federal forces alike.

In other promising news, Citizens Insurance will have adjusters on the ground locally by Friday. While some customers are frustrated by the pace of claims, the sheer magnitude of claims requires patience.

Rep. Ted Yoho noted that throughout his district, flooding has been “extensive.” As with Patronis, he lauded the Governor’s leadership, also giving Attorney General Pam Bondi credit.

Stakeholders all around the table lauded the teamwork on all levels of government; from local mayors to heads of utilities, the discussion was almost uniformly positive.

 

 

Lenny Curry: JEA crisis comms issues ‘need to be fixed’

Almost 11 months ago to the day, the JEA Board gave the utility high marks for its performance during and after Hurricane Matthew.

On Tuesday, it was time for an encore performance — as the JEA Board met, with Hurricane Irma on its mind.

After a week in which the Mayor had “stern words” for JEA CEO Paul McElroy about the pace of power restoration, words followed by criticisms from City Council members, one might have expected fireworks.

But as was the case in 2016, tensions that might have existed earlier in the recovery process had been spackled over before the board meeting. The mood on the 8th floor of the JEA Tower was one of bonhomie, with McElroy giving a thumbs up as he entered the room minutes before the meeting, and local politicians all smiles as they entered the space.

Mayor Curry lauded “the effort and the results” of JEA as being “commendable.”

“The organization, the men on the ground — they got that done … that said, we can do better,” Curry said, wanting a “plan” from management for better interaction with customers in the next “crisis” situation.

Curry referred to numerous stories where customers were led to expect they had power on, only to get home and see that wasn’t the case.

“Information that was coming in that wasn’t accurate” and “feedback that wasn’t accurate” concerned Curry.

Curry noted, in a gaggle after his remarks, that while results were overall favorable (250,000 customers restored in less than a week), that communications with storm-impacted customers needed to be stronger “to ensure information is accurate.”

“If you were one of those customers,” Curry said about those who were led to believe by corporate communications that they had power, “you’re likely still upset.”

The problem, added Curry, “needs to be fixed.”

Curry, who handpicked the current board months after his election, stands by the “oversight body” that he “picked based on expertise.”

That same board gave CEO Paul McElroy a $65,000 bonus last year after Matthew; we asked if McElroy merited a similar consideration this year.

This is, said Curry, not “the time to be talking about a bonus.”

Rather, it’s time to “finish the job.”

Jacksonville City Council President criticized for missing post-Irma meeting

Jacksonville City Council President Anna Brosche missed Monday’s special Council meeting because she was in London for the annual Jax Chamber trip for the Jaguars’ game.

One Council colleague — former Mayor Tommy Hazouri — believes  she should have been at Council, especially given the import of the matters discussed at the meeting.

“Interesting that the Mayor stayed home, at least for a few days, to take care of the people’s business,” Hazouri texted Tuesday morning.

“Anna called a special council meeting,” Hazouri added, “and instead of delaying her trip to London, like all good leaders would until after the special council meeting, she missed out on public comments on her non-existing confederate statue bill, as well as the initial wrap up of the budget, and post-Irma reports from the administration, sheriff, and JEA!”

Brosche proposed inventory and removal of the city’s Confederate monuments earlier this summer; much of Monday’s meeting was spent listening to now-familiar perspectives on both sides of the issue from the public.

Meanwhile, the major takeaway from the post-Irma reports could have a budget impact; costs are expected to equal or exceed those from Hurricane Matthew, as one city official asserted. Matthew cost the city $50 million, and Jacksonville still waits on $27 million in federal reimbursement money (a number that equals, roughly, the city’s contribution to its safety-net hospital, UF Health).

“I am not looking for a war between the President and me. Just my thoughts on leadership,” Hazouri said, lauding Mayor Lenny Curry for “staying the course” and briefing Council on Irma impacts rather than going to London so early in the week.

Hazouri and Brosche have diverged on a number of issues this year, beginning with Brosche’s own race for Council President; Hazouri backed John Crescimbeni for the role.

As well, Hazouri and Crescimbeni asserted that there should be a public hearing on JAXPORT dredging, and potential costs to the city and environmental impacts. Brosche rejected that call.

While there are obvious caveats — such as whether or not her reservation could have been changed, and whether any information was given out in those high-level briefings that couldn’t have been conveyed any other way — questions still linger about the optics of Brosche missing a special Council meeting that she called.

Brosche offered no comment in response to her Council colleague’s cavils.

Confederate monument furor lingers in Jacksonville

Controversy over Confederate monuments remains in Jacksonville — and comments on such had their place at Monday evening’s Jacksonville City Council meeting.

Recall that in August, Council President Anna Brosche responded to the violence in Charlottesville by demanding an inventory of monuments, ahead of removing and relocating them to a museum or some other place with a similar curatorial function.

Nine days later, the City Council met — an evening dominated by hours of public comment on the monuments.

The weather storm came and went; the storm about monuments largely seemed to have receded along with Irma’s storm surge.

Crowds were thinner Monday than they were previously, to say the least.

And at least one Council member thought discussion should be tabled altogether until there was actually a bill for said removal of monuments.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri noted in agenda meeting that discussions of monuments were “out of the ordinary” given that “there’s no bill before us.”

“It’s not healthy to have discussion pro and con when there’s nothing to be pro or conning on,” Hazouri said.

Healthy or not, the discussion happened anyway — even though it mostly was a rehash of the longform discussion previously.

Confederate monument defender Seber Newsome Jr. noted that opponents of monuments relied on threats and intimidation, and their moves against monuments were a full-frontal assault on the Constitution itself.

Newsome pushed for more monuments — including those of prominent African-Americans — in Hemming Park, urging (as he has done previously) a citizen referendum on monument removal.

Not everyone agreed with Newsome, of course. In fact, proponents of monuments were outnumbered by opponents.

Frequent public commenter Carnell Oliver said Newsome “kind of gave him heartburn” speaking.

“We helped build this country. We haven’t gotten a proper seat at the table,” Oliver said. “We don’t have a lot of recognition … we get the bare crumbs, because there’s only a select few that have power in this community.”

“Racism is built within our laws, our institutions to oppress individuals … the first stage is to remove these statues and put them in their proper place, which is Confederate Park.”

Oliver and other speakers objected not only to Confederate monuments, but also to Jacksonville’s Andrew Jackson statue, with one likening the Jackson monument to Nazi iconography, saying that young people do not support such “racist” monuments at all.

Another monument opponent noted that Dylann Roof‘s massacre of African-Americans in Charleston led him not just to a reappraisal of monuments, but the name “Jacksonville” itself.

Local activist Wells Todd called the monuments a sign of “disrespect” to the African-American community.

“This is not happening because people are just upset about these statues,” Todd said.

“We’ve got to go back to the 1600s and understand that the rich landowners schemed to pit blacks against whites … they made the whites the slave catchers.”

“This propaganda is still here today,” Todd said, and it symbolizes a lack of respect for African-Americans.

“It is not too much to ask for to remove the statues of people who have killed and oppressed us for centuries,” Todd said, noting that Confederate Park is itself in a “poor black neighborhood.”

Jax Irma costs: ‘Equal or a bit more’ than Matthew

Monday’s Jacksonville City Council meeting saw local officials address the body regarding Hurricane Irma. Expect a big budgetary hit from this year’s storm, with infrastructural damage that is still being tallied.

That cost was buried in the mix of a few speakers on Monday, but will be the long-range policy impact of the storm.

The city’s Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa spoke about the progress of cut and toss crews and debris removal: the city’s sites are almost ready, Mousa said, to “accept debris.”

Up to a million cubic yards of debris is expected, more than Hurricane Matthew’s tally, Mousa said, before going into details of damage caused by the storm.

The city is dealing with roof and window leaks from the storm, as well as septic tank and lift station repairs, and “various infrastructure damage around the county.”

“We estimate that 33 to 50 percent of the sand we placed during Matthew has been eroded,” Mousa said.

“We’re just beginning the recovery,” Mousa said, noting that damage could be “equal or a bit more than Hurricane Matthew.”

Matthew cost the city $50M in general fund costs, and the city is still out $27M of unreimbursed FEMA costs; Mayor Curry said earlier this summer that the city could handle a Matthew-sized hit to the the general fund, though it is uncertain what choices a “bit more” costs would require.

Worth noting: the city estimated, in the wake of Matthew, that costs could be up to $100M; that estimate turned out — luckily for the city, given FEMA’s slow reimbursement, to be high.

“We’re still trying to get our arms around infrastructure damage,” Mousa said.

FEMA is in contact with the city, Mousa said, with a visit to the Emergency Operations Center Monday.

____

Sheriff Mike Williams was next up, extolling cooperation among first-responders.

Williams noted there was some infrastructural damage at JSO facilities, but nothing major — some minor structural damage, yet no damaged vehicles.

Williams noted, in response to worries about looting, that residential and commercial burglaries were a bit up — and that State Attorney Melissa Nelson was handling special prosecutorial detail for those burglaries.

____

Also addressing the legislators: JEA CEO Paul McElroy, whose performance was criticized roundly in the days after the storm by the Mayor and by City Council members, with Councilman Bill Gulliford offering the staunchest criticism.

Those criticisms faded, apparently, sometime over the weekend.

McElroy put forth familiar talking points, including noting that Jacksonville’s restoration started later than the rest of the state, noting that the local utility had resources from across the country.

McElroy said JEA “restored very well … in the top decile of the state.”

“During the process, we were at or ahead of the pack,” McElroy noted, an especially laudatory detail given the city’s tree canopy and large land mass.

McElroy noted that water service held up well countywide, while wastewater service was a bit dodgier — 700 of them lost power during the peak, and “most of them” had backup power.

“We lost about two million gallons,” McElroy said, adding that’s a “heck of a lot better than last year,” and that most of the failings were attributable to “double or triple contingency failure.”

Jacksonville City Council drama will extend beyond light agenda Monday

The Jacksonville City Council will meet Monday, a reschedule of last Tuesday’s meeting.

There will be drama — even with a Council agenda Tuesday that is bereft of bills readers will care about.

Expect that Jacksonville City Council members will push to alter the budget, which will have to be approved next Tuesday at the regularly scheduled Council meeting, based on storm impacts and realizations.

Councilman Garrett Dennis, for example, told us earlier this week that he wants money for sandbags in the budget — they weren’t provided before Irma’s epic floods.

The Jacksonville Beach pier suffered damage for a second straight year; yes, that will come up also, as will damage on the Riverwalk and elsewhere throughout the city after Irma.

Jacksonville is out $26M in delayed FEMA reimbursements from last year’s 100-year storm. Councilors will be interested in the impacts of this year’s event, though only preliminary answers may be ready this week. The city has roughly $125 million in reserves, but caveats abound as the city needs to maintain minimum reserve levels.

Luckily, bond ratings are on point — as some borrowing may need to be authorized soon.

Beyond general fund spending, expect scrutiny of an independent agency: the JEA.

JEA’s lines workers were beyond reproach this week, yet the Mayor and the City Council both expressed disquiet with communication with customers, transparency with City Hall, and deployment of resources.

Perhaps tempers will simmer down from the low boil earlier this week; however, don’t be surprised to see at least one Council member bring it up.

As well, with the storm over, a familiar non-weather storm will recur, in the form of the Confederate monument conundrum. Recall that last month, public comment sprawled out into the night, delighting city employees and media alike on hand for the uniformly thrilling and reasoned discourse until close to Midnight.

Once Council gets through that, committees follow — with their own unique sets of challenges, which will require a preview of their own later this week.

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