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Jacksonville Bold for 7.22.17 — Shadow play

For those in Jacksonville City Hall, these are halcyon days (somewhat). The mayor proposed the most ambitious budget in nearly a decade, addressing long-deferred needs.

But, as is always the case in a Florida summer, storm clouds are on the horizon — with quiet assaults on the mayor’s vision.

We cover two of them here: A bill to push a referendum to gut term limits for Jacksonville’s elected officials and a push to hike property taxes.

Both are non-starters for the mayor and — as affronts to his vision — will join a bill from earlier this summer to allocate budget increases to the pension debt.

When the TV cameras find them, everyone is all smiles; on the record, there isn’t much daylight between Lenny Curry and leading City Council members.

However, these bills are meaningful, in that the City Council is staking out significant differences in policy vision with the Mayor’s Office, challenging Curry for the first time in over two years.

This is, to be very clear, a Cold War. No one is giving interesting quotes.

When cameras are off? That’s when s**t gets real.

Curry introduces new Jacksonville budget

On Monday morning, Jacksonville Mayor Curry released his first budget since pension reform passed: a $1.27B budget, up from the $1.2B budget the previous year.

Lenny Curry finally got to spend some money in his third budget.

With budget relief available after pension reform, Curry made the decision to invest in long neglected city infrastructure and employees, spending more than in the previous two years and adding 175 new hires total — 100 on the police side, 42 in Fire and Rescue, and — as a measure of the ongoing economic boom in Jacksonville — eight new building inspectors.

According to the Florida Times-Union, the spending increase is the “result of a strong economy, growing property values and far more flexibility stemming from a complex series of reforms to the city’s employee-retirement system.” Pension debt is now at hundreds of millions of dollars each year, but it is a trend that reforms had reversed, for the short term.

Curry also focused on putting money into contingency accounts for salaries and committed to hiking reserve levels in the coming years. As well, a $105M budget for capital improvements includes plans for a near-term demolition of the old Courthouse and City Hall.

Council President Anna Brosche said the budget was “in line with what we’ve seen” in recent years, lauding the proposed increase of the emergency reserve in light of impacts created by Hurricane Matthew last year.

Curry, compassionate conservative

One of the interesting evolutions in local political life has been Curry’s path from “party boss” of the local and state GOP to a mayor focused on equity.

This week saw multiple examples: the budget (discussed above); the release of a book to be given to new mothers at local hospitals to encourage them to read to their children and a Thursday commencement address for graduates of the Mayor’s Summer Jobs Program.

New Jacksonville mothers will get a new book to read to their children.

The remarks were notable as Curry described his own bootstrap narrative, including his career in accounting that he put on hold to launch his own business and then his move into politics.

Curry told the graduates that they would get a lot of advice, from a lot of people, but his one takeaway for the students: “You only get to do this thing called life one time.”

Curry went on to describe a run for Mayor that the smart set attempted to discourage him from. They said Curry couldn’t win: no name ID; no resources, they said.

“The voices were loud and persistent, but I ignored them,” Curry said.

“Want your dreams,” Curry added, “more than you want to breathe.”

Millage hike?

Will Curry break his “no tax hikes” pledge?

He’s not inclined to, but the Jacksonville City Council auditor wants a 0.25 mill raise in property tax, the Jacksonville Daily Record reported this week.

Property tax hikes were not popular in the 2015 elections.

Curry noted that his finance team is 3-for-3 regarding delivering balanced budgets, a deliverable driven by sweeping $60M money from sub-funds in 2015, going lean in 2016, and pulling off pension reform earlier this year.

Finance Chair Garrett Dennis is more open to a millage hike, saying he would “support” it to invest in the city.

The Dennis/Curry dynamic is worth watching this year. In many ways, they are mirror images of each other. Affable, smart politicians who underneath it all play to win. The moments where collaboration falters, as was the case with swimming lessons money this summer, are those that reveal potential fault lines that will occupy city politics for the next generation.

Council to gut term limits?

Pieces on Jacksonville City Council committees are sometimes just inside baseball — bills and concepts that may never come to pass.

And other times, they strike a nerve — such as Tuesday’s pieces on two committees voting to gut term limits via putting a referendum on the ballot.

The Jacksonville City Council Finance Committee doesn’t think eight is enough.

As with the millage hike, this is yet another issue where council members seem more enthusiastic than the mayor: it passed both committees of reference 5-2, with lots of self-congratulatory shtick about “institutional knowledge” as a justification for giving incumbents more time to incumb.

In addition to giving another term to City Council members, the measure would afford constitutional officers and School Board members a three-term limit, pending voter approval in a 2018 referendum.

There isn’t universal buy-in on this one, and one could imagine there being trouble for the bill Tuesday.

Councilman Scott Wilson voted against the bill, saying he believed the community would “overwhelmingly reject” the measure, given that the public doesn’t like elected officials any more than they did in the 1990s.

“I don’t see what we’ve done to change their opinion about a third term,” Wilson said.

Wilson, a pragmatist, did not have his question answered in committee. But it should have been.

Donors give Duval County Schools an ultimatum

Several major donors on major education initiatives – worth over $122 million in the past decade – have given Duval School Board members an ultimatum over plans to reduce funding those projects.

The Florida Times-Union is reporting on one such party, the Quality Education for All Fund (QEA), that sent a letter to all seven members of the Duval School Board, threatening to “cut ties with the district” if it reneges on an “implicit understanding” that the district would continue funding the programs.

Educational initiative donors draw line in the sand for the Duval County School Board.

“We in the private community want to continue to honor our part of the Quality Education for All Fund commitment … but only if we can believe that we can count on the underlying partnership that has existed since we began this journey to improve public education for our most at risk students,” said the letter, signed by QEA chair J. Wayne Weaver, a philanthropist and owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Other names on the letter include Gary Chartrand, Lawrence Dubow, Cindy Edelman, Matt Rapp and David Stein.

“If you are not willing to invest in those programs that have proven successful, we must consider that this bond has been broken and we will have no choice but to step back our part of this arrangement until a new understanding can be established,” the letter continued.

To prove their point, the QEA board froze nearly $5 million in contributions from going to the district, Chartrand told the T-U this week. “We think these investments have proven out,” he said. “We asked the board do their part in funding them. If they don’t, it will send a loud signal to the philanthropic community that it’s a one-way street. I don’t know if we can keep the private community as engaged.”

Gwen Graham snags Duval endorsements, talks MMJ

Gubernatorial candidate Gwenn Graham scooped up two key Jacksonville endorsements this week from Councilman Garrett Dennis and former Mayor Jake Godbold.

Gwen Graham got a key pair of Jacksonville endorsements this week.

Graham, who had already been endorsed by former Mayor Tommy Hazouri, nearly crossed paths with another Democrat in the building for another purpose: Sen. Audrey Gibson, Dennis’ political mentor.

The Duval Democrats chair beat a hasty retreat from the cameras, likely mindful of a chair’s need to be neutral in primaries.

Graham talked to media for over a half-hour, with the big news being a more aggressive position on medical cannabis than some may have expected.

The greatest pyrotechnics came when she discussed medical marijuana, and the state Legislature’s lack of fidelity to the Constitutional Amendment passed in 2016.

“I am so sick and tired of the Florida Legislature not doing what the people of Florida have overwhelmingly said they want done,” Graham said regarding the smoking prohibition, putting MMJ in the same bucket with lottery money and Amendment 1 funds, which did not go to Forever Florida this year.

Graham noted the palliative effects of cannabis, and said that it is a “good replacement for opioids.”

Bill Gulliford: ‘Christian Communist’ Pope

Jacksonville City Councilman Gulliford is still sticking to his guns, asserting that Pope Francis indeed is a “Communist,” albeit a “Christian Communist.”

Bill Gulliford, like our own A.G. Gancarski, graduated from Jacksonville’s Bishop Kenny High School.

We reached out to him for further clarification after his take roiled some people last week — and many of his comments came back to schisms in the Church between the conservative American Catholic wing and the “liberation theology” school from which the pontiff hails.

“Liberation theology,” said Gulliford, is a “form of Christian communism,” and one that Francis’ “narratives and pronouncements” still echo.

“All he talks about is social justice,” Gulliford added.

“If he is the head of the Catholic Church, he should put salvation over social justice,” Gulliford continued, adding that “any friend of the United Nations is no friend of mine.”

Murder charges for overdoses?

Murder charges for death-dealing drug dealers? State Attorney Melissa Nelson says yes, but not everyone is on board, the Florida Times-Union reports.

The goal, Nelson told the T-U: “to keep the public safe from those responsible for this deadly crisis” … an appropriate “legal response to the loss of life.”

Melissa Nelson’s latest proposal is not universally-lauded.

However, the T-U notes some issues.

“Beyond the policy questions, there are concerns over the legality of such a prosecution. While Florida’s murder statute allows prosecutors to go after drug dealers in overdose cases, the statute lists what drugs apply, and fentanyl isn’t specifically listed. Just last week Gov. Rick Scott held a ceremony to celebrate the addition of fentanyl to the law, but that addition will only affect cases after Oct. 1 and won’t impact Nelson’s murder prosecution.”

Despite qualms, Nelson commits to exploring this, at least.

“If I’m a drug dealer and I know I’m cutting heroin with fentanyl, and I know I can be prosecuted for murder, I’m just telling you common-sensically, maybe I think otherwise about what I’m doing. If there’s research that shows what I’m saying is off base, I’d like to be able to look at it. I’m telling you something by my gut right now. I can’t point to research that proves what I’m saying.”

Nancy Soderberg hits campaign trail

DeLand is a trek from Northeast Florida, yet that’s where UNF professor and former U.N. Ambassador Soderberg launched her campaign in Florida’s 6th Congressional District this week.

Nancy Soderberg’s rep proceeds her, but does she have the retail politics gear? Open question.

Soderberg has rented an apartment in the district, and her first stump speech as a candidate was — as our Orlando correspondent Scott Powers called it — “moderate Democrat.”

Light on attacks on Republicans, heavy on policy, it’s clear where Soderberg’s base is — old-school ClintonWorld. In a “wave election” year, that might be enough.

Soderberg may need some help with comms though. An email from her campaign, for example, said that when she worked in her DC gig, she “reigned in terrorism” as a negotiator.

Curry boosts Rick Baker

Mayor Curry helped out fellow Republican Rick Baker last month, as the former Mayor of St. Petersburg is running to reclaim his job.

The St. Petersburg mayoral race is arguably the hottest campaign in America right now.

Curry knows that money is oxygen for campaigns. And by helping Baker by raising $25,000, that gives Baker — ahead in most polls — some air.

According to the most recent campaign finance reports, which covered activity from June 24 to July 7, Curry and his political allies from northeast Florida donated $18,000 to Baker’s campaign. That’s more than incumbent Rick Kriseman raised from all sources during the same period.

Feeling generous: Gary Chartrand, the Jacksonville Kennel Club, Tom Petway, Wayne Weaver, and others who opted to max out.

Curry’s political committee will also slide $7,000 to Baker’s, adding up to $25,000 in total.

Scott talks Venezuela with Goldman Sachs

Gov. Scott cut a Jacksonville press event a bit short Wednesday, and media was told the governor had a meeting.

Turned out that meeting was important.

No, Rick Scott didn’t drive a forklift to Goldman Sachs …

A re-released copy of Scott’s Wednesday schedule included a new entry: an 11:30 meeting with Jacksonville’s “Goldman Sachs Asset Management.”

We reached out to Scott’s office for more detail; the meeting had to do with Scott’s policy on companies doing business with Venezuela.

“Goldman Sachs Asset Management requested to meet with the Governor … to discuss his upcoming policy to prohibit Florida from doing business with anyone who supports the brutal Maduro regime,” emailed Kerri Wyland of the Governor’s office.

Wyland added that more “details on his policy will be announced before the Aug. 16 Cabinet meeting.”

Scott foreshadowed this position earlier in July, via a strongly-worded news release.

 “During the next meeting of the Florida Cabinet in August,” Scott asserted, “I will bring forward a proposal that will prohibit the State of Florida from doing business with any organization that supports the oppressive Maduro dictatorship.

“Floridians stand with the people of Venezuela as they fight for their freedom, and as a state,” Scott added, “we must not provide any support for Maduro and his thugs.”

Gov. Rick Scott visits Florida Forklift’s new facility in Jacksonville. Florida Forklift is a dealer of new, used and rental forklifts founded as Tampa Forklift in 1974. The new Jacksonville facility will allow the small business to continue its growth and create additional opportunities in the community.

Appointed

Gov. Scott announced two reappointments to the Clay County Development Authority.

Russell Buck, 56, of Middleburg, is the regional vice president of Vystar Credit Union. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland.

Gregory Clary, 65, of Middleburg, is the president of Clary & Associates. Terms of both reappointments are through July 1, 2021.

Rayonier rebuff

Rayonier, one of the key companies in Nassau County, finds itself encountering pushback in an attempt to acquire Tembec, reports the Jax Daily Record.

Rayonier has been in Nassau County for decades.

“Although we appreciate the strategic rationale of a Rayonier-Tembec combination, we believe Rayonier’s current offer significantly undervalues Tembec. If the offer is not increased, we believe Tembec shareholders would be better off if Tembec remains independent,” reads the letter from Tembec’s largest shareholder.

“The price offered to Tembec shareholders does not fully recognize these benefits, nor does it appropriately compensate Tembec shareholders for the increased risk associated with combining with Rayonier,” it said.

City Hall for sale

You can’t fight City Hall. But in Neptune Beach, the Jax Daily Record reports, you soon may be able to buy it.

Prime real estate may be available soon. Mayor and Council not included in the sale.

City Hall out there is in a prime location, a short walk to the ocean. The facility needs repairs also and is too small to accommodate city staffing needs.

And, at a time when property values are peaking, Neptune Beach’s mayor looks to ride the wave.

“We’re sitting here with both of these buildings off the tax rolls in prime locations,” Mayor Elaine Brown said. “I think there’s an opportunity to bring in some more revenue in the form of property taxes and sales taxes.”

Jax Beach Mayor mulls overdose epidemic

Opioid addiction is fast becoming a story that is numbing in the retelling, but anecdotes like those from Jacksonville Beach Mayor Charlie Latham reveal how deep the epidemic runs.

Latham saw a fentanyl overdose last weekend, reported Action News Jax.

The opioid crisis knows no borders.

The overdose victim was, said Latham, “very purple.” And it took two medics to revive him from the brink of death.

But, via Narcan, he was revived.

“I was in the hospital right when he came around. He acted like it was another day at the office,” Latham said. “Shortly after that, his parents came in, and it looked like, of course, they were facing the worst possible, (worst) imaginable scenario.”

The overdose crisis is hitting Duval County hard, both regarding time and budgetary demands for EMTs and in body count — which exceeds, by multiples, the county’s homicide rate.

Doggone doped-up dogs

BestBet President Jamie Shelton decried “sensationalized” reports of dogs failing post-race drug tests for cocaine metabolites this week.

‘Independent contractors’ to blame for greyhound nose candy.

“We contract with kennel operators that acquire or lease dogs from people who raise greyhounds around the country. They are independent contractors. They are licensed by the state of Florida, and they also receive a badge from us so they can come on to our property to race their product at our facility.” Shelton explained at a Rotary Club meeting, as quoted by First Coast News.

“My oversight of the independent contractors other than me being to ensure that the safety and welfare of the greyhounds while they are in my premises in the kennels and they are being cared for they are being turned out, they are being fed, they are air-conditioned kennels,” Shelton added. “All the things you are asking about, that’s my No. 1 concern.”

BestBet is one of the most politically connected companies in Northeast Florida.

The contractor that supplied the dogs in question no longer works with BestBet.

Naps, jobs cut from CSX

Reforms continue at CSX, per the Jacksonville Business Journal!

The latest: no napping by conductors who are on break, said CEO Hunter Harrison.

“We had a rule that said you could take a nap while you worked,” Harrison told The Wall Street Journal. “We don’t have that now.”

Hunter Harrison: Not a fan of naps, but apparently a fan of layoffs.

The goal: “Precision scheduling.”

The reality Jacksonville people experience: Stalled out trains on tracks stymying their commutes.

Speaking of stalled out: CSX equity price momentum, after what the Journal called a “bombshell” announcement on an earnings call this week.

“I’m a short-timer here,” said Harrison. “I’m the interim person that’s going to try to get this company to the next step and good foundation.”

Harrison pledged 700 more layoffs on the call, a strategy which seems to be helping with earnings in the short term, yet raising long-term existential questions.

Chris Hand talks downtown development

Former Alvin Brown chief-of-staff Chris Hand is now in the byline journalism game and his first column in the Florida Times-Union addresses downtown development.

Chris Hand has joined the pundit class. God help him.

“Downtown revitalization needs a constant supply of fuel to keep running. Unfortunately, the city agency charged with overseeing Downtown revival is nearing an empty gas tank,” Hand notes.

Hand adds that “the DIA has little investment funding to prime the pump on additional Downtown development. The City Council should rectify that worrisome deficiency in this year’s budget process.”

The whole column is worth a read.

JIA opens Firehouse Subs location

Jacksonville-based Firehouse Subs opened its first airport kiosk at Jacksonville International Airport, the latest phase in the rise of the fast-casual food chain.

According to the Jax Daily Record, Firehouse Subs expansion plans include more non-traditional locations, such as U.S. airport terminals, college campuses and military bases.

Firehouse Subs opened its first airport location at JIA July 1, the next phase in the fast-casual brand’s expansion.

The JIA location is located in the post-security food court, with a menu that includes the chain’s staples as well as breakfast options geared toward travelers. It incorporates a revised restaurant design to accommodate smaller spaces.

Robert Palmer buys the Armada

The Jacksonville Armada have been sold. Just seven months after the North American Soccer League (NASL) assumed control of the club when original owner Mark Frisch bailed out, Robert Palmer has stepped into the fold. The new ownership assumes control of the club immediately and secures the long-term future of pro soccer in Jacksonville.

Robert Palmer is making a play in Jacksonville, starting with the Armada.

“While sports ownership has been a dream of mine since I was young, the business opportunity with Armada FC and the NASL was simply too good to pass up,” said Palmer. “I care deeply about the Jacksonville market and have both personal and professional interests in the area. My team at Robert Palmer Companies and I look forward to bringing our proven marketing and business strategies to this outstanding organization.”

A native of Lakeland, Palmer and his wife, Jill, have local ties to the Jacksonville area and have maintained a residence in Neptune Beach since 2007. He is the founder and CEO of Robert Palmer Companies, which is based in Central Florida and is involved in the financing, marketing, and escrow of more than $5 billion in residential real estate.

In addition to RP Funding, Palmer has started several other companies including Homevalue.com, which provides personalized reports on homeowners’ property values from a local real estate agent and Listing Power Tools, a company that helps real estate agents craft the perfect listing presentation, among others.

Palmer is bullish about the market and said at the Press Conference unveiling his ownership,  “You’ll have to be under a rock to not know that the Jacksonville Armada will be playing on any given Saturday .” He continued, ” (We will focus on) aggressive, targeted advertising… these guys know soccer, I know advertising.” Palmer also stated RP Funding ads will include Armada pitches within them. He is also committed to growing the fan base not just in terms of attendance for home matches but also other revenue streams including those who watch away matches on television.

The Armada just concluded the NASL Spring Season finishing in the top half of the table. The Fall Season begins on July 30 with a match-up against the San Francisco Deltas at Patton Park.

Sam Mousa: ‘Another mess’ regarding Jax summer camp funding

“Another mess” in Jacksonville summer camp funding has made its way to the attention of Mayor Lenny Curry and Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa.

This time: a complaint that advance funding wasn’t released to a provider (Us and Our Children) … and that immediate help is needed.

Yolanda Tucker emailed Mayor Curry this week, outlining the organization’s plight.

Twyla Prindle-Ivey and I have been friends for many years so when she asked me to come help her out when her summer camp was funded at the last minute I shifted some things in my business to assist her.  Mrs. Prindle-Ivey has funded the entire 4 1/2 weeks of camp out of her pocket.  She had to borrow money to make her initial payroll, purchase snacks for the kids and other camp necessities,” Tucker wrote.

Of course, Prindle-Ivey was moving forward expecting a reimbursement — but she found out all too late that money was being withheld, Tucker asserted.

“The advance that she has been waiting for the last 4 1/2 weeks would not be deposited tomorrow due to an omission on her insurance policy.  Mrs. Prindle-Ivey has advised me twice that JCC has asked her to change one insurance policy and not the other.  As a twenty plus year contract administrator, I asked Mrs. Ivey-Prindle to bring in the RFP so that I could review it,” Tucker wrote.

The RFP lacked language “that advises a respondent that the verbiage JCC is now asking for is required,” Tucker asserted.

Tucker goes on to suggest that maybe Us and Our Children is being sabotaged in the funding process.

“At this point,” Tucker asserted, “I’m not sure if someone is upset that Us and Our Children received the grant and they are going out of their way to make this difficult for Mrs. Prindle-Ivey (it’s definitely behavior I’ve seen before in a procurement office when someone became upset) or what’s happening but I do know that there are six faithful employees that need to be paid for the past three weeks and I’m one of them.  I literally have $19.36 in my checking account and bills are due.”

Prindle-Ivey is flat broke, Tucker said, and that may put field trips for the children into jeopardy.

Mayor Curry asked Mousa to look into this.

Mousa’s response?

“I’m on it … another mess.”

____

JCC CEO Jon Heymann offered comments with the organization’s side of the story.

He said that JCC got a fully executed contract from City Hall July 19; JCC had executed it on June 23. JCC cannot pay contracts until “fully executed,” Heymann said.

Heymann also asserted that the city’s risk management department works directly with the non-profit to make sure they have the required coverage.

Furthermore, Heymann asserted that “prior to the publication of this article and upon receipt of a fully-executed contract, JCC requested that the city disperse funds to the agency.

So, a happy ending. After what seemed to have been a period of high anxiety for the summer camp provider.

____

Curry has had to deal with the issues related to summer camp funding for weeks now.

The Jacksonville Children’s Commission changed its funding model this year, allocating more money per camper in a pursuit of quality. However, providers got locked out in the process, as fewer campers could be accomodated.

This led to the Mayor and City Council members finding almost a million dollars to allow more campers and more providers to be accommodated.

Curry at the time noted that was an ad hoc solution to the problem, and that reforms were coming — yet those reforms have been delayed.

They were expected as part of the budget process, yet Curry was still mulling next steps.

Now he has another problem to mull.

The Jacksonville Children’s Commission and the Jax Journey are the two programs that handle programs for underprivileged youth.

Combined, they receive roughly $35M a year — roughly 3 percent of the city budget.

Yet more than 3 percent of the headaches for those on the fourth floor of City Hall.

Jax Councilman’s company: Whistleblower lawsuit lacks merit

Earlier this summer, we reported on a whistleblower lawsuit brought against the non-profit company of Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Gaffney.

Former employee Darlene Peoples claimed the company, Community Rehabilitation Center, had “unlawfully terminated” her… after she was allegedly exposed to risk from HIV-positive clients without proper training and licensure.

Peoples asserted that she couldn’t find any recourse via human resources, including a fruitless conversation with Gaffney — the company’s CEO. And she claimed she was told that talking to Gaffney was of no use anyway, as he would just tell her what she wanted to hear to get her out of his face.

This week, Community Rehabilitation Center responded to the lawsuit. CRC is being represented by former Jacksonville City Councilman Jack Webb, and — quelle surprise — the response asserts that the claims made by Peoples are groundless. [CRC response]

In response to Peoples’ claims, the company would merely concede that she was in fact terminated in Duval County, and that she was employed from 2013 to 2016.

Peoples’ claims of “exceptional performance” on her part as an employee were “denied,” per the CRC response.

Likewise denied — most of the substance of Peoples’ claims that she was sent out to deal with HIV+ patients without state mandated training. The response does admit that Peoples voiced concerns to a higher ranking person in CRC, and filed a grievance, but that’s about it.

The affirmative defenses — eight of them, so far — are the crux of the response.

CRC asserts that the plaintiff offered no claim upon which relief can be granted, providing proper training and licensure all the while.

Moreover, CRC asserts that Peoples was terminated for a “non-retaliatory reason”; however, the response does not give detail as to the reason for said termination.

CRC’s attorney, Jack Webb, has become something of a go-to for city officials dealing with legal scrapes.

Last year, Webb was successful in defending Mayor Lenny Curry‘s former chief-of-staff, Kerri Stewart, in an ethics investigation.

Councilman Gaffney told us, when we asked him after the original filing, that he wasn’t involved in day-to-day business at CRC since being elected to the City Council, so he couldn’t speak specifically to the claims, but he asserted they were without merit.

Now it is up to Jack Webb to convince the court of that.

Al Lawson files ‘Veterans Jobs Opportunity Act’

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Al Lawson introduced a new bill: the “Veterans Jobs Opportunity Act,” which would
“establish a small business start-up tax credit for veterans creating businesses in underserved communities,” per a press release from his office.

Lawson’s North Florida district sprawls from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, including a lot of rural areas and small towns where economic opportunity has proved fleeting in recent decades — including for those who have fought for the flag.

“One of my priorities in Congress is working to ensure our veterans are getting the help they deserve – from job training, to access to health care and education benefits, to finding affordable housing,” Lawson said.

“Our brave men and women who have fought for our freedom deserve to be taken care of when they return home. This bill aims to help encourage veterans to pursue their dream of starting a small business in our communities around the country,” Lawson added.

Lawson’s bill has two dozen co-sponsors, including Florida Democratic colleagues Darren Soto and Alcee Hastings.

As well, Veterans Groups — including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and AMVETS — support the bill.

Equal Opportunity criteria to be part of Jax budget review in August

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry introduced the City Council to his proposed FY 17/18 budget Monday, a $1.27B plan heavy on spending on infrastructure and public safety.

Council Finance Chair Garrett Dennis is arguably the most important person in the process going forward; Finance will review the budget in August, tweaking it before the full City Council gets a vote.

One thing new this year was established by a Dennis memo released Thursday (which we reported on first earlier this week) regarding equal employment practices to Jacksonville’s Independent Authorities, the Mayor, and Constitutional Officers.

That memo reminds all parties of diversity goals set forth in city ordinance: “the Equal Opportunity/  Equal Access program progress and state, as is contemplated in Sections  400.217 and 400.221, Ordinance Code.”

“To the extent that new positions or hiring are being requested in the budget,” the memo asserts, “the Finance committee should be apprised of each departments’ success in this area inclusive of the goals and objectives for each department.  We look forward to working with the Administration over the following months to develop the budget and policies for the City of Jacksonville.”

Dennis introduced equal-opportunity legislation months back; as Finance Chair, he is well positioned to ensure that equal-opportunity legislation has teeth.

____

On Monday afternoon, Dennis discussed the budget presentation and the path forward.

“Very optimistic. I think as usual the Mayor is fiscally responsible,” Dennis said when asked for a holistic evaluation of the presentation.

“He’s given us another fiscally responsible budget,” Dennis said, “and it’s our opportunity to kick the tires come next month.”

One priority project in the budget — $8.4M for Edward Waters College improvements (a new field and dorm renovations) — is in Dennis’ district.

Meanwhile, we are hearing that there may be a quiet rebellion brewing on this particular line item benefiting a private Jacksonville college … one which could include a floor amendment on budget night.

Dennis had not heard of such resistance, he said, before speaking to the rest of the question.

“I’m committed to my district, and EWC’s in my district,” Dennis said. “Then again, we have to look at the entire budget.”

“One of the things that as Finance Chair I’m going to have to do — I’m going to have to look out for the other 13 district council members. Making sure that every district, every council member’s priorities are on the forefront, as well as the entire budget. So we’ll have to see … I want to see the budget in whole, not just bits and pieces,” Dennis said.

John Rutherford, Al Lawson show strong 2017 fundraising

Freshman Jacksonville-area Congressmen John Rutherford and Al Lawson may have different party labels.

But they both have strong fundraising in the latest campaign finance report, suggesting that either will be tough outs in primaries.

Rutherford hauled in over $155,000 off of 69 total contributions from January to June 2017; Lawson brought in over $158,000 off 118 total contributions, doing even better than Rutherford.

Rutherford’s donors, month in and month out, speak to the strength of his position. Many prominent locals — from Jaguars owner Shahid Khan on down — have given to Rutherford in the last six months. But national players, including House Speaker Paul Ryan‘s political committee, also ponied up to support the former Jacksonville Sheriff.

Rutherford’s committee has over $132,000 on hand, a number offset by nearly $96,000 in debts. Spending in the first half of 2017 period included consultant fees to Jacksonville locals Bruce Barcelo and Peret Pass.

Rutherford has yet to officially file for re-election; neither of the opponents who have filed, Republican Rob Ficker or Democrat Monica DePaul, have committees.

Lawson, still without that Jacksonville challenger, has over $148,000 on hand — a number offset by nearly $79,000 in debts and loans.

Of the over $158,000 Lawson brought in, over $116,000 came from political committees, with insurance and sugar interests well represented, as well as businesses ranging from CSX to McGuireWoods. Rutherford, for his part, brought in over $113,000 in individual contributions.

The compassionate conservatism of Lenny Curry

Those who were paying attention during the latter stages of the 2015 Jacksonville mayoral campaign may have noticed a sea change in the narrative.

As the election between Alvin Brown and Lenny Curry neared, the Republican challenger found himself speaking to a skeptical group of African-Americans at a community center in Grand Park — one of Jacksonville’s most challenged neighborhoods, a nexus of poverty and crime, dashed dreams and broken promises.

Curry spoke of an experience just blocks away from the center — and miles from his home in a more affluent part of Jacksonville — yet one that touched his heart.

He spoke of a ten-year-old boy whom the future mayor had met while knocking on doors, a child who was talking to Curry about baseball before mentioning, almost in passing, that his best friend had been shot in the chest.

Curry, who had spent much of the campaign bemoaning the Brown administration’s cuts in police officers, has returned to that anecdote many times — as a touchstone, and as a reminder that for as much as he loves the actual mechanics of politics, real leadership comes from helping those ill-positioned to help themselves.

Curry won the election, and even in a lean first budget, he found the resources to expand the mission of the Jacksonville Journey — a program brought forth years ago to help young people in Jacksonville’s toughest neighborhoods beat the odds.

And, before that budget became official, Curry launched a slogan — one that, as happens with slogans, was derided in some corners as time went on, but one that became a touchstone for his governing philosophy: One City, One Jacksonville.

A phrase used last decade by President George W. Bush  — “compassionate conservatism” — comes to mind.

That phrase was derided, as were many things associated with President Bush. But the reality is that, especially for a Republican who brands (as Bush and Curry both do) as a conservative, compassion is a necessary companion to that philosophy.

And this is particularly true for a Mayor of a large, diverse city, one with outcome gaps and achievement gaps that thus far have proven elusive to completely close, even a half-century after the city was consolidated.

Evidence of Curry’s commitment to that has only accrued over time, with even more data points emerging this month and week.

One of the signature proposals in Curry’s third budget as mayor: a $50 million “Safer Neighborhoods” initiative, including $8.4 million for a new athletic field and dorm renovations at Edward Waters College — a short drive from Grand Park in the equally challenged New Town area.

Curry also has spent a lot of time and political capital ahead of promised reforms to the Jacksonville Journey and Jacksonville Children’s Commission — the latter of which received scrutiny after Jacksonville City Councilors became aware that, under the formula agreed to by the JCC, there would be fewer children able to go to summer camps at city expense.

Curry has taken his time with those reforms, a measure of his desire to get it right.

Curry also spent part of his birthday Wednesday at a local hospital, launching a baby book project.

What I Can Be from A to Z will be distributed to the approximately 14,000 mothers who give birth every year in Jacksonville hospitals — with the goal being to encourage mothers to read to their children, and to have that reading offer something to which the youth can aspire.

Curry described the project as part of a larger city package of “investing in programs and supporting initiatives that build brighter futures, pathways and opportunities for youth and families throughout Jacksonville.”

That was Wednesday, of course. Thursday was another day, with another event — yet one devoted to that same aspirational message, one that his campaign-era critics likely never would have predicted.

On Thursday, Curry delivered a commencement address to nearly 350 young men and women who participated in the annual Mayor’s Summer Jobs Program.

The Summer Jobs Program, broadly speaking, brings workplace skill sets to those who might otherwise have struggled to get them, combining career training and jobs in both the city and private sector.

Curry’s remarks, as is often the case, were attempts to bridge gaps — and recognize those young people who are struggling against the odds — and beating them.

Curry told the graduates that they would get a lot of advice, from a lot of people, but his one takeaway for the students: “You only get to do this thing called life one time.”

Curry defined his motto as “YOLO — you only live once,” telling the graduates to “reject” negative definitions and directions that “do not reflect your hopes and dreams.”

“Flip it all upside down.” Curry said, “and be yourself.”

Curry noted that when he was young, he felt like the world was his.

“I hope you feel that way,” Curry said, “and if you don’t, find a way to get there.”

Curry talked about “pessimists” and “circumstances” of the past — which could have derailed him from his dreams — but “determination and discipline” kept him on the path he needed to be on.

Some dreams died — like those of his NFL career.

Others survived, such as his political ambitions, desire to own a business, and desire to coach football.

“Always put yourself in a position to have your hand on the door handle when opportunity knocks … you always have to be in position to open that door,” Curry said.

The struggle wasn’t easy: Curry worked a 60 hour week as an accountant, coached Pop Warner football, and volunteered for Ander Crenshaw  — all at once. However, as his income crested over six figures, he considered abandoning the business owner dream — until an old friend approached him with a business proposal.

Curry thought about it for weeks, heard discouraging words, but took the leap anyway.

“I flipped it all upside down, walked away, and decided to start my own business,” Curry said.

Two guys, two cellphones, and one dream — the starting point. But from there, the business grew. And so did Curry’s ambitions, starting with a gig as treasurer of the local Republican Party.

“I wanted to be the big dog,” Curry said, and he moved up — becoming state party chair in 2012.

“A guy, Lenny Curry, that no one knew,” the Mayor said, was able to attend debates, meet Presidents, and build the network needed when he decided in 2013 to run for Mayor.

“I was only viable,” Curry said, “because I stayed close to the political dream by volunteering.”

Still, people said Curry couldn’t win: no name ID; no resources, they said.

“The voices were loud and persistent, but I ignored them,” Curry said.

And he won. And that brought him to this place, this time, where he was able to give this speech to these young people — many of whom had never heard that kind of message delivered in that kind of way.

“Want your dreams,” Curry said, “more than you want to breathe.”

For Curry, who launched his One City One Jacksonville message in this building two years before when he was inaugurated, this speech brought the message full circle.

In more ways than one.

Democrat Nancy Soderberg opens CD 6 campaign in DeLand

Democrat Nancy Soderberg kicked off her campaign for Florida’s 6th Congressional District that historically has been based in Florida’s First Coast by heading to and appealing to its new center of gravity, Volusia County.

In her campaign roll-0ut Wednesday in DeLand, Soderberg delivered a standard, moderate-Democrat pitch that was heavy on her party’s usual positions of fixing the Affordable Care Act, protecting the environment, recognizing global warming, and promising to push manufacturing and small-business jobs.

“I love this historic iron works,” she said, referring to the buildings surrounding her debut venue, a former iron works forge that has been turned into shops and restaurants, including the Café Da Vinci Gardens where she spoke. “Since 1890 this site has been host to businesses that are the backbone of this country. This site served as a forge and metal fabrication business, for all types of welding and assembly, trailers, until the late 1960s. And these businesses represent the best of American entrepreneurial spirit. Today this area continues to thrive as a center of small business.

“Like many of you I am concerned about the direction of our country. Congress is not running,” she continued. “And you deserve better. And that’s why I’m proud to announce my candidacy to be your next representative from the 6th Congressional District. I’m running to fight for us, the people of Florida: good jobs that pay a living wage, our children’s education, and a secure retirement.”

And her speech was light on explicit jabs at Republicans, from President Donald Trump to incumbent U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis.

One exception involved her promise to fight to retain the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, such as full-funding for Medicaid and protections of pre-existing conditions, two policies that would have taken a hit in the American Health Care Act that House Republicans approved this spring.

“Ron DeSantis may think no one noticed his vote for that mean-spirited plan. But he’s wrong. I noticed. You noticed. We all noticed,” she said. “And you can be sure we’ll make it a big issue in 2018.”

Whether the former U.S. Ambassador takes any harsher shots, and whether she becomes a serious contender in a district the Republicans have controlled for a long time, may depend on what DeSantis, a staunch conservative, does. The three-term congressman from Ponte Vedra Beach has been exploring a gubernatorial run, which could open the seat. So far there are no other major names in the race, though last year’s brief Republican candidate, lawyer Will McBride, is keeping his paperwork fresh.

Soderberg has hired a couple of staffers, but still has not selected, or is not ready to announce her choice for, major campaign consultants. However, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is with her, sending aides to her kick-off, showing an unusually early commitment to a race, after having helped Stephanie Murphy flip the adjacent Florida’s 7th Congressional District last fall.

Like Murphy in much of her campaign, Soderberg spoke moderately, stressing forging consensus and attacking Congress in general, rather than making partisan attacks.

Soderberg also is from the Jacksonville end of the long district that runs the coast from there to Daytona Beach and then takes in al of Volusia and a corner of Lake County beyond. But she said she has rented an apartment and moved into Crescent Beach, in the middle of the district. And she made it clear she believes Volusia, bluer than most of the rest of the district, is the key.

She has a Jacksonville consulting firm, Soderberg Global Solutions, and is director of the Public Leadership Program at the University of North Florida. She also told the crowd of a couple hundred people at her debut  that she’ll be guest lecturing this fall at DeLand’s Stetson University.

“I believe we need to talk to the people of the district…. I have to do well in all the areas. Volusia is 70 percent of the district. You can just feel, not just in Volusia, but in Flagler, and Lake and St. Johns, people want to take this country back,” she said after her speech.

She occasionally spoke specifically to the district’s concerns, discussing the higher-than-average unemployment of the district and stagnant wages, and in vows to battle to reduce climate change and sea level rise, and to protect the St. Johns River.

Soderberg served as deputy national security advisor and Ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton. But except for talking about her role in Clinton’s efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland in the 1990s, she spent little of her debut speech discussing foreign policy or diplomacy.

She spoke briefly of the “need to keep this country secure. We face cyber threats, terrorists who want to harm us, intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria collapsing, global trade and threats from rogue states like Iran and North Korea.

“I know how to negotiate successfully, and I have a record of doing just that. I know how to make tough decisions that keep our country safe,” she said.

Nancy Soderberg launches campaign for Ron DeSantis’ seat

Former Clinton-era United Nations Ambassador Nancy Soderberg is officially running in Florida’s Congressional District 6.

In a launch video released this week, Soderberg noted her work under the Bill Clinton administration, with her “proudest moment” being representing the U.S. at the United Nations.

She also referenced the shambolic attempts at Trumpcare advanced in D.C. thus far, alluding to the incumbent’s support of the House version of the plan, without naming him though.

The CD 6 seat, currently held by Rep. Ron DeSantis, is in deep-red Republican territory in St. Johns, Flagler, and Volusia Counties. — in 2016, both Donald Trump and Marco Rubio won their general election contests by over 15 points.

Soderberg, the founder and director of the University of North Florida‘s Public Service Leadership Program, has been in the Jacksonville area for over a decade — and made one ill-fated foray into electoral politics in 2012, losing a race for the State Senate to Aaron Bean.

Among Northeast Florida Democrats, Soderberg has a unique visibility: she has become an increasingly frequent presence on MSNBC, rivaling the screen time enjoyed by the incumbent on Fox News.

As was the case in 2016, when DeSantis looked well-positioned to take the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate before Rubio decided he wanted another term, questions remain as to what the incumbent will do for his next move.

DeSantis has been linked to a run for Florida Governor. (We explored that possibility in May.)

And DeSantis’ ultimate decision could change the topography of this race, in what appears — if trends in special elections around the country are any indication — to be a pending “wave election” for Democrats.

Worst-case scenario for Soderberg: Ron DeSantis somehow does not pull the trigger on a campaign for statewide office, and Soderberg winds end up going against an incumbent with beaucoup money and a sky-high national profile.

Best-case scenario: DeSantis runs for Governor (or Attorney General, as some have speculated), and Soderberg faces the winner of a scrum in the GOP Primary.

Reviews of Soderberg’s launch have been mixed thus far.

Some local Democrats say she has been making the rounds throughout the district; others worry she will repeat the approach that didn’t work against Aaron Bean in 2012.

We caught up with former Duval Democrats’ Chair Neil Henrichsen this week; for his part, he is enthusiastic about the Soderberg bid, noting that the path to victory in Congressional District 6 may be challenging, but is still a path.

 

Bill gutting term limits moves to full Jacksonville City Council

A bill authorizing a referendum to increase the number of consecutive terms a Jacksonville City Council member can serve passed its second and final committee on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by second-term Councilman Matt Schellenberg, passed Finance by a 5-2 margin Tuesday morning. Between committee stops, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry punted on expressing an opinion on the bill when asked, but said that “eight years is enough for me” when asked Tuesday afternoon.

The bill, ironically enough, applies to every office but that of the Mayor.

In addition to giving another term to City Council members, the measure would afford constitutional officers and School Board members a three-term limit, pending voter approval in a 2018 referendum.

The Finance discussion was awash in self-congratulation and a robust celebration of the concept of “institutional knowledge,” ironic given the committee took nearly four hours to wind its way through a quotidian agenda.

Schellenberg, visiting Rules, lamented “two four-years and you’re out.” He also lamented the “constant turnover” bred by the draconian two-term limit.

Schellenberg also wants current officeholders grandfathered in, saying that if people wanted to step up and remove long-serving Council members, he’s all about “competition.”

Second-term Councilman Greg Anderson said he couldn’t support the bill, as the voters had spoken on this matter already.

Councilwoman Joyce Morgan, who had served on the League of Cities with Schellenberg, noted that other jurisdictions had such “seasoned” legislators compared to Jacksonville’s, and that a referendum re-do “is not such a bad idea” given the original vote for term limits was “25 years ago … such a long time.”

Councilman Reggie Brown deemed it a “disservice” to not “let the voters decide,” even as he has “higher visions for [himself].”

And he wants to make current officeholders eligible: “If it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea.”

Brown believes that interaction between government and the public is at a zenith, a high-water mark, reflective of the civic Valhalla that everyone knows Jacksonville city government as embodying.

Councilman Sam Newby, a first-term Councilor, went to a League of Cities meeting and “felt like a fish out of water” given the fact that some people there had spent 30 years in city government compared to his two.

Councilman Al Ferraro, another first-termer, liked term limits before he got elected.

Now? Mixed feelings.

But “if the voters get to vote on it, it’s their choice,” Ferraro said.

Councilman Scott Wilson was less bullish, saying he believed the community would “overwhelmingly reject” the measure, given that the public doesn’t like elected officials anymore than they did in the 1990s.

“I don’t see what we’ve done to change their opinion about a third term,” Wilson said.

Schellenberg wanted to know what those who objected to the measure were “afraid of,” which didn’t seem to be the objection at all.

“We need to forward-think, act more quickly on what’s out there,” Schellenberg said, implying that those who resist this referendum lack courage.

“Don’t be afraid of competition,” Schellenberg added.

The bill passed 5-2  , with the no votes being Wilson and Anderson.

The full Council votes on this one next Tuesday evening.

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