Jax Archives - Page 3 of 340 - Florida Politics

With federal block grants in question, Lenny Curry admin watches and waits

The press releases promoting Jacksonville’s celebration of National Community Development Week are similar between 2015 and 2017.

Both the 2015 and 2017 versions discuss how much money Duval County has derived from federal Community Development Block Grants.

This year’s model says that the city has derived $393M from CDBGs since 1975; the 2015 iteration said it was just $388M.

Both versions also promise a week of events.

However, there’s one key difference between 2015 and 2017: the principals involved, and the political context of CDBGs.

In 2015, Democratic President Barack Obama was cruising toward the end of his second term, and Democratic Mayor Alvin Brown didn’t have to worry about Obama eliminating these grants.

Business as usual.

In 2017, Republican President Donald Trump eliminated CDBGs in his “skinny budget.” And Republican Mayor Lenny Curry, who has bet chunks of his political capital on building a relationship with the Trump White House, signaled his first meaningful break from the Trump Administration by participating in National Community Development Week.

In that Trumpian context, block grants are more of a political hot potato.

And thus this event, anodyne in other years, proved to have a more compelling 2017 narrative.

City employees on hand were surprised when this outlet mentioned that no one from the mayor’s office planned to be in attendance. Others were surprised when the expected proclamation from the mayor’s office wasn’t delivered.

“We do have a proclamation,” a speaker said, “but we don’t have anyone from the mayor’s office.”

[In a phone conversation later on Monday, Curry’s spokeswoman Marsha Oliver noted that other city employees were on hand and that the proclamation could have been delivered.]

LaCree Carswell, the manager of the Housing and Community Development Division, said it bluntly when she said “these funds are on the chopping block.”

Carswell said that the $17M in CDBG money the city gets yearly is “used wisely,” with the annual event in a building on a HBCU that was constructed with CDBG money being an example.

Among the allocations funded with block grants at the so-called “Community of Hope” center: an elder-health literacy program … something essential for those in one of Jacksonville’s most economically-challenged communities.

Politicians were on hand — but they were all Democrats.

Former State Sen. Tony Hill, speaking on behalf of Rep. Al Lawson, noted that Lawson told HUD Secretary Ben Carson not to cut this program.

“We need to have it and we need more of it,” Hill said.

Jacksonville City Councilman Garrett Dennis emphasized the importance of the center, as it fulfills three goals of CDBGs: benefiting low and moderate income people; mitigating blight; and promoting health and welfare.

“Whatever I need to do,” was Dennis’ commitment to those on hand.

The City Council “will do what we can to advocate for more funds,” Dennis added.

Dennis, when asked after the event about the absence of representation from the Mayor’s Office, said “maybe it missed someone’s calendar … I’m not sure.”

However, Dennis added, “I plan on following up.”

“Him not being here doesn’t signal good or bad for this project. Why wouldn’t he want federal money coming to Jacksonville,” Dennis continued.

That said, “anytime the mayor uses the bully pulpit on an issue, it helps. Whether it’s pension, CDBG funding, homeless, whenever the mayor comes out, it really makes a statement. In no way do I think he’s avoiding CDBG or is scared to challenge Trump,” Dennis added.

We asked the mayor’s office for a statement. It was brief.

“As long as the program exists and funds are available, we will utilize them,” Oliver said.

Oliver stressed that the mayor was not taking a position on whether the program should or shouldn’t be in existence; however, as budget discussions loom, Curry’s financial team likely will have to factor in the current uncertainty from the White House.

Charles Moreland of the Mayor’s Office is expected to be at a Wednesday afternoon event, which runs opposite the Jacksonville City Council discussing his pension reform legislation.

vitti

Nikolai Vitti to Senators: Reject ‘Schools of Hope’

Duval County School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti may be taking his talents to the Motor City in a matter of weeks — but that’s not stopping him from issuing advice to the Florida Senate before he goes.

Vitti’s specific recommendation: to reject during budget conference negotiations the “Schools of Hope” charter school measure embodied in HB 5103, which cleared the Florida House last week by a 77 to 40 margin.

“Please reflect on the fact that this bill once used the term ‘Schools of Success’ and not ‘Schools of Hope.’ This is telling and indicative of why it needs to be rejected. The term success could not be used because the suggested turnaround charter schools do not have a record of success—at scale—anywhere,” Vitti asserts.

“This is a multi-million dollar strategy of marketed hope. When did “hope” become a strategy? This is not even about hope, though. We have no research or data to be hopeful that this strategy will work—it will not. The research and data already tell us this,” Vitti adds.

Vitti, perhaps cognizant of being an appointed superintendent (and perhaps with one eye on Detroit), notes that his is not a “political critique.”

“I write and send this letter as someone who has done the real work of improving urban schools, someone who has the scars of reform as a teacher, principal, state administrator, principal supervisor, and superintendent,” Vitti notes.

Vitti takes issue with HB 5103 for several reasons.

For one, there won’t be enough “turnaround charters” in Florida to satisfy student demand, both because per-pupil funding is too low, and because Florida’s accountability standards further impact revenue.

Secondly, Title I public schools already outperform charter schools serving the same demographics.

Additionally, this model is yet another move by the current iteration of the Florida Legislature to usurp local control in favor of an untested state standard. And, asserts Vitti, school choice exists already without charters, as Florida has one of the most “robust” menu of escape hatches from failing schools in the United States.

In lieu of boosting charters, Vitti suggests adjusting per-pupil funding, weighting it toward students from poor backgrounds. He also would like to see the best teachers and students turn their attention toward at-risk populations. And consistent standards applied from Tallahassee to evaluate schools and districts, as they have changed dozens of times in recent years.

Showing a certain chutzpah, Vitti invokes a potential future employer in arguing for standards affecting his current one.

“Please review the history of Detroit Public Schools. It provides a case study of what Legislatures and Governors should avoid when attempting to improve lower performance in urban districts.”

“The story is one of local resistance to state usurpation on decisions that should rest with local communities and school boards. It is a story of a political and blinded policy that distrusts traditional public education for private-like solutions that have no track record of success at scale,” Vitti notes.

Jax Councilman to Governor: Declare ‘opioid emergency’ now!

Jacksonville City Councilman Bill Gulliford sounded the alarm about the city’s opioid overdose crisis a few months back, and has mobilized city and outside resources in a fight to stem the epidemic of avoidable deaths.

In March and April, Gulliford scheduled well-publicized meetings to discuss what could be done to stem the tide.

Now, the next step: Gulliford wants Gov. Rick Scott to declare the opioid epidemic to be a public health emergency; to that end, he introduced a Council resolution last week.

Gulliford’s reasons are manifold.

First, the human toll: the 464 Jacksonville residents who died from opioid overdoses. Over half of them were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s — people in the primes of their lives.

Beyond the issues for the primary user, there is also an issue for the unborn. For every 10,000 live births in Duval, 450 babies are born addicted to heroin.

There’s a nicer way to say that: neonatal abstinence syndrome. But the consequences are the same.

Second, the resource toll: every two hours, the local fire and rescue department responds to an overdose call. The cost of Narcan and emergency transport is sapping finite resources.

Transport costs are way up, year over year. In 2015, $1.8M. That number will at least double in 2017.

Third, increasingly toxic cocktails: heroin is being cut with fentanyl, creating a multiplier effect, which often kills people before medics can arrive.

Gulliford wants state resources dedicated to the issue, the magnitude of which he believes is beyond local governments.

Orlando and Palm Beach County have joined this clarion call already.

Gulliford has a plan for those resources that may come from the state.

One proposal that emerged from his community meetings: a pilot program for treatment of addicts.

Intake would occur at UF Health. Treatment would be offered at Gateway Community Services and River Region Human Services. And peer-recovery specialists, trained at Jacksonville University, would play a major role.

The theory: those who have emerged from the hell of addiction, who understand the temptations of the substance and the lifestyle, are best equipped to help those struggling to push through.

The major constraint on that pilot program: capital.

Will Rick Scott step up? Will the Florida Legislature?

These are questions that are literally life and death for more people in Jacksonville than we can imagine.

Stephen Bittel among prosecution witnesses in Corrine Brown trial

Corrine Brown faces charges in federal court this month — and the feds have a star studded witness list.

Among the names reporters will track starting Apr. 26: Florida Democratic Party Chair Stephen Bittel, former Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover, current Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Gaffney, Jacksonville superdonors John Baker and Ed Burr, JEA Board member Husein Cumber, Jacksonville lawyer and one-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Pajcic, and former chair of the Donald Trump campaign in Florida, Susie Wiles.

Also testifying for the state: the Congresswoman’s daughter, Shantrel Brown, and her two alleged co-conspirators in the One Door for Education trial: Carla Wiley and Ronnie Simmons.

Both have pleaded out, and their sentences are contingent on cooperation with the feds.

___

Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, were named as co-defendants in a federal suit about One Door for Education.

One Door was a charity, marketed with Brown’s name and likeness, that did a great job bringing money in: $800,000 of it over four years earlier this decade.

The money, however, went elsewhere — while roughly $2,000 went for the purposes of helping underprivileged students achieve educational parity, the feds claim the vast majority of it financed the lifestyle of Rep. Brown and Simmons.

Simmons cut a plea deal in February, undermining Brown’s defense — as Simmons admitted culpability to just enough of the federal charges to implicate Brown, and as the Congresswoman’s former confidant is offering state evidence before his own sentencing.

However, Brown’s attorney (James Smith) asserts that Simmons changed his narrative, that Brown was taken advantage of by Simmons and One Door for Education head Carla Wiley, that she was not on the board of One Door, and that other factors, which will come out in trial, reveal that she was the target, not the agent, of a conspiracy to defraud.

That conspiracy, the defense will reveal, took advantage of an older woman, stretched to her limit by unique demands ranging from a far-flung district to fighting attempts to redraw that district.

Brown will have what is being called a “fairly substantial” list of pols — local, state, and national — testifying on her behalf about the process that led them to donate to One Door.

That list is still pending.

Brown now stands alone, ahead of a trial slated to start on Apr. 24. The prosecution case could take six to eight trial days, with the defense case beginning in the middle of the week of May 1.

Lenny Curry political committee makes closing pension argument

If all goes as scheduled, the Jacksonville City Council will vote on whether to enact Mayor Lenny Curry‘s pension reform package later this month.

Curry’s political committee wants to ensure the affirmative case for Curry’s audacious pension reform is heard.

To that end, the first spots in what is expected to be a six-figure ad buy from “Build Something That Lasts” hit Jacksonville airwaves and digital space this Friday morning.

The timing is purposeful: with the Jacksonville City Council expected to hold a “committee of the whole” meeting Wednesday afternoon, locals are encouraged in the spot to call the council and voice their support for the deal.

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The 60 second commercial distills the complicated message of pension reform into digestible terms and concepts.

Curry notes that the resounding victory in the August sales tax referendum gave the city necessary “resources to eliminate nearly $3B in debt.”

“The final step is a vote by City Council,” Curry continues. “In addition to the half-penny, our reforms end the pension system that caused this crisis.”

The 401k styled pension plans, Curry adds, are just like those in the private sector.

“This ensures that we won’t have a pension crisis again,” Curry said.

____

With the budget relief created by pension savings, Curry noted that “investments in the city, and raises for our police and firefighters who’ve gone a decade without” would be imminent.

Indeed, the collective bargaining agreements offer 20 percent raises over three years to public safety workers, a long-deferred bump in compensation that will bring Jacksonville closer to other major metros in the state.

“I promised bold solutions to problems. This pension reform package keeps that promise,” Curry noted.

____

The City Council faces an untenable reality if the pension package is not voted through: a $360M pension related hit in next FY’s budget.

This year’s contribution was $290M.

Further escalations would come in time for the 2019 city elections, which would be a bloodbath for incumbents.

If reform does pass, the hit next year would be $218M — with the $290M number from this year not expected until the half-penny tax kicks in around 2031.

While there are council members who want deals for their districts, and specific promises in exchange for support, the reality is that if the pension reform does not pass, austerity budgets loom for years to come.

The Curry committee’s ad campaign is a reminder of that reality.

Jacksonville Bold for 4.14.17 — My city was gone

Does Al Lawson ‘get’ Jacksonville?

Questions still remain as to whether Congressman Lawson understands Jacksonville, as his visits to the Jacksonville City Council Tuesday, and town hall Wednesday indicate.

On Tuesday, one could sense among certain council members (specifically, those representing districts that overlap Lawson’s) a grating irritation over Lawson’s constant use of Eureka Garden Apartments as a stand-in for All Things Jacksonville

Councilwoman Katrina Brown (a Corrine Brown ally) asked about community development block grants and pointedly noted that Lawson had yet to visit her district.

Wednesday’s town hall saw had no elected Jacksonville officials in attendance; a point perhaps less meaningful if Lawson demonstrated an understanding of local issues.

Instead, he wasn’t able to.

Discussions of an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in Fairfax and the city’s participation in the federal National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) program revealed a fundamental ignorance of local issues.

NBD. Only the biggest city in the district.

Lawson, when asked about his Jacksonville disconnect, noted that there are lots of “city commissions” in his district. While true, that is also tone-deaf, especially with a lot of locals looking at Florida’s 5th Congressional District and seeing it as a Jacksonville seat.

Lots of Jacksonville folks wanted to run Corrine Brown out of town on a rail.

“Oh, the corruption,” they said. “She’s such an embarrassment,” they said. “Go Gata,” they quipped — as Corrine Brown served as a punching bag for white liberals and conservatives who didn’t understand how instrumental she was to the local appropriations process.

Lawson, when asked, couldn’t even name a local appropriation he is championing.

CD 5 was a Jacksonville seat. Now it’s a Tallahassee seat.

Lawson is pushing 70 and has been at this for over a year, counting the campaign; he has five minutes worth of talking points for a city of a million people.

Issues Lawson faces … a lack of both seniority and local connections.

2018 will get real. And the Corrine Brown machine will reconfigure, even without her.

Like a Transformer, there is more than meets the eye.

Will the Corrine Brown machine reassemble with a different face? Time will tell.

After a troubled 2016, will the Corrine Brown machine transform? And if so, into what?

The 43-year plan takes center stage

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry is, more than likely, less than two weeks away from knowing if his pension reform plan will be approved by the City Council.

The projections look to be finalized after a Wednesday meeting, which incorporated new numbers from a Monday impact statement from the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund.

Its actuaries thought the plan was too optimistic in assumptions regarding both payroll growth and sales tax revenue, speculating that even after the proposed sunset of Jacksonville’s halfpenny tax in 2060, the $2.8B unfunded liability for the defined benefit pension plans that would be closed this year still would not be resolved.

The big news was the downward impact of adjustments to payroll growth projections and COLA calculations after Monday’s meeting of the Police and Fire Pension Fund.

“We still save a lot. But we save less,” was how Jacksonville’s CFO, Mike Weinstein, described the impacts of $13M of tweaks that would hit the process for FY 2018.

Though some council members, especially those in Districts 7-10, seek commitments for allocations funded by the budget relief provided by the pension reform plan, most see the mechanism as a “tool in the toolbox.”

The discretionary sales tax: not a magic bullet, but part of a larger arsenal.

That’s the sales pitch, and the administration can get at least 13 votes with it.

Interesting tweet of the week:

Ben Carson talks HUD reform

In Jacksonville with Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Lawson, HUD Secretary Ben Carson discussed his plans for HUD reform.

Carson’s meandering rhetoric (at one point, he discussed external malefactors wanting to “destroy” America) didn’t always jibe with what one might expect from HUD secretaries of the past.

But his reform proposals are worth noting, including “housing savings accounts,” which would (in theory) allow HUD residents to save money for incidental repairs or for down payments on their own homes.

Carson sent mixed signals about allocations, hinting that a large portion of Trump’s proposed $1T infrastructure infusion would go to HUD projects.

Meanwhile, he also outlined the importance of public-private partnerships in terms of HUD construction and rehab.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson and Sen. Marco Rubio share a laugh during a Jacksonville visit this week.

CBN lauds Kim Daniels for school prayer bill

State Rep. Kim Daniels got Hosannas recently from the Christian Broadcasting Network for her “big win for prayer,” via HB 303 — a measure she introduced to the Florida House to permit religious expression in public schools.

CBN notes that her testimony has been featured previously on the 700 Club.

In a session where the diminished clout of the Duval Delegation has been a depressing leitmotif for local political watchers, Daniels’ bill (poised to become law once signed by Gov. Rick Scott) is a high-profile success.

Kim Daniels, sponsor of HB 303, the religious expression bill that was one of the few successes from the Duval Legislative Delegation in 2017.

Jason Fischer extols Session accomplishments

In an email to constituents, state Rep. Fischer offers a “glimpse of what we’ve accomplished in Tallahassee so far this session.”

Among the accomplishments Fischer cites: “HB-65 Civil Remedies for Terrorism, unanimously passed the House floor … HB-245 Self-Defense Immunity passed the House floor … HB-969 Pregnancy Support and Wellness Services passed the House floor.”

Beyond these measures, Fischer also thanked the Florida Association of Sheriffs for backing his “HJR-721, Selection and Duties of County Sheriff.”

The resolution proposes an amendment to the state constitution that would require the constitutional officer of sheriff be an elected position, Fischer notes.

In a recent email to constituents, State Rep. Jason Fischer gives a brief glimpse of Duval Delegation accomplishments for 2017 Session.

NE Florida legislators roll out March fundraising

Some mild surprises in fundraising reports from members of the First Coast Legislative Delegation emerged in March.

Sens. Keith Perry and Audrey Gibson led the field. Perry was a ham sandwich away from a $30,000 March, and already has $102K to defend his competitive Gainesville seat. Gibson (also chair of the Duval Democrats) broke the $20,000 barrier; she will face no competition for re-election.

Meanwhile, the political committee of Rep. Jay Fant (“Pledge This Day”) raised $54K of establishment Jacksonville money. Fant, described by many as persona non grata in the House after bucking Speaker Richard Corcoran on incentive voters, is still looking at a run for Attorney General.

Those with long-term memories will remember that, in October, Fant ran against a write-in for re-election to the Florida House … and burned through $70K on advertising designed to drive name identification up.

Could he use that money now?

Jay Fant showing off his glad-handing talents.

It will take more than ambidextrous handshaking to get Jay Fant to the next level.

Osteopaths name Aaron Bean Legislator of the Year

The Florida Osteopathic Medical Association announced this week that Fernandina Beach Republican Sen. Bean is its 2017 Legislator of the Year.

FOMA said the annual award goes to a lawmaker that has proved their support for osteopathic medicine and the delivery of quality health care to the citizens of Florida.

“I am beyond honored to be FOMA’s 2017 Legislator of the Year,” Bean said. “As a longtime advocate for health care issues and a former chair of the Senate Health Policy Committee, I understand how important it is to be constantly working to improve our health care and adopt treatment, prevention and alleviation advancements that benefit all Floridians.”

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams fingered “activist” Gary Snow as a catalyst for the near-riot at Hemming Park last week.

Jax Sheriff: Gary Snow ‘catalyst’ of Hemming Park melee

What happens when someone working a pro-police gimmick gets tagged, by the sheriff no less, as being a “catalyst” of a riot?

This is what happened to Gary Snow, a Rust Belt transplant who moved to Jacksonville last year and was immediately cradled to the bosom of the local GOP.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams told us Tuesday that Snow, in fact, was a “catalyst” of the melee in Hemming Park between protesters and police — and the JSO is reviewing video of the event, as well as its procedures.

“That event Friday — he clearly was a catalyst” for the violence that occurred, Williams said.

“We had dozens and dozens of protests in Jacksonville, peacefully. We’ve got a great working relationship with the Progressive Coalition and many other groups in that protest.”

With another protest slated for April 15, it will be interesting to see the short-term and long-term procedural changes with regard to managing protests and the counter-protester, whose actions “catalyzed” what is sure to be numerous lawsuits and news cycles to come.

Curry talks Journey to One

Though Duval County is now down to 55th among Florida’s 67 counties, Curry is still pushing the city toward a “Journey to One.”

That #1 spot is held by St. Johns County.

Jacksonville residents, reports WJXT, lost 75,000 pounds last year in response to Curry’s challenge to the city to lose a million pounds; 3,900 locals participated in the mayor’s challenge.

“I am here today to support this, to remain committed to it,” Curry said. “While I am very good at the daily exercise I will tell you, the daily diet continues to be a fight and struggle, but I’m accountable knowing that we are all in this together.

Lenny Curry taking stock in Jacksonville’s physical and fiscal health.

Springfield Overlay controversy grinds on

Springfield residents continue to resist changing their zoning category to allow a 12-unit residential facility for the disabled and the chronically homeless.

There are a number of bills related to zoning changes and to financial settlements with the federal government, Disability Rights Florida, and Ability Housing that keeps getting deferred by the Jacksonville City Council. And a Monday public notice meeting offered little that looked like resolution.

Community activists and advocates won the battle, challenging all manner of zoning changes, with the backup of certain council members who objected to the zoning change legislation.

More meetings will follow, says Land Use and Zoning Chairman Danny Becton. But given the realities of pension reform, they won’t be anytime soon.

Appointed — Sara Gaver to the Florida Rehabilitation Council.

AppointedChristopher Joson as Special Officer of CSX Transportation.

Spotted — Marty Fiorentino at Omarosa Manigault‘s wedding and reception in Washington, D.C. at Trump International Hotel. She married pastor John Allen Newman. Also in attendance were Kent and Ashley Justice, Eric and April Green, and Cantrece Jones. Jacksonville’s Bishop Rudolph McKissick, Jr. and Bishop John E. Guns served in the wedding.

Avalanche coming

More jobs may be coming to Jacksonville, reports WOKV.

“An economic incentives agreement filed for City Council consideration as ‘Project Avalanche’ says a health care information technology services business that already exists in Jacksonville is considering three cities for its expansion. They say the incentives are a ‘material factor’ for whether to choose Jacksonville,” WOKV says.

Jacksonville leaders have sounded the alarm for economic incentives, including passing a City Council resolution in support of Enterprise Florida this week.

The company, located in Southeast Jacksonville, seeks a $1.25M QTI grant. The company, unnamed as a condition of negotiations, has 300 employees — and would add 250 more.

Important, as Jacksonville reels from the massive cuts to the CSX workforce.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao taps Fiorentino as senior ports adviser

Addressing an American Association of Port Authorities event in Washington last week, POLITICO Florida reports that Chao announced Fiorentino, former chairman of the Jacksonville Port Authority, is serving as her senior adviser on ports. “We are less than two months old in this new administration, and I so desperately needed veterans and experts,” Chao told the gathering of port officials. “So please be assured that you have someone, your advocate, in the office of the secretary.”

JAXPORT honored for auto excellence

JAXPORT announced last Thursday that it picked up an award for auto excellence from Automotive Global Awards North America.

The 2017 Terminals and Ports Operator award recognizes the port for its collaboration with auto processors and ocean carriers and was presented at a ceremony in New Orleans.

More than 600,000 vehicles moved through JAXPORT during the 2016 fiscal year, and the port is home to three major auto processors which offer processing facilities as close as 100 yards from ship berths.

Jacksonville Armada FC topped NASL standings after a 1-0 victory against FC Edmonton Saturday night. The second-straight win leaves Armada FC undefeated. (Photo via Armada)

Kartik Krishnaiyer’s Armada recap

The Jacksonville Armada FC are off to a flying start — one that’s caught Armada fans and NASL watchers off guard. The club under Mark Lowery has beaten Edmonton in successive weeks by back-to-back 1-0 scorelines to race out to the top of the NASL table. The surprising start for the Armada puts the club in early contention for the most surprising team in any U.S.-based professional soccer league.

The Armada made quick work of the Eddies in Alberta on Saturday, recording the winning goal in the eighth minute. After an aggressive start, Jacksonville won a corner. Playing a short corner to  Zach Steinberger who was positioned at the corner of the area, resulted in a clean finish from the Armada midfielder into the bottom left corner.

Edmonton appeared shellshocked and didn’t really push the issue with the exception of an 18th-minute chance until the second half. In that second half though the Eddies pushed forward with numbers, creating several chances and half chances. Caleb Patterson-Sewell, the Armada goalkeeper, kept a second successive clean sheet, making four saves in the process.

“They put a lot of pressure on us in the second half,” said head coach Lowry, “but I’m a big believer that you have to stick to your principles. Our principles are trying to play, trying to pass the ball, and trying to build out from the back. Edmonton made it very tough for us to do that tonight but we stuck to it. If you stick to your principles, you get the reward.”

The Armada will test its fast start against the San Francisco Deltas at Hodges Stadium Saturday. Kickoff is 7 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on beIN Sports.

Gerald Wilkerson launches run for Duval County Judge

Gerald Wilkerson, a Jacksonville lawyer specializing in criminal law and family law cases, ran a close race against Mark Hulsey for a 4th Circuit judgeship last year, losing by a close enough margin to require a recount.

The campaign was full of drama and intrigue, with Hulsey coming under scrutiny for racist and sexist comments he made on the bench, as well as for tasking assistants with work outside their official duties.

Hulsey resigned in January before impeachment proceedings were to begin. And he’s out of the political game — permanently

Wilkerson, meanwhile, has launched another judicial campaign– for Duval County Court Judge in 2018.

Wilkerson, who carried Duval County narrowly against Hulsey, will be able to build off of name recognition acquired in the tri-county race in 2016.

Currently, he is unopposed … and the current occupant of the office, Brent Shore, gave Wilkerson his “blessing” to run.

Since that contentious August primary, many of those who backed Hulsey — even in the face of media and official scrutiny — have had what could be called buyer’s remorse.

“Many many people are very mad about it and feel as if I should have automatically gotten it when he resigned,” Wilkerson said Thursday.

Wilkerson has plenty of lead time in which he can get his campaign going, and he’s starting slowly with the hopes of building momentum, talking to potential supporters and courting key endorsers, such as the Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters, in the weeks ahead.

He plans on qualifying by petition, an effort which will be bolstered by a combination of his previous campaign effort and the realization among many Hulsey supporters that they should have given Wilkerson a closer look given the former judge’s issues.

Jax City Council hopeful Ron Salem posts big March numbers

Jacksonville Republican Ron Salem has never served on the Jacksonville City Council. Yet he has attended recent meetings on pension reform and the opioid crisis — showing the kind of real interest and engagement that separate him from other candidates, both those who have declared and those teasing a run.

Also demonstrating interest and engagement: Salem’s March fundraising.

Salem, thus far the sole declared candidate to replace termed-out John Crescimbeni in the 2019 race in AL-2, had a second straight month over $25,000.

March brought in $26,800, after a February haul of $30,800, which brings his two month haul to a tidy $57,600.

Not bad for a deeply-connected local Republican, who is two years out from the election.

Salem, a client of Tim Baker and Brian Hughes, is following the tried-and-true template of warning other candidates out of the race with strong fundraising out of the gate.

Among the donors whose names readers will know are the following:

Kerri Stewart, Chief of Staff for Mayor Lenny Curry, gave $150. Michael Munz and Audrey Moran went in $250 deep.

Bob ShircliffLindsey BrockNick Mousa, Gary Chartrand, Darnell Smith, and Demetree Enterprises all gave $1,000 — the maximum contribution.

While Bill Bishop has been linked to this race, Hughes and Baker would love a second shot at him after how the mayor’s race went in 2015, with Bishop endorsing Curry’s opponent after his own loss in the March “first election.”

Salem looks well on his way to having the capital needed for any race — positive or negative — he needs to run.

Al Lawson’s first Jacksonville town hall leaves unanswered questions

For U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, 2017 is show and prove time — especially for the eastern part of his district.

Lawson, who beat Corrine Brown in last year’s Democratic primary before rolling to a general election win against a perennial also-ran Republican candidate, has had difficulty messaging to Jacksonville.

Speculation abounds that former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown is looking at the seat, along with other politicians with strong local bases.

Other Jacksonville politicians may be looking as well. They won’t discuss it on the record. But when the notebook is closed, they have plenty to say — and plenty of criticisms of Lawson.

In that context, events like Wednesday evening’s town hall at the downtown campus of Florida State College – Jacksonville are essential.

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In a half-filled auditorium, the Congressman spoke — and Lawson kept his remarks, as is his tendency, at a macro level.

His canard about “Washington being partisan” popped up in the first few minutes of the event. And reiterated, as a functional refrain.

“The partisan bickering has got to stop,” Lawson reiterated later. “Once you get to Congress, people start working for the next election. They cross the street and start raising money.”

In contrast, Lawson wants to “be a voice” for his constituents.

Lawson, who has yet to file a bill in the Congress, also discussed the importance of “earmarks,” noting his commitment to “the dredging issue which is so important here,” alluding to conversations with the Governor, the City Council, and Rep. John Rutherford.

When asked about local appropriation requests after the event, Lawson had this to say.

“You know, I filed appropriations requests for infrastructure — roads, bridges. I can’t be specific because in the area we talked about we said we needed more funding for ports, for dredging issues, for issues to enhance educational opportunities, and so forth.”

Lawson added that “you really don’t do many earmarks anymore. You work with your colleagues to solve those particular issues. The same kind of resources you need in most areas you need throughout the district.”

When asked about the JaxPort dredge — a matter of local controversy for many reasons — Lawson said that “early on, I met with the Riverkeepers [SIC], and they told me they were not opposed to dredging as long as there were adequate funds in there for mitigation. And so I thought — and more and more I talked to them, I was surprised to see they were going to file a lawsuit on the dredging issue.”

“The dredging issue — being almost like an environmentalist myself — I know there’s safe things you can do in the river because we’ve been doing it for years,” Lawson added, discussing “issues related to the river in Duval for many, many years.”

“There seems to not be a lot of trust. But anytime you can bring in and satisfy the environmental concerns and bring in 15,000 jobs, that seems to be very significant for this particular community.”

__

Lawson was more comfortable with big picture stuff.

On Syria, Lawson wanted the “United States to take the moral high road,” and “take care of those kids we can.”

“We don’t know how much we accomplished. But we do know that it’s necessary,” Lawson said, adding that for President Trump to go into Syria, he needs Congressional authorization, and “to work with other countries, to make sure we [protect] humanity.”

Later on in the town hall, Lawson pledged that he wouldn’t vote for a declaration of war, but he “probably would have voted for some kind of strike,” even though it may or may not have “solved anything.” And “we really need to take [Assad] out … because it’s inappropriate, what he’s doing, destroying life.”

Finally, in the post-event gaggle, Lawson refined his position.

“Assad is a thug and he needs to be removed. No one should do what he’s done to be people of Syria. That’s unacceptable. Very humane. Unhumane, what he has done, [SIC]” Lawson contended, adding that “hopefully, Russia will come around.”

____

Lawson tried to elucidate common ground in the sprawling, cartographically-challenged Congressional District 5, waxing poetic about the district extending west, before noting the importance of affecting “the quality of life in people’s community.”

Lawson also reprised his familiar refrain about Eureka Garden, crediting Sen. Marco Rubio for calling attention to the issue, and lauding HUD Sec. Ben Carson for coming to Jacksonville on Tuesday.

While he knows there are other complexes that need help and the spotlight, he didn’t name them.

This was something that came up, obliquely, at the Jacksonville City Council meeting Tuesday night, with Councilwoman Katrina Brown noting that Lawson hadn’t been to her district yet.

Lawson noted that he had gotten to “address the city commission and have the opportunity to know them just like I’m doing in every city.”

“It’s not just in Jacksonville, but it’s seven other counties where you have to interact with city commissioners,” Lawson added, before discussing his collaborations with Rep. Rutherford again.

When asked about being an older Congressman and dealing with a learning curve in Jacksonville’s particularly parochial politics, Lawson said age was “not an issue.”

“When you go up to Congress, you’ll see that most people are kind of elderly … I wouldn’t be in Congress if I thought I couldn’t solve the problems in the district.

____

Lawson, asked about education, said that he backed charter schools — and that he intended to bring Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to Duval County, to “educate” her on local schools.

“I like charter schools. They put competition in there … so our kids can have the best quality of education.”

“Our kids is performing very low in this state,” Lawson noted. “Whether it works or not, only time will tell.”

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Questions from locals about environmental contamination issues at an EPA Superfund site on Fairfax St. led to Lawson first recommending they go to City Hall, then suggesting they get legal counsel, before rushing them off the mike.

Other hyperlocal questions (including one about a failed Habijax project called Fairway Oaks, where the land wouldn’t support the homes built on them, and another about the NIBIN program that locals are using, in tandem with the feds, to identify shell casings to solve violent crimes) also got that long stare that politicians get when their sole connection to the area, before exploiting Corrine Brown’s legal morass, is buying clothes in Jacksonville as a kid and a friendship with Artis Gilmore.

The Congressman would have seemed to be on firmer ground with big picture, national talking points, including the Affordable Care Act.

However, his answers there lacked any specifics or anything that could be pull quoted, before he launched into one of many stories about his work in the Florida Legislature — in which Lawson discussed successes from almost a decade ago in Tallahassee.

Asked about a bill that would decriminalize cannabis on a federal level, meanwhile, Lawson did address the costs of mass incarceration — briefly — saying that the country can’t afford it.

Lawson, discussing cannabis legalization, punted on taking a position in discussing it, saying he doubts the bill is going to pass — as the questioner spoke with conviction about the wastefulness of America’s war on weed.

In the post-event gaggle, however, Lawson committed to supporting rescheduling marijuana.

Some questions didn’t have gaggle followups, however.

When asked about Net Neutrality, Lawson punted to his legislative assistant, as “they’ve been dealing with that issue long before I got there.”

____

Congressional District 5 was once a Jacksonville seat. And it will be again — unless Lawson figures out a way to bridge the distance, both physical and metaphorical, between the State Capital and the Bold New City of the South.

Barring an acquittal, Corrine Brown won’t take that seat back.

But other pols are licking their chops … yet Lawson isn’t concerned.

We asked about Alvin Brown — and potential others.

“I don’t worry about that. I can’t come up there and be in Congress for three months, and then worry about who is going to run. Whoever wants to run, it’s a free country — let them run. I have never backed down from anybody who wants to challenge,” Lawson said.

“When you just get in office and you’re trying to learn your way to do something, how are you going to worry about who’s going to run? You’ve got to go and do a job.”

‘Slight adjustments’ drive City Council pushback to Jax pension reform projections

A Wednesday afternoon meeting of the Jacksonville City Council was intended to facilitate deeper inquiry into Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry‘s ambitious pension reform package.

However, the big news was the downward impact of adjustments to payroll growth projections and COLA calculations after Monday’s meeting of the Police and Fire Pension Fund.

“We still save a lot. But we save less,” was how the city’s CFO Mike Weinstein described the impacts of $13M of tweaks that would hit the process for FY 2018 — if the legislators approve the plan.

And that is still an if.

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Police and Fire Pension Fund actuaries thought the plan was too optimistic in assumptions regarding both payroll growth and sales tax revenue, speculating that even after the proposed sunset of Jacksonville’s half-penny tax in 2060, the $2.8B unfunded liability for the defined benefit pension plans that would be closed this year still would not be resolved.

The PFPF report, and a binding vote from the board, catalyzed changes in assumptions from the city.

City CAO Sam Mousa and CFO Mike Weinstein kicked off the event, noting that the mayor’s office has met with every single member of the City Council already, and is attempting to answer questions.

Mousa noted that the PFPF meeting, described above, necessitated “slight adjustments” in “program savings,” and promised detail about how those adjustments will be made.

Weinstein then went on to describe the “slight adjustments.”

“The goals were to try to create a revenue stream that would adequately fund the $3B” unfunded liability, to make sure the three funds were financially sound, and to offer budget relief to enhance services and provide raises.

“The work that our actuary had done … basically were a first cut,” Weinstein said, assuming that the PFPF actuarial analysis would jibe with the city’s.

However, the PFPF “did two things we didn’t do,” Weinstein said.

One such thing: a different payroll growth assumption — 1.5 percent per year from the city, versus 1.25 from PFPF.

The PFPF, said Weinstein, went with the “smaller payroll growth,” which led to a $2M increase in the city’s contribution next year.

“We lost $2M in next year’s savings,” Weinstein said. “They chose 1.25; we think it should be 1.5.”

____

“A second thing that happened at PFPF was even a bigger surprise,” Weinstein said.

“The new actuary for PFPF determined,” said Weinstein, that COLA calculations had been done improperly.

This leads to an $11M increase in next year’s payment … and is an issue that the Curry administration had attempted to message months ago.

“We still save a lot. But we save less,” Weinstein said.

“If we don’t get this done and back from Tallahassee,” Weinstein said, the collective bargaining agreements fall through.

“They’ve made their decisions,” Weinstein said.

“There’s a long history with the PFPF and the city,” Weinstein said. “We asked for 1.5 … the Division of Retirement asked for 1.5 … they made the decision and we didn’t have the time to really deal with it.”

Though the $2M is “painful,” it “didn’t merit a blowup,” Weinstein said.

___

The adjustments lead to the following changes:

If reform happens, the city would have to pay $221M in pension costs; if not, $360M.

The difference would still be $139M, as the original numbers were $208M and $349M respectively.

Weinstein also discussed what savings would look like: $69M compared to $82M in the original projections, comparing FY18 reform to FY17 contribution.

Weinstein also outlined calculations showing savings over four years instead of three, noting that “for the first 14 years, we will have a savings” from the $290M this year.

The anticipated savings: $69M in FY 18; $72M in FY 19; $65M in FY 20; and $55M in FY 21.

JEA savings in the plan has been reduced, said Weinstein, who noted that $60M in PFPF Reserve Funds would be part of the city contribution.

The impact of raises: also revised, with a $120M hit anticipated in FY20 and FY 21.

Weinstein also offered projections based on a 3 percent revenue growth and a 2.5 percent revenue growth in the general fund, including discussing a so-called savings bank.

“If we take the $10M and use it for growth, we still have $40M in savings,” Weinstein said of the four year projections, which see the “savings bank” bolstered in the first two years, then used to offset raises in years three and four.

Weinstein extolled potential general fund growth, with expectations that after four years, general fund growth will be up anywhere from $73M to $98M after costs.

“This does provide some relief,” Weinstein said, noting a $37M hole in next year’s budget — without reform.

“It’s not perfect. There may be pieces in it you don’t like. But the piece you don’t like may provide four pieces you do like,” Weinstein said, noting collaboration with Tallahassee and 22 bargaining units over a year and a half.

Mousa referred to this as a “sound financial program.”

“We know the issues. We know the positives. We know the negatives. And I believe we found a balance,” Mousa said.

___

Questions came from the council.

“We have all of these experts, actuaries … my problem with this whole situation,” said Councilwoman Katrina Brown, is a lack of a “defined number” of how much money is in the General Fund.

Weinstein noted that budget is released in July, which provides clarity.

“If you want it to have an impact on next year’s budget,” Weinstein said, the City Council needs to vote “now,” or the work will be undone.

“If you want to do this the way it’s laid out — good and bad — you need to do it in a reasonable time,” Weinstein said.

“The mayor proposes and the City Council disposes,” Mousa chimed in, regarding the budget.

____

Councilman Aaron Bowman noted projections don’t account for growth of expenses.

“The level of growth,” said Weinstein, depends on “variables” in future budgets.

“All those will be basically decided by you … our budget doesn’t have to go up … there are many years that our budget has gone down,” Weinstein said.

Bowman deemed this a “weak answer,” and wanted historic details on growth.

Weinstein noted that staff is down 1,000 bodies since 2009, indicating that growth is not a requisite.

“We know we’re paying a lot more … we know that expenses are going up … what I’d like to see is a better definition” than “$98M in our budget,” Bowman noted.

“We got rid of 1,100 people because costs went up,” Mousa noted. “Decisions are made to counterbalance [increased] costs by reductions.”

“I’m not sure that I want to take you to Vegas with me,” Bowman deadpanned.

One positive: an expected $40M YOY increase in property tax collections.

____

Council VP John Crescimbeni noted that, “if we don’t do pension reform, we’re going to be looking at cutting.”

Mousa described the potential of “terrible, terrible budget cuts.” Layoffs would be “very possible.” And Mayor Curry would not “support any millage increase.”

This is “concerning” to Crescimbeni, who noted that millage cuts in the past led to today’s degradation of services.

Mousa said the budget being developed is at current levels — as if reform does not happen.

____

Councilman Tommy Hazouri, a former mayor, wondered if there would be more surprises to come.

Mousa asserts that “all has been buttoned up now,” with the PFPF impact statement “outlier” now factored in.

Weinstein added that the Florida Division of Retirement approved the mechanism.

That said, Mousa added that the city is not “married” to these statistics, especially with yearly actuarial review and adjustment factored in.

“We feel very comfortable with the information presented here,” Mousa said, noting that unlike the Better Jacksonville Plan, which was predicated on borrowing with a 5 percent annual sales tax revenue growth rate, the pension reform plan does not involve borrowing.

“We’re not borrowing any money here. We’re not hoping that 4.25% will stay forever and ever,” Mousa added, noting — again — the yearly review function relative to sales tax projections.

___

Councilman Garrett Dennis warned against “booby traps” that might await the mayor in 2031.

Weinstein believes that contributions will accelerate, and “the real cash starts rolling in in 2031,” with the impact blunted by the declining value of the dollar (the “present value calculation”).

Other booby traps?

“Don’t do DBs. There’s too much unknown,” Weinstein said.

“Make sure you hire the right folks,” Mousa added.

____

Not all the feedback was bad.

Councilman Jim Love lauded the flexibility of the plan.

Councilman Bill Gulliford said that “savings down the road” will be a “big, big number,” noting that a “previous administration” provided unbalanced budgets that required a millage rate increase.

Pension reform, Gulliford added, is a “big topic” with bond rating agencies, which have seen pension as the “#1 focal point” of the yearly meetings.

“There are no absolutes. You want guarantees,” Gulliford said. “All of this is based on … a projection. We don’t know or control the things that can happen like an economic downturn.”

“What are our options? For years, we have looked at this thing … your options are pretty clear,” said Gulliford.

Those options: accept this or cut services and hike the millage rate.

“This is the best chance that I think we’ve got,” Gulliford said. “You don’t want to go where we’re headed right now.”

Councilman Matt Schellenberg noted that “we’ve been working on this for the last six years,” and “we’re on the right track.”

“The Council can always raise the millage rate one or two mills,” Schellenberg noted, though it would take 13 votes to get it through Mayor Curry.

And Councilman Al Ferraro endorsed the plan as a way to “stop the bleeding.”

“We’ve inherited a lot of things that we have to deal with,” Ferraro said. “If we don’t do this, I can see a huge problem in my area and the whole city.”

Councilman Tommy Hazouri endorsed the credibility of the plan in his comments as well.

___

Despite Gulliford’s endorsement, the questions kept coming.

Councilman Reggie Brown questioned why millage hikes weren’t coming.

Councilwoman Joyce Morgan wanted assurances that the plan was “recession proof,” but the administration wouldn’t offer them, but “we can’t guarantee anything.”

“The only thing guaranteed is that you’ll die one day,” Mousa said.

“The majority of the contribution,” said Weinstein, “will be handled by the half-penny as much as possible.”

Morgan kept pushing back.

“We don’t talk about how we’re going to have more for our communities. We’re going to have the savings. Can you address that?”

Mousa noted that “if you don’t vote on this, services in the community are going to get worse.”

Morgan encouraged that parlance be used as part of the sales pitch.

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