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TBARTA taps David Green as new leader

David Green is the new executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA).

The authority’s Governing Board on Friday chose Green from a list of four candidates.

Green most recently served as Chief Executive Officer for the Greater Richmond Transit Co., where he successfully launched a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route and helped the agency win a nearly $25 million federal grant.

The board selected Green based on his “in-depth knowledge of the Federal Transit Administration funding process,” according to the agency’s announcement.

Federal funding will be an integral part of implementing regional transit solutions, which the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott laid out as a priority for the agency during the 2017 Legislative Session. 

That’s when the agency’s name was changed to indicate it was a “transit” agency and not a “transportation” agency.

“While all the candidates interviewed had the ability to lead this agency, Mr. Green presented the most complete financial and technical expertise, as well as outstanding leadership qualities, which the Board laid out as being crucial at the beginning of this search,” TBARTA Chair Jim Holton said.

The board will now negotiate a contract with Green, which will be brought to the board Oct. 26 for final approval.

Interim Executive Director Michael Case – who resumed leadership responsibilities after former Executive Director Ray Chiaramonte resigned in June – will continue serving as the agency’s head until Green’s contract is approved and a start date determined.

Case will resume his previous role as principal planner and project manager once Green begins.

TBARTA is overseeing the planning process for a proposed 41-mile bus rapid transit route connecting downtown St. Petersburg to Wesley Chapel along Interstate 275.

The route would operate in dedicated lanes for portions, while utilizing buses in shoulders, express lanes and general purpose lanes in other parts. The plan is not yet final.

Feds to offer loans for businesses hurt by red tide

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) is making disaster loans available for businesses in Pinellas County affected by red tide, the agency announced Friday.

Qualifying businesses can obtain an Economic Injury Disaster Loan up to $2 million with a maximum interest rate of 3.385 percent for a term up to 30 years to help with financial obligations that cannot be met as a result of the disaster.

The initiative is a result of Gov. Rick Scott‘s request for an Economic Injury Disaster Declaration to the SBA. The governor wrote to the agency on Aug. 21 to ask for the declaration for counties affected by red tide.

Some businesses could waive the $2 million cap if they meet certain requirements. The loans apply to small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives, and aquaculture businesses. The deadline to apply is June 4, 2019.

Businesses must have a credit history that meets SBA requirements and is able to prove their ability to repay the loan. A business also must provide collateral for loans over $25,000, which can be the company’s real estate. SBA will not reject a loan application for insufficient collateral, but businesses must pledge what is available.

Pinellas County beaches have been ravaged in recent weeks by red tide that is killing fish and creating toxic air. Visitors have abandoned the beach leaving local businesses struggling to meet their bottom line.

The SBA Business Recovery Center for Pinellas County will open Tuesday, September 25, 2018, at 11 a.m., at the St. Petersburg College EpiCenter, Suite 2-200 located at 13805 58th Street N. in Clearwater. Pinellas County Economic Development is encouraging businesses to visit this office to review their options and receive assistance with applications.

The Florida Small Business Development Center at Pinellas County Economic Development continues to assist local businesses with the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program that provides small business owners with two to 100 employees with interest-free loans of up to $50,000 for 180 days.

Small businesses impacted by the red tide in Pinellas County may apply for Bridge Loans assistance through October 12, 2018.

The Pinellas economic development agency is asking businesses to complete a damage assessment survey on the Bridge Loan Program website.

The state of Florida has committed $14 million to date for red tide-related research and mitigation.

5 takeaways from the Dana Young, Janet Cruz Tiger Bay clash

Florida House Minority Leader Janet Cruz and Senator Dana Young sparred in a heated debate Friday at Tampa Tiger Bay in their battle for the Senate District 18 seat.

This Tampa-area race has become one of the most hotly contested in the nation as Democrats seek to create a “blue wave” and Republicans fight to keep their majorities in state legislatures and Congress.

There’s a lot to watch in the race that pits to veteran lawmakers against one another.

Here are five takeaways from their latest match-up:

Education is one of the top issues

The Tiger Bay Club of Tampa is known for its feisty members who come prepared to ask tough questions. Friday’s forum with Cruz and Young was no different.

In addition to a question from the moderator, retired USF Political Science Professor and political commentator Susan McManus, several Tiger Bay members asked education-related questions ranging from funding for infrastructure improvements to the pros and cons of school choice programs like charter schools and voucher programs.

Cruz bashed her opponent, the incumbent in the District 18 Senate race, for continually supporting funding for charter schools and voucher programs at the cost of traditional public schools.

“[Her priority] has been with privatizing public schools and watching the infrastructure crumble,” Cruz said.  

Young did not refute her track record on charter schools, which are publicly funded but run by private education providers, or voucher programs that give low-income students the opportunity to attend private schools using tax-credit scholarships. Instead, she said she considers “the changing face of education.

“Public education today is very different than when I went to school,” Young said. “But now we have a wide variety of choices where parents can pick what works best [for their child.”

Both candidates think they care about student safety and guns

Young voted in favor of the student safety bill earlier this year that increases the minimum gun purchase age to 21, provides funding for additional school security, bans bump stocks that allow a modified weapon to fire similarly to an automatic weapon and allows school districts to arm teachers if they opt-in. Cruz voted against the bill because it didn’t include a ban on assault weapons.

Young sharply implied that Cruz’s vote against the school safety bill meant she didn’t prioritize student safety.

“We need to figure out why [lawmakers like Janet Cruz] don’t care about children’s lives,” Young said.

“Isn’t that hilarious, Dana,” Cruz fired back in a loud voice that countered Young’s stern, but calmer demeanor. “When she was elected … she was all about campus carry. She was all about open carry.”

Cruz accused Young of being a shill for the National Rifle Association. Young said she did not vote for an amendment that would have included an assault weapon ban in the school safety bill because it would have tanked the entire thing.

Neither candidate is afraid to get dirty

The gloves were off right out of the gate. Young accused Cruz of not caring about childrens’ lives. Cruz basically called her a hypocrite. The two were so shouty at one another, dozens of people were wrestling cell phones from their pockets and pocket bags to get some top-notch footage of one of the hottest races in the nation right now.

Cruz doubled down on her “dammit Dana” slogan she just came up with this week during a press conference on education funding — this time about guns. Young scolded her for being rude.

Cruz later accused Young of avoiding a vote banning assault rifles.

“She ran and hid because she was owned by the NRA.”

In turn, Young fired back that Cruz was a shill for the teacher’s union because “she doesn’t want to lose their funding.”

There are some things on which they agree

Despite the verbal jabs, there were moments of true diplomacy and mutual respect. In a now unusual moment of bipartisanship, both candidates praised Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt for her work with troubled youth and people with disabilities.

“She recognized early on … you take a kid who’s marginal. His mom is working. Maybe he doesn’t have the support some of us grew up with. She stood up for diversion programs [to keep those kids from going over the cliff,] Cruz said.

Young nodded in agreement and added her own praise for Holt’s work with people in the system with disabilities.

Both seemed on the same page about opening primary elections, agreeing that the demographic of voters without party affiliation is growing and closed primaries effectively disenfranchise those voters.

Don’t get too settled in the touchy-feely moments though. Like Cruz, they were in the minority party.

They might both support the transportation referendum

In a nod to the bipartisan tone transportation tax campaigners are trying to strike, it’s likely both candidates will support the All for Transportation referendum that would increase sales tax 1 percent to raise $280 million a year for both transit and transportation projects.

Cruz offered her support specifically.

Young was not as straightforward saying she would “probably” support it. Young said she needs to study the bill more before making a final decision noting that while transportation needs to be a priority — and needs additional funding — it’s important to carefully consider any tax increase before placing that burden on taxpayers.

Still hiring: Tampa Bay tops state in job demand

The Tampa area continued its streak of being the second highest job-creation center in the state, Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday.

Trailing behind only Orlando in jobs created, the Tampa area added 34,600 private sector jobs over the past year. Statewide, private businesses created 20,000 jobs in August.

Tampa’s unemployment in August was 3.6 percent, lower than the state’s rate of 3.7 percent. Tampa’s unemployment rate is down from 4.1 percent a year ago.

The Tampa area again had the highest number of jobs available, according to the latest data. There were nearly 44,000 job openings in August.

The area also ranked highest in the state for demand in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, jobs with more than 14,000 positions available last month.

The industries with the highest job growth over the past year include leisure and hospitality with 10,300 new jobs and education and health services with 8,100.

Statewide, 121,000 people entered Florida’s labor force, an indication that people who had given up on finding a job now have hope that jobs are available. The 1.2 percent rate of labor force reentry is nearly double the national rate of 0.7 percent.

On the right track? Brightline could create Tampa/Orlando super region

Commuter passes will be available for high-speed rail travel between Tampa and Orlando if the route comes to fruition.

Brightline Vice President of Government Affairs Bob O’Malley said the private company would consider monthly packages similar to what it offers in South Florida, which cost $300 a month for unlimited rides.

Such a transit amenity could create a super-region by allowing businesses to easily connect between two cities once seen as inconvenient to access. Driving takes from 90 minutes to three hours, depending on traffic. A Brightline ride would take one hour, guaranteed, he said.

O’Malley, however, said the price for Orlando to Tampa passes hasn’t yet been determined.

“It sounds expensive,” O’Malley said during a presentation at Café Con Tampa Friday. “Unless you’re from the Northeast. Then it sounds cheap.”

Commuter passes are often a value for people who regularly commute between cities in which it’s too far to drive, but too close to fly. They can save on parking, gas, and wear and tear on their vehicles, and avoid the hassle of traffic and free up time to get work done or to relax.

Brightline is in a bidding process with the Florida Department of Transportation to lease the publicly owned right-of-way in the Interstate 4 corridor. The space in the median had been designated for public high-speed rail, but Gov. Rick Scott canceled that project in 2010, saying it would require too great a public subsidy.

Now Brightline is taking the financial risk. The company sold $600 million in private bonds, not backed by any government entity, in order to build its Miami to West Palm Beach route.

Brightline plans to sell another $1.75 billion in private bonds to fund the connection from West Palm Beach to Orlando.

The connection to Tampa is not set in stone, though O’Malley said the company was committed to making it happen. The project is contingent on striking a lease deal with the state. Political will, or rather the lack thereof, also could get in the way.

“We build roads without even thinking about it. But if it’s rail, it’s like a lightning rod for controversy,” O’Malley said.

The company hopes a change of leadership in Tallahassee won’t create any additional barriers, but he acknowledged it is a possibility. He said executives with Brightline have spoken with both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis, and they’re “fairly confident” both will support the Tampa to Orlando project.

Orlando’s connection with West Palm Beach already is secured.

The company identified five possible sites for a station in Tampa. All are either in downtown, Ybor City or in between.

One of the possibilities is Ybor City’s historic Union Station. O’Malley said that site would require some additions and retrofits to meet the company’s needs, but would maintain the building’s historical significance.

“When we choose our site in the Tampa area it’s going to be very important to us to be sensitive to the surrounding communities,” O’Malley said. “You have to make sure [the station] fits well or the community is not going to be supportive of it.”

The company doesn’t have any plans to offer a direct connection to South Florida without going first through Orlando. Under the company’s current plan, the Brightline Orlando station would be at Orlando International Airport. The company is already renting space there.

O’Malley said the company is considering another stop somewhere in the Orlando area, but he wouldn’t say where.

If the Tampa connection becomes a reality, O’Malley said the company may someday add a stop in Lakeland, but it would likely be a secondary stop that didn’t have the same level of frequency as Tampa and Orlando. Trains would run 16 times a day between the two main stations.

The company recently announced plans to install a route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. O’Malley said other connections are being considered between Atlanta and Charlotte and some routes into Washington, D.C.

The battle over St. Pete’s historic YMCA is still raging

Update: The St. Petersburg City Council canceled this item and did not hear the appellant’s case during it’s Sept. 20 meeting.

A more than four-year battle over the historic downtown St. Petersburg YMCA will continue Thursday during a City Council meeting.

Thomas Nestor, a local music promoter who tried unsuccessfully to purchase the building for $1.4 million, is appealing a July 10 decision by the Community Planning and Preservation Commission to move forward with conceptual designs for the property.

Former professional football player Nick Ekonomou purchased the building in 2014 and plans to convert the Mediterranean Revival-style building into a boutique hotel with 44 rooms and erect an eight-story tower behind the building with a rooftop bar and 39 rooms.

The CPPC approved the conceptual design with several caveats and set a deadline for meeting 10 prescribed changes by October 9. Nestor appealed that decision noting the originally CPPC decision was not adequately publicly noticed, and opponents to the development were not given the opportunity to present concerns.

St. Pete city staff recommend City Council delay Nestor’s appeal until after October 9 because delaying the process at this point would cause the property owner to miss the deadline for receiving a Certificate of Appropriateness for work and cancel Ekonomou’s application.

Delaying the appeal would still give Nestor the chance to ensure his concerns about the building were considered without delaying the project further.

The battle between Nestor and Ekonomou is a long-standing one. Nestor lost a court battle in 2016 over purchasing the property alleging there was an error in calculating payments on his deal after failing to meet a payment deadline. He filed another suit earlier this month arguing Ekonomou thwarted his plans to purchase the property and then sought an injunction against Ekonomou for stalking him that was immediately dismissed by a judge because it highlighted a single incident rather than a pattern of dangerous behavior. In the suit, Nestor claims Ekonomou followed him in a black SUV and threatened him.

“Whatever my ongoing legal battles might be as it relates to the historic YMCA building, I am very interested in one of the last historic landmarks in town being done right,” Nestor said. “The CPPC appears to have allowed Nicholas Ekonomou, to take shortcuts to circumvent the process for preserving and rehabbing the 1926 structure.”

Nestor argues the city, if the CPPC decision is upheld, would allow Ekonomou to present updated plans for the property site October 9 rather than requiring him to submit that information at the July meeting, which Nestor says is required under city policy.

“The CPPC vote was based on an incomplete and deficient Certificate of Appropriateness,” he said. “The proposed new tower is incompatible with the historic structure, and dominates the landmark, instead of complimenting it.”

Nestor had planned to turn the historic building into a music museum.

Thursday’s City Council meeting is at 3 p.m. at St. Pete City Hall on the second floor. It’s also broadcast online on the city’s St. Pete TV website.

Rick Scott asks for special center to combat red tide

Gov. Rick Scott is asking the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to create a ‘Florida Center for Red Tide Research’ to study the causes of red tide and research ways to mitigate its effects.

In a letter to FWC on Thursday, Scott praised ongoing efforts to study the K. Brevis bacteria and its resulting red tide blooms but said more must be done.

“This year’s devastating bloom has left no question — we must increase our efforts to find a cause and solution for naturally occurring red tide,” Scott wrote.

In all of his correspondence regarding this summer’s red tide bloom, Scott consistently refers to the outbreak as naturally occurring and points out it happens almost every year dating back to 1844.

While that’s true, critics argue the problem has been exacerbated by nutrient pollution (i.e., fertilizer runoff), a finding supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

“Algae is naturally occurring, but when you add nutrients from fertilizer and manure runoff and sewage overflow and all these things coming from Lake Okeechobee and the Mississippi River, paired with warm water, it just goes into this toxic brew and you get these massive blooms,” said Frank Jackalone, Florida chapter director for the Sierra Club.

Jackalone said Scott’s efforts are a distraction from his environmental policy failures: “He’s running for U.S. Senate, not Governor. He’s had eight years to do something about this.” 

Still, Scott is asking for several other mitigation and prevention efforts. In his letter, he encouraged the FWC to formally request additional research funding and to create a competitive grant fund for businesses to encourage innovative solutions.

He’s also asking the Legislature to reconvene the state’s Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force.

To date, the state has allocated $14 million for mitigation and compensation associated with this year’s bloom that’s affecting much of Florida’s Gulf Coast from southwest Florida to Clearwater.

Crews continue to patrol waters just offshore to collect dead fish before they reach the shore, but dead fish and other marine life still are making their way to the beach causing rancid smells.

Toxins in the air also create minor to severe respiratory discomfort. The effects can be worsened for people with respiratory problems like asthma or emphysema.

Red tide also is causing problems for businesses near the beach as visitors continue to avoid contaminated beaches.

Florida hasn’t seen an outbreak this bad since 2005 when the event lasted an entire year and created a dead zone void of oxygen.

Part of Florida’s current mitigation efforts is funding for the state’s Redfish hatchery to recover that species’ population.

Florida House Republicans push Kavanaugh confirmation

Florida House Republicans are calling on U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and other Democrats to immediately confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh as the next justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The letter — sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein and signed off on by 73 Florida House Republicans — did not mention the sexual assault allegations plaguing Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Instead, the letter touted Kavanaugh’s judicial track record and academic credentials.

“In a time when our nation is incredibly divided, we believe Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to be a unifying choice,” the letter read.

“Judge Kavanaugh’s personal life and story, his community involvement, his faith, his family, and his public service all embody the finest American traditions and serve as a model of civic virtue for others to follow.

“If Judge Kavanaugh – with the combination of academic, professional, and personal achievements and successes – is not qualified to sit on the highest court in our land, then no one is,” the letter added. 

The Republicans specifically called out incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is facing a tough re-election battle against term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Scott.

Nelson has called for an immediate investigation into allegations from Christine Blasey Ford that an intoxicated Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her three decades ago at a high school party.

Such an investigation could delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, which could be a problem for Republicans if Democrats manage to regain a majority in the Senate after November’s midterm election.

Democrats are wary of Kavanaugh’s judicial track record, which includes a strict interpretation of the constitution that could affect issues ranging from gun control to reproductive-care access.

Critics also worry Kavanaugh’s confirmation could spell the end of legal abortion if Roe v. Wade were overturned.

The Republican signatories not only rejected liberal claims about Kavanaugh’s conservative record as “histrionics,” they praised the judge as “an honorable, intelligent, and reasonable jurist in the finest conservative traditions.”

Reps. Shawn Harrison of Tampa and Chris Latvala of Clearwater, however, did not sign the letter. Harrison is still reviewing the letter, according to an aide.

Latvala told Florida Politics that though he believes “Kavanaugh should be confirmed and the timing of this accusation is suspect, I think it’s important to gather all the facts.

“That said, my focus as an elected state representative remains on working in a bipartisan fashion to protect our environment, improve our educational system, address the opioid crisis and keep our taxes low.”

Signers include House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Speaker-designate Jose Oliva, Speaker Pro Tem Jeanette Nuñez (now running for Lt. Governor alongside Ron DeSantis) and House Republican Leader Ray Rodrigues.

Photo credit: Kim Defalco

‘Dammit Dana’: Janet Cruz blasts opponent Dana Young’s education record

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, now challenging GOP state Sen. Dana Young for her Senate District 18 seat, is attacking her opponent’s record on education policy and funding.

“Dammit Dana, stop,” Cruz lamented at a press conference in front of Plant High School in south Tampa on Tuesday.

Cruz was referring to Young’s track record voting in favor of school choice programs like vouchers and charter schools, which critics say funnel funding away from traditional public schools into corporate hands.

Young responded to Cruz’s comments, arguing school choice programs are effective for children, particularly those who may not live near good schools.

Bottom line, no one can really say any more what traditional education is, because that rigid thinking does not help the students,” Young said.

“I support public education. I support school choice. And I will continue to support education funding that helps the child succeed, whatever format that is and (whatever) is best for them.”

Young also said choice programs are making public education better.

“There is only one test given to a sampling of students in every state, and that is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Fifteen years ago, Florida students were ranked 38th … Now, Florida is ranked fifth. That means the system we have works for the students.”

Cruz, the House District 62 incumbent, spoke with Lt. Governor nominee Chris King at an event touting the Gillum/King ticket’s education platform that would put $1 billion into education by raising corporate tax rates by 2 percent.

Cruz acknowledged implementing Gillum’s plan might be a tough climb in a Republican-majority Legislature, but said a Gillum win creates two wins for Democrats. 

It gives veto power over what many in the party see as damaging education proposals, and it gives Democrats a better shot at having a seat at the table in 2020 when district lines are redrawn.

“Democrats and Republicans in this state are nearly equal,” Cruz said. “Yet Republicans control (a huge) majority of the House.”

Andrew Gillum to make first Pinellas appearance since primary win

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is making his first campaign stop in Pinellas County since his surprise victory in the Democratic primary for Governor.

Gillum and incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson are featured speakers at the Pinellas County ‘Democrats’ Wave to Victory’ dinner this Saturday at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon.

The event is the party’s biggest fundraiser benefiting Pinellas County Democratic candidates.

While the hotel is nowhere near Pinellas beaches, red tide will likely be a topic of conversation. Gillum is considering touring some of the devastation this weekend, according to campaign sources.

The giant bacteria bloom, known as red tide for discoloring water to a rust-like color, is covering Florida’s Gulf Coast from southwest Florida all the way north to Clearwater.

Mounds of dead fish have been piling up on beaches. The foul odor and even respiratory distress caused from bacteria in the air has pushed visitors away from the beach, leaving popular spots like John’s Pass looking like ghost towns.

The issue has become a talking point, particularly in Nelson’s campaign. His opponent, term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott, was booed out of a Cuban restaurant in Venice this week by critics.

While the campaign and the Governor’s Office continue to emphasize red tide is a naturally occurring event that has been ongoing since the 1840s, Democrats and other critics fire back that his environmental policies have exacerbated the situation.

A Real Clear Politics poll released this week found 32 percent of respondents believed the state government was to blame for the outbreak.

Nelson’s race is one of the most important Senate races in the nation this year. While Democrats hope to overtake a majority in the Senate by unseating incumbent Republicans, they also must protect incumbent Democrats.

Polls show Nelson faces a credible risk of losing to Scott, and the Real Clear Politics poll put the two neck-and-neck this November.

Other guests at the Wave to Victory Dinner include Attorney General candidate Sean Shaw, CFO candidate Jeremy Ring, and Agriculture Commissioner candidate Nikki Fried.

Congressman Charlie Crist and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman are also attending. The event includes a cocktail hour from 6-7 p.m. and dinner and program from 7-10 p.m.

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