Jacksonville Archives - Page 2 of 53 - Florida Politics

FEMA audit of Jacksonville’s post-Matthew spending looms

The city of Jacksonville is girding up for a looming late-April audit of post-Hurricane Matthew spending, much of which could be reimbursed by FEMA.

Reimbursement is contingent on a number of factors, according to a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Jacksonville CAO Sam Mousa.

FEMA requires a lot of detail. Among the asks: costs claimed and the precise accounting; payroll records; accounting and contracting procedures; insurance policies; and an itemized list of contracts.

The city had once estimated $100M in damage, though that estimate moved downward as more information was known.

FEMA would offer 90 percent reimbursement.

Jacksonville Bold 3.31.17 — Too much of a good thing

In a sense, Jacksonville is the cradle of Republicanism.

The city has a politically active Republican mayor.

The City Council: majority Republican.

Republican Governor. Republican Legislature.

What could go wrong? How about the imminent end of the economic boom?

Look at what’s happening to CSX.

Hunter Harrison, 72, was brought in to run the operation, imposing a “Logan’s Run” management style, in which those with real experience were shown the door.

Sure, the company was top-heavy. But the reality is a lot of people are losing a lot of good jobs.

Where will they find new ones?

The job creation events, a staple of the early part of Mayor Lenny Curry’s term, have dried up — a function of corporate unease over imperiled Enterprise Florida.

Their attitude: “if you lack the money, honey, we lack the time.”

Pension reform is a big story — and we’re covering it a few stories below the lede.

But there is an irony that in a city and a state where Republicans maintain control over all levers of power that economic development (flawed though it may be) is even up for discussion.

Lenny Curry, Rick Scott tag team for incentive push

In Jacksonville Wednesday for a “military roundtable” messaging on behalf of Enterprise Florida, Gov. Rick Scott and Mayor Curry said all the right things.

Scott lit up local legislators, like Jason Fischer and quasi-local ones, like Palm Coast’s Paul Renner, for voting against incentives.

But Scott didn’t serve up the fiery rhetoric he did when in Jacksonville earlier in the month.

“Along with keeping Enterprise Florida alive, we need to keep the Florida Defense Alliance,” Scott said. “We’ve got some House members who already voted to eliminate the Florida Defense Alliance.”

Scott added that the programs are “fully funded” in the Senate … and worth noting: he has had meetings this week with dozens of Senators, including Rob Bradley and Aaron Bean.

Bean called it a “happy visit.”

Bradley, lauding the governor’s “underrated sense of humor,” said  substantive issues, from EFI and Visit Florida to medical marijuana to water, were discussed — as was the “absurdity of the political process.”

Gov. Scott and Mayor Curry face the Jacksonville media.

Seal of approval

Though Gov. Scott appreciated Mayor Curry stopping in to help sell the doomed “Trumpcare” plan — which didn’t even get a House vote — the fact is the effort failed as we wrote last week.

It wasn’t Curry’s fault, or Scott’s fault: they weren’t buttonholing the Freedom Caucus or the Tuesday group. They featured in a last-minute pitch for the plan — on Curry’s turf — and Team Trump couldn’t sell it.

Curry, of course, is a party guy. Scott is looking toward Bill Nelson’s Senate seat. And sure, Florida voters have the long-term memory of fruit flies.

But this one hurt Florida — and Jacksonville — as a place the administration can sell initiatives.

The VP decided to make his stand here, giving Rutherford a platform because neighboring Ted Yoho and Ron DeSantis weren’t feeling this bill. The governor came in and got his moment in the spotlight. And Mayor Curry made the stop before going on spring break.

And all of it added up to nothing. Even Ted Yoho and Ron DeSantis, who were supposed to be pressured by the Pence push, were unmoved.

In Jacksonville Wednesday, neither Curry nor Scott demonstrated regret over the failed push, despite evidence of a Trump pivot.

“The message was ‘repeal Obamacare.’ The message remains to those Republicans in Washington: ‘repeal Obamacare,’” Curry said.

“I’ve spent a good amount of time with President Trump. I know he listens. And my hope is that we can come up with something that all Americans can embrace,” Scott added.

Water issues, near and far

Coverage over the last week has focused on regional water issues — and with good reason, as Mark Woods and A.G. Gancarski contend.

In the Florida Times-Union, Woods describes how “Old Florida” once looked: “Miles and miles of ‘perfect beauty,’ of a grand forest of cypress robed in moss and mistletoe, of cypress knees looking like champagne bottles set in the current to cool, of palms and palmettos, of gleaming water and grinning alligators.”

Jacksonville, Woods observes, isn’t like that anymore. And neither is much of North Florida, including the Keystone Lakes, as Gancarski reported for FloridaPolitics.com.

“Decades back, Lake Geneva was full — kids swam in the water that used to be underneath the raised pavilion. Out on the lake, water skiing contests and other events supported local businesses and brought tourists from miles around to this corner of Old Florida,” Gancarski wrote.

Sen. Rob Bradley, Rep. Bobby Payne and Travis Cummings with other Clay pols in Keystone Heights

Now the lakes are drying up. Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Bobby Payne are carrying a bill to allocate $35M of Amendment 1 money for North Florida water needs, with the Clay delegation members’ priority being to restore those lakes via pumping in water from flood-prone Black Creek.

It will help to restore the aquifer, the legislators claim.

The bill is further along in the Senate than in the House. But for the sake of the Keystone Lakes, it needs to be signed into law this year.

Pension bills filed in Council

Back in January 2016, Lenny Curry’s pension reform plan (close the current defined benefit plans and cap that $2.8B unfunded liability, extend the ½ cent local sales tax to pay for them, and lock new city hires into defined contribution plans) seemed like the heaviest of lifts.

However, the Curry administration went into Charles Atlas mode, getting Tallahassee’s OK, getting 65 percent on a referendum OKing the tax extension, and negotiating generous DC plans with the unions.

And they stiff-armed their old nemeses at the Police and Fire Pension Fund board in the bargain, saying that the PFPF had no say so in this going forward.

Now? The final step is approval from the Jacksonville City Council.

Three bills to watch

Bill 2017-257 would, if passed by the council, levy the half-cent discretionary sales tax approved by voters via referendum in August.

Bill 2017-258 affects the general employees and correctional worker plans; 2017-259 implements revisions to the Police and Fire & Rescue plans, closing extant defined benefit plans to those hired after Oct. 1, 2017. It commits the city to a 12 percent contribution for those general employees and a 25 percent contribution for correctional and public safety officers hired after October.

Councilman Bill Gulliford, a principal architect of the 2015 pension reform plan, spoke positively.

“The direction we’re going in is the right way to go,” Gulliford said, especially considering that “there are not a lot of alternatives.”

Gulliford has not seen the financial projection, but he believes “the numbers will support the proposal.”

The first date to watch: April 6, when the council will spend four hours hearing about the financial projections for the plan — data which the Curry administration has kept under wraps thus far.

Journey to 55

Here’s to your health, Duval County. You need all the help you can get.

Duval County is down seven points in the state’s yearly health rankings, from 48 to 55.

Bad optics for Mayor Lenny Curry, who put Duval on a “journey to one” last year.

“Duval County ranked 49th in length of life, 54th in quality of life, 36th in health behaviors, 10th in clinical care, 35th in social and economic factors and 58th in physical environment (physical environment looks at air pollution levels, drinking water violations, housing issues and commute times),” reports the Florida Times-Union.

St. Johns County, of course, has that No. 1 spot — and advantages which include a lack of the problems big cities face, a lack of legacy costs and industry, and a wealthier commuter population.

Vitti does Detroit

Detroit is known for many things: techno music, mass production of cars, and Motown.

Soon, the local school district may also be known for poaching Duval County’s School Superintendent, Nikolai Vitti.

Vitti, widely seen as the front-runner in the two-man race, has Detroit “in his DNA.”

The often-controversial super went back to the Motor City Wednesday to interview for that district’s top job.

“I will not lead from my office. I will lead in schools, with the staff and the community,” Vitti said in Detroit — an accurate depiction of his work in Jacksonville.

Vitti speaking at a Jacksonville church in 2016. Odds are good he won’t be back there.

More ironic, though, was his call for continuity.

“I think one of the tragedies, as far as the history of public schools in Detroit, has been an instability of leadership and constant changes so every leader wants to put their own fingerprint on a body of work and that means disrupting the previous leader’s work,” Vitti said.

The same could be said about Duval County — the district he would leave.

Some have suggested Clay County Superintendent Addison Davis replace Vitti.

Davis, Vitti’s former right-hand man, was elected in Clay last year. If he left the job, he’d leave Clay in the lurch.

But that would be Clay’s problem. Not Vitti’s, or Duval’s.

Spies Like Us

Jacksonville is a neighborly town, where someone is always watching over you. It is especially true if you were a protester of recent vintage, WJXT reported this week (piggybacking on a Times-Union report).

The issue: a JSO contract with “Geofeedia,” a company which keyword tracked social media phrases like #BlackLivesMatter … though, in what had to have been an oversight, not #AllLivesMatter.

Who’s looking out for you? Until recently, these guys and gals.

Geofeedia was cut off from social media platforms this year after the American Civil Liberties Union balked at the data-harvesting.

JSO’s Geofeedia deal lapsed; however, those at protest events had better be ready for the spotlight, as rallies are recorded.

“You never know what is going to happen,” is the rationale for that.

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Unconventional convention center

Jacksonville’s Prime Osborn Convention Center is heavily booked these days, reports the Florida Times-Union.

For trade shows, though, rather than conventions.

And for those advocating that Jacksonville build a new convention center — a contention made by many stakeholders over the years, one crystallized in Mayor Curry’s transition team recommendations in 2015 — millions of dollars are at stake.

Prime Osborn Convention Center at work. [Photo: VisitJacksonville.com]

Council President Lori Boyer contends “in terms of the size of the facility and of the amenities offered in the facility compared to what larger and newer convention centers elsewhere offer, we’re certainly at a disadvantage.”

However, Boyer and others agree that a convention center has to come with other upgrades: more hotels, being closer to the action, a revitalized entertainment district.

Can Jacksonville make up for decades lost to places like Orlando and San Diego regarding chasing conventioneers? That very much is an open question.

JIA CRA sunset

Community Redevelopment Agencies, or CRAs, are under fire in Tallahassee and Jacksonville both, as we reported Wednesday.

On the state level, a bill is moving through the House to end them … but appears to be stalled out in the Senate.

Locally, one CRA — that of the Jacksonville International Airport — has been recommended for sunset in 2019 by its trustees.

While they claim that the CRA accomplished its goals of blight reduction, councilors are pushing back, saying that there is plenty of real blight in the area that was not addressed

In fact, the “blight” the JIA CRA addressed mainly involved replacing trees with the River City Marketplace, a shopping center which has helped to put Dunn Avenue and Gateway Mall on life support.

The disconnect between the CRA board and the councilors speaks to a fundamental lack of communication as to what the CRA was supposed to do.

Ironically, that only helps to make the case that thus far has been more persuasive in the House than in the Senate.

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Down with LNG?

Liquefied Natural Gas, or LNG, is a big part of the region’s energy strategy — with evidence of that surfacing last week by two 260-ton storage tanks housed at JAXPORT.

“The tanks — each one-half the length of a football field — are each able to hold 100 million liters of LNG fuel, which means enough for 14 days of travel — two round trips to Puerto Rico,” reports WJXT.

Crowley Maritime has dropped $500M into the technology, about which one corporate rep said Jacksonville was “leading the world.”

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Flagler residents tell Paul Renner they want home rule on vacation rentals

A standing-room-only crowd packed into the Hammock Community Center last weekend to tell Republican Rep. Renner that they don’t like the vacation rental bills moving through the Florida Legislature this year.

Hammock residents said they don’t like companies such as Airbnb coming into their neighborhoods to rent single-family homes to vacationers, and they say the argument that vacation rental companies are keeping cash-strapped homeowners from facing foreclosure is baloney.

“There’s really absolutely no truth in the fact that these are struggling people trying to keep their house. These are investors who are preying on us, ruining our community,” one homeowner said to applause.

Renner seemed responsive to his constituents’ pleas at the town hall, whereas the area’s senator, Travis Hutson, hasn’t been.

Renner said he’d vote no on HB 425 when it comes up in committee this week, and that he’ll vote against it if it reaches the floor. Hutson, who was not at the town hall, hasn’t made his opinion known on the bill, which would curb local control measures on vacation rentals that he pushed through the Legislature in 2014.

A word with Marty Fiorentino

The president of The Fiorentino Group in Jacksonville, spent the past few weeks shuttling back-and-forth to Washington, D.C. to help Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, a longtime friend, get things up and running at the federal agency. A transportation expert in his own regard, we caught up with Fiorentino to talk about his relationship with Chao and transportation issues on the horizon.

FP: Tell me a little bit about your history with Secretary Chao.

MF: During the administration of President George H.W. Bush, I served as counselor to the Deputy Secretary of Transportation, who was Elaine Chao. After moving back to Florida, we remained friends over the years. She later became head of the Peace Corps, President of the United Way and Secretary of Labor for eight years under President George W. Bush. She was named Secretary of Transportation by President Trump. She asked me to come up to Washington to assist her as things got up and running at the Department of Transportation and I was honored to help.

FP: From an outsider’s perspective, the Cabinet confirmation process seemed to be tumultuous. As someone on the inside, what was it like working with Secretary Chao through the transition?

MF: Actually, Secretary Chao’s confirmation process was relatively uneventful. She is well-known by the Senate and has had a distinguished career of public service. In fact, she was one of the first cabinet members confirmed by the Senate.

Marty Fiorentino

FP: How do you think the Secretary will work to implement the president’s campaign promise for massive infrastructure spending?

MF: The president has made infrastructure funding one of his highest priorities. An interagency group has been established at the White House led by the National Economic Council to develop a national infrastructure plan. Transportation issues cut across numerous departments and involve everything from pipelines and broadband to the energy grid, roads, bridges, ports, airports, permitting and public-private partnerships and finance. It involves Treasury, Energy, EPA, DOD, OMB, Interior, Commerce and, of course, USDOT. The Secretary has a working group that meets internally and weekly with the White House to develop this plan and DOT will have a big part in implementing it.

FP: As a Floridian, what infrastructure projects do you think should be a top priority for Secretary Chao and President Trump?

MF: Florida of course! Actually, the time it takes to permit transportation projects is a terrible economic burden and job killer. If we can shorten that process it will unlock a lot of economic prosperity and expedite long needed transportation projects that are under design and development. Governor Scott has been to Washington and Secretary Chao and I had lunch with him. He was a strong advocate for Florida’s highway, rail, port and airport projects. Personally, I think the Governor has been spot on with his early support of Florida’s seaports and willingness to put the state’s money behind them.

Jacksonville Zoo LEGO-themed Safari EGGscursion

Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens hosts Eggscursion, its annual spring event, April 15 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The theme of this year’s hunt will be a LEGO Egg Scavenger Hunt. Guests will crisscross the Zoo searching for hidden LEGO eggs throughout the park. Participants that register guesses with the correct number of eggs found will be eligible to win a Grand Prize! Also included are bounce houses, photo ops, games and crafts and goody bags on the Great Lawn. Eggscursion is free with Zoo admission.

Trailer Bridge boosts service from JAXPORT to Dominican Republic

Trailer Bridge, Inc., is now offering added service to the Dominican Republic from JAXPORT’s Blount Island Marine Terminal. The company will offer two sailings per week to Santo Domingo, in addition to its longtime weekly call from JAXPORT to Puerto Plata. The vessels also call San Juan, Puerto Rico during the twice-weekly rotation to Santo Domingo.

Trailer Bridge serves the Dominican Republic trade lane with larger, 53-foot containers which the company says significantly reduces per-unit cost over traditional 40-foot containers. Trailer Bridge has been serving the Caribbean market through JAXPORT for more than 25 years.

Fiesta forever: Block party moratorium bill withdrawn from Jacksonville City Council

A bill to impose a 90 day moratorium on block parties in Jacksonville was withdrawn from the city council Tuesday evening by NW Jacksonville Democrat Reggie Brown,

The legislation (2017-196) posited “a legitimate public purpose in imposing a temporary moratorium on permitting recreational street closings … ‘block parties’ within the City, to allow the City time to create appropriate local regulations and standards.”

Brown’s legislation had ben slated for an emergency vote.

However, he believes the looming threat of a moratorium led to moves toward a change in the process, with cooperation from Public Works and the Office of General Counsel.

Brown expects revision of ordinance code going forward.

With that, a long and winding committee process, which included a public notice meeting, is wrapped.

Though no legislation resulted, Brown clearly was satisfied enough with the evolution of the process to pull the bill.

Jacksonville leaders observe sexual assault awareness month

The national observation of Sexual Assault Awareness Month is in April, yet Jacksonville kicked off the month days early on Tuesday, with city leaders convening in the atrium of the city hall.

Jacksonville’s Sexual Assault Advisory Council was created in 1998, intending to bring awareness to the issue and to let victims know they have recourse.

And in Mayor Lenny Curry, Sheriff Mike Williams, and State Attorney Melissa Nelson, those dealing with these issues have three powerful and committed allies and advocates.

“I stand her with the people behind me, who signed up every day to protect you,” Curry said. “I stand with them in my budgets [and in] my heart.”

Curry read a proclamation, denoting the widespread nature of sexual violence, which he said impacts every person — as a review of the statistics made clear.

One in five women, and one in 71 men will be raped. One in six boys and one in four girls: sexually-assaulted before they turn 18.

And college campuses are no safer, with one in five women and one in 16 men likely to suffer sexual assault.

Curry urged those in attendance to “use our voices to change the culture.”

“Prevention is possible when everyone gets involved,” Curry said.

Melissa Nelson, the region’s state attorney, noted that “these crimes are often some of the most underreported,” urging the community as a whole to “step up and speak out.”

Survivors and loved ones, as well as bystanders, were urged by Nelson to say something if they see something.

Sheriff Williams noted that the JSO participates every year in this awareness raising, and this year asked local students, including fraternities and sororities, to increase awareness.

Williams noted Jacksonville has worked very hard on this front, but there is still a ways to go.

Of 405 sexual battery cases in 2016 locally, there has been a 48 percent clearance rate.

That rate, low as it sounds, compares favorably to the 36 percent rate of clearance nationally.

After the event, Curry summed up the impact.

“Sexual assault is underreported. Victims often feel shame they should not feel. There are resources available to them,” Curry said.

“Today is about letting victims know that we see them, we hear them,” Curry added.

Florida’s unemployment rate holds steady at 5%

Florida’s unemployment rate held steady at 5 percent in February.

This marks the second month in a row the state’s unemployment rate has been at 5 percent, and mirrors the unemployment rate the state experienced in the first two months of 2016, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The state added 239,800 jobs private sector jobs year-over-year in February. According to the DEO, the professional and business services industry added the most jobs — 43,000, or 3.4 percent increase — during the one-year period.

“I am proud to announce that Florida’s private-sector businesses have created nearly 54,000 new jobs in 2017,” said Gov. Rick Scott in a statement Friday. “Over the past six years, we have been relentless in our efforts to make Florida the most business-friendly state in the nation because a job is the most important thing to a family.”

The agency reported trade, transportation, and utilities added 42,000 jobs, or a 2.5 percent increase; education and health services added 40,500 jobs, or a 3.3 percent increase; and the leisure and hospitality industry added 40,300 jobs, or a 3.5 percent increase, during the same one- year period.

The Orlando region continued to lead the state in year-over-year job gains, adding 50,900 jobs between February 2016 and February 2017. The Tampa Bay region added 36,100 jobs during the one-year period, followed by Jacksonville with 25,900 jobs.

Jacksonville leaders’ arguments for state incentives fall on deaf ears in Tallahassee

Jacksonville may be Ground Zero for the debate about economic incentives. Local leaders want them, but the local Florida House delegation does not.

This week, yet another prominent person in Jacksonville’s City Hall sounded the alarm for state incentives via Enterprise Florida.

The Jacksonville Daily Record reports that local OED head Kirk Wendland made the case for Enterprise Florida on Tuesday to local stakeholders.

Wendland’s quotes are so on message with Gov. Rick Scott that they could have come out of his press shop.

“If any of you know any senators and you have any conversations with them, please convey that it’s serious. We are counting on them to save Enterprise Florida,” Wendland said.

To hear him tell it, the merry-go-round of economic development is slowing: “just the discussion of Enterprise Florida not being there, and not having a state economic development agency, has absolutely affected the deal flow that we have seen over the past couple of months.”

Consultants — the kind that handle site visits for companies — aren’t biting, saying “we’ll come talk to you” after the incentive fight wraps.

If Enterprise Florida is cut, it “will have a material impact on us being able to compete for major projects here in Florida, in Jacksonville specifically,” Wendland told the Daily Record.

Wendland’s words echo the positions of two members of the city council, Jim Love and Aaron Bowman (whose day job is with the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce).

Bowman and Love are pushing a resolution to affirm support for Enterprise Florida, which they believe is especially important for Jacksonville compared to other major metros in the state.

The salient numbers for Councilman Love: 5,000 jobs and $650M in private capital investment since July 2015.

Even before the council resolution, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry spoke to our Northeast Florida bureau about the need for incentives.

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

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

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

Since the beginning of his mayoral administration in July 2015, Curry has evangelized for Enterprise Florida.

“Funding for Enterprise Florida is critical and important for Northeast Florida,” the mayor said in the summer of 2015. “It’s how we get deals done.”

It’s not just government workers who back Enterprise Florida.

It’s also the donor class, as Shad Khan made clear as early as 2015.

“I want to applaud Governor Scott,” Khan said. “If there is one lesson [to be derived] from Florida, it’s that economic development,” when prioritized, “leads to other things down the road.”

Such development can’t happen without Enterprise Florida, he said, and commented that the funding deficit is “disconcerting” because “the returns on funding are phenomenal.”

He urged the Legislature to “loosen the purse strings,” lest opportunity for corporate recruitment be lost.

Khan said, controversially at the time, that “there’s nothing iconic about Jacksonville.”

In that, he’s right.

Economic incentives have been the rising tide that has lifted at least some boats locally.

Companies like Macquarie, KLS Martin, and Deutsche Bank all expanded Jacksonville operations in the last two years.

All of those deals were incentive driven.

Jacksonville is an acquired taste for corporate types, used to the faster pace of life in New York or other traditional hotbeds.

However, it was just this year that Bloomberg reported that Jacksonville’s efforts, aided and abetted by state economic development, are paying off.

“Global financial companies including Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank and Sydney-based Macquarie Group have been moving executives here and hiring locally, even while paring staff elsewhere.

“It’s part of a Wall Street trend known as nearshoring, in which banks are moving operations away from expensive financial centers like New York to places such as Jacksonville and North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Also in Jacksonville are more than 19,000 employees of Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo,” Bloomberg notes, adding that Jacksonville is Deutsche Bank’s second largest American location.

In addition, the Bloomberg report notes that jobs in Jacksonville, such as those offered by Macquarie, are filled by “people whose jobs might otherwise have been filled in India. It provides a support staff that’s more convenient for its U.S.-based employees, while its Indian operation continues to focus on the Asia business.”

With two years of successful economic development under the current structure, it’s noteworthy that the Duval Delegation is unmoved by the results on the ground.

During this week’s vote on Enterprise Florida in the House, a grand total of one representative — Jay Fant — represented the position preferred by local policy makers.

Paul Renner, seen as an adjunct local legislator, is key to the battle against incentives.

Meanwhile, other Republicans (Cord ByrdJason FischerClay Yarborough) and both local Democrats (Tracie Davis and Kim Daniels) went with the Speaker and away from the constant drumbeat from locals that Jacksonville’s economic boom will lean toward bust without state incentives.

This has been a session of recalibrated expectations in Jacksonville’s city hall relative to this delegation: consider the aborted Hart Bridge offramp changes as a prime example.

The argument could be made, meanwhile, that the most effective lobbying on any measure by a local legislator has been by Rep. Daniels, on her bill expanding protections of “religious expression” in public schools.

Daniels took the bill over to the Senate, where she got Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley to carry it through committees to the Senate floor.

On the House side, meanwhile, the bill has had one committee hearing.

It was approved unanimously, with applause after the vote.

One can argue the merits of school prayer and other demonstrations of “religious expression” in schools.

What can’t be argued: no amount of “religious expression” in schools will bring a single job to Jacksonville.

Opioid overdose crisis becomes top priority for Jacksonville policy makers

The numbers are stark for those who care about public policy in Jacksonville. And the need for solutions is urgent.

Overdoses, at last count, end four times as many lives as homicides in Duval County, with 2016’s count of 464 casualties more than doubling 2015’s count of 201.

Caucasians represent 86 percent of the deaths, and over half of those passing away are in their 30s and 40s

911 calls for ODs to the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department have tripled, with a call every two hours now. Narcan administrations: up 500 percent. JFRD responded to over 3,411 calls in 2016, and the cost of transporting OD victims could near $4.5M this year.

Councilman Bill Gulliford and other city council members were on hand — as was Mayor Lenny Curry.

Curry noted that he “moved some things around to be here,” to address the “tragic epidemic.”

“We take this seriously. We understand that families have suffered because of this. And we have to get it right.”

Councilman Gulliford noted the statistics, including the “131 percent increase” year over year.

The goal of the meeting: to talk awareness, prevention, and solutions, Gulliford noted.

Gulliford noted that extends to his own family. He spent time last weekend talking to his grandchildren about these issues.

“I hope I made an impression on them. I pray I made an impression on them,” the councilman said.

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Richard Preston, a recovered addict, told his “hellacious story” of recovery from drugs and alcohol, using the exhorting style that blended the rolling cadences of an evangelist with the patter of a traveling salesman.

He has been sober for 11 years.

“I know that Jacksonville can be the city against which others are measured in the war against opioids,” Preston, a Jacksonville native said, describing how cocaine and other drugs derailed his promising academic career, then his work life.

“This is our opportunity,” Preston said to the politicians on hand.

“We need to bring hope to those who don’t have hope themselves,” Preston said, before shilling his second memoir about his addiction issues.

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Jeff and Edie Carlson spoke next; their youngest son is a heroin addict.

Mrs. Carlson attributed the issue to a lack of education on addiction, and the stigma attached, noting that another Mr. Carlson’s brother — a former undercover police officer — died of an overdose.

“The education needs to start with the parents of elementary school students. Middle school may be too late,” Mrs. Carlson said, before describing their son’s struggle with overdose and rehab trips.

During one post-rehab overdose, her son had stopped breathing. Timely arrival of medics kept him alive.

Currently, he is in a 90-day rehab.

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Medical Examiner Valerie Rao spoke of the agony of the calls, when parents ask her what she can do, and when she asks if “they believe in God.”

When they say they do, Rao (a religious person) is relieved.

However, the relief is short-lived.

“We have to somehow personalize this. If you start thinking like that, we can come up with solutions. If you don’t,” Rao said, “it’s not going to work.”

Miami-Dade, Seattle, Orlando — all have task forces.

Rao advised that Jacksonville have something similar.

“Everybody’s talking about heroin,” Rao said, “but fentanyl is cheap. Carfentanil is cheap … who ever heard of these drugs? But that’s what the drug dealers are using to cut the heroin.”

The casualties come quick from these lethal cocktails.

“I’m dealing in truth, not fiction. And this is what I deal with every day,” Rao said, noting that unlike in the case of cocaine, when someone can taste the powder and identify anesthetic, there is no analogue for heroin and its variants.

Rao went through recent cases, including ten just today: the common threads are a history of doing drugs and ubiquitous drug paraphenalia in many of the cases.

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The hope, as advanced by Susan Pitman of Drug Free Duval, is for a sustained community response.

Much of that, said Ron Lendvay of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, revolves around supply interdiction and prevention, via undercover officers infiltrating the communities of users.

Still, the impact builds.

One homicide sergeant had to go to five overdoses in one day recently, and as Rao said, the most corrupted drugs tend to be most deadly.

“The heroin is an organic material … fentanyl is as bad if not worse than heroin,” Lendvay said, noting that Mexican cartels are manufacturing the synthetic cutting agents.

“If anybody hears these speakers and doesn’t think there’s a crisis,” Gulliford said after Lendvay wrapped, “you must have been sleeping.”

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Audience members had their say, and the disagreements were passionate about the merits of methadone and Nar-Anon, and the limits on treatment for the uninsured.

“Magically,” said one mother, “if you are uninsured, you’re healed in three days.”

Beds at rehab facilities — River Region and Gateway — are filled for months, meanwhile, meaning that the issue for many of those struggling with addiction can’t get help.

Over the course of the meeting, what was generally clear: a sincere desire to somehow stop the epidemic, yet a realization that resources are scarce, and that interdiction of the drugs coming from Mexico has proved daunting.

Perhaps a “great, big, beautiful wall” will stop it.

Perhaps trends themselves will change, as historically has been the case with illicit drug use.

But the reality is that in Jacksonville, as is the case in major and minor cities and hamlets across the country, overstretched local governments have yet to mount a meaningful counter to this epidemic.

In Jacksonville, Thursday evening’s town hall is a start — a step forward on a long journey, one where the finish line is nowhere near being in sight.

John Stemberger’s Jacksonville HRO advocacy raised eyebrows in Jacksonville’s city hall

Though the legislative process for the expansion of Jacksonville Human Rights Ordinance is over, questions have been raised about the unique advocacy role of John Stemberger in the process.

Stemberger, an Orlando attorney and head of “Florida Family Action” who also was just appointed to the Constitutional Revision Commission, registered briefly as a lobbyist on the HRO issue in February 2016.

He let that registration lapse, but he and his political action committee continued in an advocacy role on the issue as it resurfaced in 2017 in Jacksonville, issuing “action alerts” to influence the city council and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry to vote against or veto the issue.

Having failed in the attempt to thwart the HRO, Stemberger’s group is now engaged in a campaign to ensure that Curry is not considered ultimately for the state’s CFO role after Jeff Atwater departs in a matter of months.

Some have raised the question as to whether Stemberger was or was not a lobbyist on the issue.

Jacksonville Ethics Director Carla Miller says that technically, he was within the rules.

“John Stemberger would have to be paid as a lobbyist by his organization to fit the definition.  He is president of his organization–and as such can “lobby” the City without registering,” Miller asserted.

“He can send out mass emails and urge people to contact their council members–this does not fit the definition of a ‘lobbyist’,” Miller added, citing the relevant section of city code (602.801), which holds that because Stemberger was not paid to lobby, and was an officer of his organization, he didn’t have to register.

“Our lobbying laws need to be revised,” Miller added.

General Counsel Jason Gabriel, deferring to Miller on this issue as code requires, noted that “it is interesting that this particular person had previously registered to cover their advocacy.”

We contacted Stemberger’s office Tuesday afternoon with questions on this and a $10,000 payment that Florida Family Action rendered to the Florida Elections Commission in 2014 to resolve a 2009 elections complaint.

As of Wednesday afternoon, we had not heard back.

Jacksonville police union overwhelmingly approves pension deal

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

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

81.4 percent of lieutenants and captains accepted terms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jax Chamber: Yes to Enterprise Florida

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do they buck the Speaker? Or the Chamber?

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

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

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

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