Jacksonville – Page 5 – Florida Politics

Ratings methodology change leads to bond upgrade for Jacksonville

Some good news for Jacksonville came Monday via another bond upgrade.

Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services announced an uptick in the special revenue bond rating to ‘AA’ from ‘AA-’.

“This latest upgrade further demonstrates our continued and strong focus on fiscal responsibility is making a difference for our citizens,” said Mayor Lenny Curry. “We continue to work hard to enhance the City’s standing with investors by doing all we can to ensure the City’s financial stability for years to come. Improved credit ratings can save our city millions of dollars on future debt issues by lowering borrowing costs, which is good for taxpayers.”

Per the media release: “Citing a change to their ratings methodology, S&P said they now consider both non-ad valorem and general fund pledges as equal since both are dependent on the successful operation of the City. The City of Jacksonville’s special revenue pledge is a non-ad valorem pledge, and backs $1.027 billion of the City’s debt outstanding as of Sept. 30, 2017.”

This is another data point for the city’s narrative of sound financial management, one that has been challenged by external sources.

In October, a Bloomberg analysis cited Jacksonville’s high fixed costs as a warning sign: Jacksonville has the highest fixed cost ratio (31.6 percent) of any city with over 250,000 residents.

“When you measure those fixed costs against a city’s operating budget, no major city is as embattled as Jacksonville, Florida. In the city of 881,000 people, fixed costs are 31.4 percent of expenses, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s driven by pensions, which made up almost 18 percent of expenses in fiscal 2016,” the report says.

Curry administration spox Marsha Oliver said that analysis was “inaccurate and overstate our employer pension contributions. It appears that they have included JEA’s pension expenses in our figure. This is flawed and does not provide an accurate comparison to other cities.”

Last summer’s successful sale of $147 million worth of bonds was described by Jacksonville’s chief administrative officer, Sam Mousa, in August as people “scrambling to buy” Jacksonville bonds, “a great indication of how great those bonds are.”

“The ratings agencies did well in looking at our history, stability, willingness to pay… these are good, stable bonds to invest in,” Mousa said.

‘Open government task force’ bill to be introduced to Jacksonville City Council Tuesday

Via 2018-133, Jacksonville City Council President Anna Brosche seeks to establish a task force to look at transparency in local government.

The bill will be on Tuesday’s Council agenda.

“The Task Force on Open Government” will “undertake an in-depth review of Jacksonville’s legislative process and the methods by which the public accesses government” and  “make recommendations for how the City of Jacksonville can be more open and accessible to the public.”

There was a potential sticking point between the Council President and the Mayor’s Office: “One cycle emergency passage of this legislation is requested. The nature of the emergency is that the committee’s reporting date is no later than June 30, 2018 and time is of the essence in order to allow the task force to convene, organize and accomplish its work in a thorough and thoughtful manner to meet that deadline.”

On Thursday, Brian Hughes, current Chief of Staff for Mayor Lenny Curry, noted in a memo that he had some issues with that emergency timing.

“This topic is related to our administration’s steadfast commitment to following all laws and regulations regarding ethics and sunshine. We always stand ready to consider ways to ensure transparency is achieved,” Hughes wrote in a memo.

Hughes’ principal objection: Brosche’s desire to expedite the creation of the task force.

She “intends to ask council to Consider legislation for creating the commission via a single meeting “in and out” basis … it seems contradictory and lacking in transparency for legislation that celebrates the 5 week cycle to be considered in such a rushed manner without committee input or multiple opportunities for the public to weigh in with their opinions and concerns.”

Hughes added that, “however worthy the commission and its charge, I think this is a troubling breach of the precedent that she herself has cited as an important tool for citizen participation.”

Brosche told us Thursday that ultimately it would be the Council decision whether the bill is what is called “in and out legislation.”

By Friday, her position had evolved, per an email to Ali Korman Shelton, head of intergovernmental affairs for the administration.

“I understand that the Administration is requesting you to speak with all my colleagues regarding the Administration’s desire to ensure the resolution I filed on Wednesday creating a Task Force on Open Government travel the full legislative cycle (versus the 1-cycle emergency under which it was crafted; not an in and out emergency),” Brosche wrote.

“While my desire was to allow the Task Force the fullest possible time to fulfill the charge by June 30, 2018 while still allowing my colleagues the opportunity to discuss and deliberate the creation of a task force to help us serve the citizens more effectively, two fewer weeks will not jeopardize the work of the task force,” Brosche said.

Brosche has been one of the more skeptical people on City Council regarding JEA sale exploration, and there has been some thought that the open government task force was a means to explore, and perhaps submarine, moves in that direction.

Other divisions of Jacksonville’s consolidated government are scrutinizing how business is conducted.

Spotlighting the JEA sale exploration running parallel to the 2019 elections and temptations for termed out pols, Ethics Director Carla Miller has suggested an overhaul of the city’s ethics code relative to lobbying, dark money, “the revolving door” between legislative and administrative jobs, and other attempts to peddle and exert influence.

For Lenny Curry’s team, privatization of public resources is not a new concept

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry took office in 2015, and even before he officially took over in July, there were discussions of reforms of government services.

His transition committees discussed some concepts, and by the time Curry’s team settled into office, explorations continued on a conceptual level of privatizing or otherwise reforming the way services were contracted to improve ROI.

By the end of 2015, there was a clear understanding that the Curry administration was thinking along these lines. (In fact, privatization was one of this writer’s predictions for what would happen in 2016).

Former New York City Deputy Mayor Steve Goldsmith, one of America’s foremost experts on and exponents of municipal privatization, began communicating with Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa.

Goldsmith-style strategies have been credited with driving the Chamber Republican-driven boom in Oklahoma City by City Journal. OKC was the locale for a Jax Chamber Leadership Trip in late 2015.

By December 2015, Mousa met with members of Jacksonville’s City Council, and privatization was discussed, via “scrutinizing” department budgets, looking at what services are required, and a comparison to the private sector providing some services.

Mousa also noted in that meeting, regarding outsourcing and privatization, that there was a bill years ago to privatize garbage services. It was quashed in council when they buckled under pressure from employees and families.

In the writing business, that’s what we call foreshadowing.

This month, Curry’s office has been under a political firestorm for exploring privatization, as conceptually discussed years ago, and as discussed relative to JEA by key Curry supporter Tom Petway as he left the board in 2017.

The sticking point had to do with explorations of JEA privatization: specifically, requests for proposals for, as Council auditor Kyle Billy put it, “Financial Advisory Services that would be needed to solicit bids to purchase JEA, evaluate those bids, assist city staff in negotiations, and assist in bringing the transaction to financial and commercial close.”

Some members of Council have been in high dudgeon over this.

Mousa, for his part, frames the exploration as nothing new, and nothing particular to JEA.

“For the last two years,” Mousa wrote in an email to Billy, “the Administration has been approached by private equity providers and affiliated operating companies interested in either monetizing our City public infrastructure or entering into public/private partnerships for new City infrastructures. Infrastructure such as parking garages, airport, seaport, bridges, roadways and various other City public infrastructure have been presented for consideration.”

In other words, the concepts explored with Goldsmith are coming closer to fruition. Though one misconception of privatization is a transfer of ownership: in many cases, leases and public-private partnerships on operation of facilities or functions are, at least conceptually, possible.

In a conversation Friday, Curry defended the exploration of valuations, as “exploratory, on the record, has been for a couple of years,” and as a potential “opportunity to maximize tax dollars.”

The most extreme and visible example, of course, the valuation of JEA, which some council members have equated to having put up for sale already.

Curry’s take: that “we don’t know the value until we ask it, and how do you know if you’re afraid to ask questions.”

Some council members have said that the exploration of JEA privatization was a way of spackling over a lack of revenue to cover pension costs down the road. Jacksonville, tax-averse compared to peer cities, also faces high fixed costs and reserve levels too low to allow further improvement in the municipal bond ratings.

Curry “rejects the premise that we don’t have what we need to invest in priorities,” citing the current capital improvement budget as an example of the city’s sound financial footing.

Rather, those familiar with the thinking of the administration see explorations of privatization of certain services as an acknowledgment of the evolution of business and infrastructural models.

For example, in the case of JEA, electrical grids in this region were a patchwork of public utilities 50 years ago; today, big private entities surround JEA’s service region, and those entities have shareholder incentives to work effectively and quickly in delivering product to consumers.

When asked if electricity would be delivered differently in this region if JEA were to be privatized substantially, Curry said “public or private, I don’t envision things looking different.”

That is, if discussions got to that point. The administration has been consistent all along in saying that the City Council ultimately ratifies contracts, not the mayor’s office.

And in that process, protections could be rendered.

Rate freezes, protecting ratepayers, could be a negotiation point. So could protecting employees, keeping them on city pension plans and leasing their contracts to private operators.

Another consideration regarding JEA specifically: the leveling off of demand. This has been a concern in board meetings, and will continue to accelerate, especially on the electrical side.

Anheuser-Busch, for example, has figured out how to recycle water for use in its bottling plant. Elon Musk and others are exploring ways to use solar to get off the grid. It follows that companies and other big-ticket users will follow suit as the technology price point becomes more attractive.

Decades away? Or years away? It’s happening, regardless, and that will affect the JEA Contribution ($116.1 million, at last count), as richer ratepayers leave the system, which will be funded more and more by people who can’t get off the grid.

A recent move to privatization in Puerto Rico was extolled by the conservative Manhattan Institute recently.

Though direct parallels between Jacksonville’s functional system and the tragicomic PREPA probably shouldn’t be drawn, the article distills the case for privatization neatly.

“International evidence shows that privatized energy companies are more efficient than their publicly-owned counterparts. Reasons for outperformance are relatively straightforward, and center on the different incentives of government versus private-sector owners. Management is considerably more disciplined in achieving efficient operation when facing oversight from shareholders that seek to maximize the value of the enterprise rather than achieving diffuse and potentially conflicting social goals,” the Insitute asserts.

As well, “commercial owners can bring with them superior technical and managerial prowess. The privatization process sees those companies best placed to operate the utility able to deliver the highest bid and secure ownership. The market for corporate control then maintains a constant discipline on management to meet industry best practices, through the threat of takeover and displacement of under-performing management.”

Is that a model that Jacksonville taxpayers feel comfortable with?

The discourse currently has sentimentalized the status quo, leaving aside annual salary boosts and bonuses for the CEO and top executives to put forth a binary discourse, one characterized by not just an unwillingness to explore change, but an unwillingness to explore change.

The task before Curry’s policy and political team is to move the discussion beyond one of political intrigue to one of a rigorous cost/benefit analysis. Time will tell if the mayor has the political juice to get that done in an election season.

‘Coward’ attacks state lawmaker’s female aide; gun control debate to blame?

Tensions are high this week, as the debate over gun control and rights rages statewide.

One legislative staffer, Sadie Haire, district aide for Jacksonville Republican Jason Fischer, a supporter of the Second Amendment, got more than words from a gun control proponent.

“On Wednesday, a man – a coward really – forced himself into my district office in Jacksonville demanding that the Legislature ban ‘assault weapons’ and other firearms,” Fischer asserted on Facebook. “He then attacked my district aide and said he was trying to prove a point about ‘gun control.’”

 

Fischer related that the man came in upset about the failed attempt to get a ban on assault weapons considered in the House. He said the man demonstrated his outrage by “slamming [Haire] into the door violently.”

“This coward was inspired to violence by the political stunt that one of my colleagues pulled on Tuesday,” Fischer said. “There is no justification, political or otherwise, for violently attacking an innocent person.”

Fischer’s office didn’t have the best security. There was no camera system so that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office could be given a picture, Fischer said.

The office is now closed, while Fischer figures out what can be done, he said. He said he’s reached out to the House sergeant-at-arms. Relocation options could include a private building with stronger security or a government building.

Fischer said this isn’t the first time someone has come into the office to confront staff, but this incident is different.

“I’m so upset he took [his anger] out on a young female staffer,” Fischer said.

As Florida continues to process the aftermath of Parkland and policy going forward, it’s clear that tensions are running high, and legislators and their staff might need better security than previously thought.

Jacksonville Bold for 2.23.18 — The Steamroller

On Wednesday, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry held a media event in which he and City Councilman Al Ferraro filled potholes in roads in a Northside industrial park.

Curry wanted to focus on the hard work being done, day in and day out, by city employees to maintain public infrastructure.

A laudable goal. Especially given where things have been lately.

Politics in Northeast Florida has been particularly parlous since the beginning of the year, as you will read below.

The Texas Death Match between Al Lawson and Alvin Brown. The No DQ tag match between those close to the Mayor and those on the side of the Council Resistance. The “JEA on the pole” match.

The prevailing image of the Curry event was the mayor on a steamroller.

Lenny Curry mans the steamroller.

Some quipped that it was apropos — symbolic of a political machine that overwhelms opposition as a matter of course.

Curry, the kind of Jacksonville public official who tweets from “On War” by Clausewitz, often uses these public works events as a “back to basics” reset when time or events riddle smooth narratives.

They are a reprieve from the heated narrative of February, spats with Council members, and the like.

They are what the business of running a city comes down to.

No one argues about the mechanics of filling potholes; yet, Tallahassee hasn’t figured out how to take away home rule for that local function.

The takeaway from the event: sometimes it’s nice to just get on the steamroller and smooth out the rough road.

Even if it’s hard to steer sometimes.

Blood money

More drama in the Democratic primary in Florida’s 5th Congressional District.

On Monday, as has been the case for weeks, challenger Brown laid into Rep. Lawson.

Parkland cast a shadow on the congressional race this week.

The former Jacksonville Mayor noted, via a media release, that Lawson was the sole Florida Democrat to take money from the National Rifle Association.

“Despite Rep. Al Lawson’s statement last week decrying the ‘stranglehold of the gun lobby,’ Rep. Al Lawson is just another Washington politician who has taken campaign contributions from the NRA in return for inaction on gun violence. Late last year, Lawson proudly took $2,500 from the NRA — making Lawson the only member of Florida’s Democratic delegation to accept money from the gun lobby.”

However, Lawson said he had NOT taken any NRA money.

Lawson responded Monday, saying flat out that Brown was “lying” about his record.

“Once again, Alvin Brown and his campaign are lying. Not only have I not taken any money from the National Rifle Association or any of its affiliates, [but] I also have scored a zero on issues important to the NRA,” Lawson began.

“If Mr. Brown did some actual research, he would see that there are no contributions from the NRA on my campaign report, or any expenditures from the NRA, or their political action committees to my campaign,” Lawson added, saying that “Brown is trying to use this national tragedy to fundraise and revive his failed political career.”

Lawson has a history of being friendlier to the gun lobby than many Democrats.

Will that matter in the August primary?

Lawson pans Trump’s ‘heartless’ budget

Lawson, who Brown is doing his best to link with President Donald Trump, panned POTUS’ proposed budget this weekend in the Florida Times-Union.

Al Lawson bashed the Donald Trump budget, but will it help him shake DINO charge from Alvin Brown?

The “irresponsible and extreme budget that would slash spending on Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, transportation and other essential government services, all while increasing the deficit …  hits our most vulnerable citizens the hardest, reflects a terrible disdain for working families, as well as a disheartening lack of vision for a stronger society.”

This editorial includes recurrent Lawson themes, including noting the high rate of poverty in Florida’s 5th Congressional District, and decrying proposed changes in the food stamps program.

The president proposed sending boxes of food to people instead of the SNAP disbursements.

Save the Date

Nancy Soderberg, a Democrat running in Florida’s 6th Congressional District, opens her campaign HQ in Daytona Sunday afternoon.

Nancy Soderberg is ramping up an impressive structure early in her congressional bid.

Soderberg recently hired a campaign manager and field director, and she is testing the theory that the seat currently held by gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis can be flipped.

Soderberg, who served as Ambassador to the United Nations during Bill Clinton’s presidency, has shown momentum since entering the race in summer 2017. She raised $207,949 last quarter, putting her above the $544,000 mark. She has $376,000 cash on hand.

While this does not give Soderberg the total cash on hand lead (Republican John Ward has $644,216 on hand), Soderberg will have the resources to be competitive.

In a quest for more resources, Soderberg has a DC fundraiser lined up for March 8. On hand: James Carville and Rep. Darren Soto.

Levine makes the scene

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a candidate for Governor, was in Jacksonville Monday evening to address Duval County Democrats.

Philip Levine was in Duval as part of his ’67-county strategy.’

Levine, on his second trip to Jacksonville in recent weeks, had a “living room” conversation earlier in the day. Even as Gwen Graham has a strong foothold in the area, what is clear is that Levine thinks Northeast Florida is in play as part of his “67 county strategy.”

“The message has been resonating … I’ve been to towns you’ve never heard of … with a message many Democrats has never heard before.”

That message: deliberately “pro-business.” Levine notes that corporate HR policies tend to be progressive.

“The only way we’re going to win a general election is to make purple … mix red and blue,” Levine said.

Read more here.

Constitutional conclave

The Constitution Revision Commission came to Jacksonville Tuesday for a marathon public hearing on the 37 proposals that are still live.

And some that weren’t, such as Proposal 22, perceived as an affront on abortion rights, and Proposal 62, which would allow for people to vote in primaries regardless of party identification. The green cards of support outweighed the red cards by a factor of 20.

Florida’s Constitutional Revision Commission visits the University of North Florida for public input.

“There are 3.4 million Floridians whose right to vote is denied,” said Jackie Bowman of St. Augustine on Proposal 62.

“To me, this looks like taxation without representation.”

Jackie Rock, a mosquito control commissioner from St. Johns County, bridged from closed primaries to consequences, noting that the Legislature did not pass an assault weapon ban, eliciting a gasp from the crowd.

The same held true for a nonexistent proposal to ban assault weapons. Anytime a speaker sounded that theme, the green cards flapped.

If there was a leitmotif to the six-hour meeting, it was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for proposals. Read more here.

Brown makes it official, challenges Gibson

The paperwork was filed Friday: Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Brown threw down the gauntlet for a primary challenge against state Sen. Audrey Gibson.

Councilman Reggie Brown denies Mayor Lenny Curry put him up to running for Senate.

But Florida Politics readers knew already.

“I am running,” Brown said in mid-January.

And contrary to what some in Gibson’s orbit are saying, it’s Brown’s decision and his move to make.

Gibson — the Senate Democratic Leader-designate — would seem like an unlikely primary target.

She has been in elected office since the 1990s and gets donations from national corporations and political committees. Gibson carried $121,000 in her campaign account at the end of January.

Brown thinks he can bring more money to the district, however.

Gibson doesn’t want to talk about the challenge, which sets the stage for the most compelling primary race in Northeast Florida this year outside of the Brown/Lawson demolition derby for Congress.

Boys Club?

WJXT, typically a friendly outlet to Curry, postulated this week that his office may be a “boys club.”

Where the boys are: WJXT story goes in on the Lenny Curry machine.

The article focused on the aftermath of a conversation between Chief of Staff Brian Hughes and Council President Anna Brosche’s assistant, Jeneen Sanders, which led to Sanders saying she felt threatened.

The Office of General Counsel backed Hughes’ version of events, saying no laws were broken.

WJXT asserted that “some people” said they felt uncomfortable around Hughes after the initial charges were made.

The money quote: “One prominent Republican in Jacksonville who works outside of City Hall said that he’s ‘very headstrong’ and ‘a classic bully’ who can ‘get in a person’s face and invade their personal space.’”

Council President Anna Brosche, meanwhile, offered her own thoughts on the City Hall dynamic and a Florida Times-Union article that essentially mansplained Brosche off the dais.

Brosche asserted that ”if my name was Allen Brosche, I would not be receiving the kind of feedback some are offering me: Take the high road, understand he is a competitive person, learn to bite your tongue, and (repeatedly) don’t take things so personally.”

“The questions to the community, the media and leaders who want me to be quiet, to be nice,” Brosche added, “are:  Is competition among community leaders the best thing for Jacksonville? As a man, is Mayor Curry getting the same advice I am?”

Meanwhile, a mysterious poll is probing Brosche’s appeal versus Curry, leading to claims and counterclaims in the consultant set as to who is pushing this poll and why.

GOP gun control push?

Peter Rummell is among the leading names in Jacksonville’s Republican donor class, and he made news himself this weekend as part of a New York Times article detailing prominent GOP donors who no longer will back candidates who support assault weapons sales.

Peter Rummell wants a ‘debate’ on Second Amendment prerogatives in the GOP.

Rummell, described as “a Jacksonville-based donor who gave $125,000 to Jeb Bush’s ‘super PAC’ in 2016, said he was on board with Mr. Hoffman’s plan and would only contribute to candidates supportive of banning assault weapons.”

Rummell said, per the NYT, “the Parkland shooting was a turning point: ‘It has to start somewhere,’ Mr. Rummell said, of controlling guns.”

Rummell has donated majorly to candidates and causes in the Jacksonville area also, including but not limited to the last two successful mayoral campaigns and the pension reform referendum of 2016.

“Al Hoffman has made a bold and decisive statement and his ultimate point is we need to do something major and radical-nipping at the edges isn’t working. Starting is hard and he’s taken what he considers to be an important first step. And, I totally agree that we as a nation need to focus on laws that would create a safer world for all. I am not sure that starting with just an ‘ultimatum’ is the right first step,” Rummell told Florida Politics in a statement, drawing a subtle but important distinction between his position and the rhetorical absolutism of Hoffman’s as documented by the NYT.

“We need a plan, a strategy and tactics. Starting any process is hard — especially one that is as serious, complicated and emotional as this is. Now is the time for us to have a debate that is honest, thoughtful and complete, taking into account all the important issues about how we live practically under the Second Amendment, which I fully support. The discussion needs to end with real transformation and actionable items that bring about real reform, protections and change,” Rummell said.

Keep it 100?

The National Rifle Association endorsed Curry for Jacksonville Mayor in 2015, yet when we asked Curry about NRA support, he said he wasn’t in “100 percent alignment” with donors and supporters Wednesday.

“Not issue specific. Any supporter, any donor, any endorser, you’re not going to have 100 percent alignment on,” Curry said at a media availability.

“At least I don’t. They don’t expect that. They expect independent thinking,” Curry said of donors and endorsers.

The NRA endorsed Lenny Curry in 2015.

We asked Curry where he diverged from NRA positions; he offered no answer, potentially a reflection of the balancing act Republican politicians currently face with the gun lobby.

“I’m a constitutional conservative, believe in the rule of law, and the firearm issue is regulated at the federal and state level,” Curry said. “My commitment to public safety has been demonstrated in real investments and real actions here in Jacksonville.”

When asked about the assault weapon ban that the Florida House effectively voted down Tuesday, Curry said it was another example of a state regulation and offered no comment on the Republican legislators in this region who voted to not even give the bill a hearing.

“Recognizing that we are in very sad times right now, tragic times, I’m going to do what I can in Jacksonville to keep our city safe,” Curry said, citing his reforms of children’s programs via the Kids Hope Alliance as an example of such action.

Stormy weather

Reimbursements will come sooner or later for the city of Jacksonville from the federal government for Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.

Flooding was a major impact of Irma, and thus far Jacksonville’s general fund remains soaked.

Until then, however, the impact of the storms will be felt in the city’s general fund budget.

The Jacksonville City Council Auditor’s quarterly report for the final three months of 2017 puts the figures in sharp relief.

“The latest Hurricane Matthew projection estimates the financial impact will be approximately $45.1 million. As of Jan. 31, 2018, the City incurred expenditures of $28.0 million related to Hurricane Matthew,” the report contends.

“87.5 percent of the total allowable expenses are subject to reimbursement, leaving the City to fund the remainder. The fiscal year 2017/18 approved budget includes an appropriation of $7.0 million from the GF/GSD to cover the City’s estimated obligation,” the report adds.

Irma is worse: the fiscal impact will be approximately $86.4 million, with no less than a $10.8 million charge to the city even if all reimbursements come through.

With slow reimbursements, one wonders if the discussion of reserve levels will be a more forceful one this summer.

The city has already been dinged by analysts for high fixed costs. These, combined with a reluctance to hike taxes, are leading influencers and policymakers to take a hard look at JEA privatization, which could net the city $3 to $6 billion.

Meanwhile, the city has worries regarding increasing interest rates and the equity market volatility of recent weeks.

Conditions to JEA sale for Curry

While on the JEA subject, Curry tells the Florida Times-Union that he’s not, contrary to opinion in some quarters, married to a JEA sale.

Lenny Curry continues to maintain public agnosticism toward utility sale.

Curry said: “There’s a whole lot of questions that would have to be answered.”

“From my perspective, I would not be supportive of anything that took a lump sum of cash in any scenario — JEA or anything else — and spent it,” Curry said. “Future generations and future taxpayers always have to be protected … people working at JEA need to be protected as well, and their families honored.”

The sale could net the city $3 billion to $6 billion, though there is a lot of salesmanship ahead between Curry and members of Council.

On Tuesday, Council President Anna Brosche took a proactive measure, setting up a special committee that will run through June looking at the issue.

She believes that if the proposal is sound it will survive scrutiny. And she, along with other skeptics, will be on the panel.

More skepticism abounds: the city’s ethics commission wants to firm up rules to avert the temptations and potential abuses of the sale process, should it go forward.

JEA straw poll bill coming, and so are ‘bounties’?

Jacksonville City Councilman Garrett Dennis is introducing a bill that would force a straw poll on JEA privatization, he said this week at a meeting of the Duval Democrats.

Garrett Dennis is a marked man, he says, by the Mayor’s office.

Privatization, Dennis said, would be “bad for our city … a cover for a shortfall for a bad pension plan that we were all duped into passing.”

Also of note: Dennis claims there is a “bounty” on five Council members from the mayor’s office.

“The mayor, who we all know is a bully, has bounties on five Council members’ heads.”

Those Councilors: President Anna Brosche and Danny Becton, two Republicans, along with Democrats Dennis, Reggie Gaffney and Katrina Brown.

Dennis, Becton, and Brosche are all on the JEA privatization committee.

‘Senseless violence’ again on Jacksonville streets

Seven-year-old Tashawn Gallon was gunned down in Durkeeville Sunday night. Per the Florida Times-Union, he died hours after being shot in a drive-by.

Curry took to Twitter hours later.

“Last night a 7 yr old was killed in a drive-by shooting in our city. We must come together as a community and stop this senseless violence to give our kids a sense of hope and peace.”

Durkeeville, a rough neighborhood for decades now, is on the periphery of Downtown Jacksonville.

“This happened Less than 2 miles from City Hall, Within 2 miles of our government and churches and schools and FSCJ and firehouses and sheriff substations, all institutions designed to help keep a community safe and allow kids the security to grow and learn how to make choices and follow dreams,” Curry continued.

“In the shadow of all that opportunity and assistance, a 7 yr old had life stolen by someone so hopeless and directionless that they didn’t hesitate to recklessly turn our streets into a war zone. We have to break through to these young people. We have to find a way to make them recognize there is so much more for them than they can imagine, if they choose to believe in hope and peace.”

Small children being shot: a running theme in Jacksonville homicides, and something that Curry has all too routinely had to address during his two-and-a-half years in office.

Fishweir Creek to be swimmable, fishable again

A Jacksonville creek restoration project awaited by Avondale area residents for over a decade is finally on the verge of a City Council green light.

Clearing committees Tuesday and Wednesday: a bill (2018-8) to move forward on the restoration of Big Fishweir Creek.

Making Big Fishweir Creek great again.

Urbanization and development over the course of decades made the tributary inhospitable to swimming and fishing, per the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The USACE outlines some benefits to the project. Included among them, making the creek “swimmable and fishable,” creating a navigable habitat for the still endangered manatee, improving water quality generally, and creation of a marsh island.

The project is estimated to cost $6,549,000; the city of Jacksonville has appropriated $2,566,375, with the USACE picking up the other 65 percent of the tab. If the federal contribution goes up, the local share will do likewise. The federal cap is $10 million.

Construction is expected in 2019.

Departures

A Jacksonville City Council candidate left the Public Service Grants Council this month, while the head of sports and entertainment also moved on.

The TaxSlayer Bowl will be someone else’s problem this year, with Dave Herrell gone.

Tameka Gaines Holly, running in District 8 to replace fellow Democrat Katrina Brown, resigned the PSG by email.

The candidate leads the money race: she posted $10,800 in January — her first month as an active candidate. Holly is the cash on hand leader, with candidates Diallo-Sekou Seabrooks and Albert Wilcox each under $2,000 on hand.

Also out the door: Dave Herrell, after almost four years handling Jacksonville sports and entertainment.

Herrell was responsible in a previous role for elevating the status of the Fiesta Bowl; however, the TaxSlayer Bowl was not particularly raised in his term.

Budget hearings between Herrell’s department and the Mayor’s senior staff, at times, were contentious, with Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa and others questioning the necessity for the department as it was constituted.

Herrell’s Resignation Letter indicates that, while the resignation is effective April 10, the actual departure date was Feb. 9.

Endorsement watch

Katie Dearing is unopposed in her bid for 4th Circuit judge. And every sheriff in the circuit backs her.

In addition to being supported by sheriffs, Katie Dearing’s nuclear family backs her as well.

“Katie is highly respected by her peers and the law enforcement community. She brings a wealth of experience and courtroom knowledge as well as practical wisdom. I proudly endorse her for Circuit Judge,” said Sheriff Darryl Daniels of Clay County.

Sheriff Mike Williams called Dearing “qualified, capable, and caring and she will be an asset to the judiciary.” And Sheriff Bill Leeper of Nassau “heartily endorse[s]” the candidate.

UNF names new leader

Jacksonville’s University of North Florida has a new president.

The UNF Board of Trustees selected University of Cincinnati business-school dean David Szymanski to become the school’s sixth president.

David Szymanski is the new president of UNF.

Szymanski currently serves as dean of the Carl H. Lindner College of Business and a professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati. The board authorized Chairman Kevin Hyde to negotiate a contract with Szymanski, whose appointment also is subject to confirmation by the state university system’s Board of Governors.

Anonymous gift brings special ed school closer to new campus

An anonymous $1.5 million gift has helped the North Florida School of Special Education get significantly closer toward a new campus.

The donation brought the school to $5 million of its $6 million goal in a three-year “Angel of the Woods” fundraising campaign. The new campus will be called The Christy and Lee Smith Lower School Campus and Therapeutic Center.

A rendering of The Christy and Lee Smith Lower School Campus and Therapeutic Center.

“This is a beautiful tribute,” school head Sally Hazelip told circlecharityregister.com. “The gift honors our past and helps plant the seeds for our future; we are so thankful for this donor’s generosity.”

The campaign is for the facility to build a 32,000-square-foot facility and a Therapeutic Equestrian Center on 5 acres of land bestowed to the school in 2014 by the Ida Mae Stevens Foundation and Doug Milne, trustee. One of the first donations to the campaign was a $1 million gift from Delores Barr Weaver to name the Therapeutic Equestrian Center.

The Smiths were among the first four families who founded the school in 1992. The school’s current Anderson Smith Campus is named after their son.

Groundbreaking is set for fall 2018 with a targeted completion sometime in 2019. The new buildings will join the current 9,000-square-foot classroom structure on the 3-acre campus at 223 Mill Creek Road. When finished, the school will cover 41,000 square feet over 8 acres.

Jax driverless vehicle prototype passes first on-road test

Soon, driverless vehicles will begin having a profound change on Jacksonville streets.

“This is not a question of if. It’s a question of when,” said Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nat Ford to Action News Jax.

Rosalie Simcoe was one of the riders on a prototype autonomous vehicle operated by Transdev tested on the Easy Mile this week.

“It was incredible. It was very smooth,” Simcoe told reporter Jenna Bourne. “I felt very safe.”

It was the same type of vehicle that soon will be seen Jacksonville streets and the Skyway. Ford expects the infrastructure conversion to support autonomous vehicles on the Skyway to take five about years.

“This vehicle here is the one that we currently have on our test track over by EverBank Stadium,” Ford explained. “And we’ll be running that vehicle for the next few months and then we’ll swap out, every so many other manufacturers’ vehicles.

“So, we’re in a test and learn phase.”

White the model tested can travel up to 28 miles an hour, for the demonstration – at the University of North Florida – it only traveled about 10 miles an hour.

As for safety, the demonstration had a person step in front of the vehicle, which came to a full stop until he moved away.

Lenny Curry laments ‘senseless violence’ on Jacksonville streets

Mayors come and go, but the bloodtide on Jacksonville streets continues.

This weekend, yet another child was caught in the line of fire.

Seven-year-old Tashawn Gallon was gunned down in Durkeeville Sunday night. Per the Florida Times-Union, he died hours after being shot in a drive-by.

“Last night a 7 yr. old was killed in a drive-by shooting in our city. We must come together as a community and stop this senseless violence to give our kids a sense of hope and peace,” Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry tweeted Monday.

Durkeeville, a rough neighborhood for decades now, is on the periphery of downtown Jacksonville.

“This happened less than 2 miles from City Hall, Within 2 miles of our government and churches and schools and FSCJ and firehouses and sheriff substations, all institutions designed to help keep a community safe and allow kids the security to grow and learn how to make choices and follow dreams,” Curry continued.

“In the shadow of all that opportunity and assistance, a 7 yr. old had life stolen by someone so hopeless and directionless that they didn’t hesitate to recklessly turn our streets into a war zone. We have to break through to these young people. We have to find a way to make them recognize there is so much more for them than they can imagine if they choose to believe in hope and peace.”

Small children being shot: a running theme in Jacksonville homicides, and something that Curry has all too routinely had to address during his two and a half years in office.

After a November 2016 shooting of an infant, Curry addressed the problem with similar urgency.

“When you have a child shot and killed,” Curry said, that “wakes the community up.”

“When this happened,” Curry continued, “there were other shootings happening in the city … and the night before, and the night before that.”

2016 also saw the shooting of toddler Aiden McClendon, which Curry described as the toughest thing he ever had to deal with as mayor.

Jacksonville saw 142 murders in 2017. That was one murder short of the record set in 2008.

Curry ran for office on a platform that included stopping the violent crime in Jacksonville streets.

In 2015, Curry’s campaign rhetoric was fiery.

He claimed that since Brown’s election, “murder and crime” have spiked, and we’re now “even seeing kids dying on the street.” Brown’s “inability to manage a budget” led to “fewer cops [and a] spike in crime and the murder rate.”

Brown, said Curry, “demonstrated that he was not serious about [reducing] crime over the last four years.”

By the end of that campaign, Brown was talking tough, saying in a May news conference to gangbangers that “we are not going to tolerate it anymore. You do the crime, you are going to pay the time.”

He had also requested help from the Justice Department.

Curry prioritized restoring the “Jacksonville Journey” as a candidate. Since he has been in office, the mayor reorganized youth programs under the aegis of the Kids Hope Alliance.

What’s clear, however, is that campaign rhetoric and policy follow-through haven’t caused the murder rate to abate.

Jacksonville’s Big Fishweir Creek restoration clears City Council committee

A Jacksonville creek restoration project awaited by Avondale area residents for more than a decade is finally on the verge of a City Council green light.

And Council members hope this is the beginning of a series of similar projects.

In committees Tuesday and Wednesday: a bill (2018-8) to move forward on the restoration of Big Fishweir Creek.

Tuesday’s committee stop, which the bill passed unanimously, saw a number of residents supporting the proposal before the panel passed it, with Councilman Jim Love, the local representative, extolling benefits.

“Wildlife. Beauty. Natural recreation. There are a lot of reasons to do this,” Love, who used to row boats on the river, said in Tuesday’s committee stop.

Councilman Greg Anderson noted that the city damaged the tributary via road projects and silting, and now the creek pools rather than flows.

Restored, Anderson is confident that kayaking will be possible, as well as the flowing of natural springs that were buried by silt.

Decades-long urbanization and development made the tributary inhospitable to swimming and fishing, per the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“This tributary is tidally influenced,” Amanda Parker, United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Public Affairs Specialist, told the Resident News in 2017.

“The contributing sub-basin to Big Fishweir Creek has been urbanized predominantly with residential land use, much of it occurring prior to promulgation of stormwater regulations. Therefore, limited stormwater management has been implemented in the sub-basin, resulting in sediment deposition in the creek. Urbanization included encroachment along the banks of the creek. Over time, sediments transported by storm events have covered the natural creek bottom. The sediment deposition and encroachment from urbanization have reduced the natural habitat in the creek and along the creek banks.”

The USACE outlines some benefits to the project, including making the creek “swimmable and fishable,” creating a navigable habitat for the still-endangered manatee, generally improving water quality and creating a marsh island.

The project is estimated to cost $6,549,000; the city of Jacksonville has appropriated $2,566,375, with the USACE picking up the other 65 percent of the tab. If the federal contribution goes up, the local share will do likewise. The federal cap is $10 million.

Construction is expected for 2019.

$130M+ hit for Jacksonville from hurricanes, as financial storm clouds loom

Reimbursements will come sooner or later for the city of Jacksonville from the federal government for Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.

Until then, however, the impact of the storms will be felt in the city’s general fund budget.

The Jacksonville City Council Auditor’s quarterly report for the final three months of 2017 puts the figures in sharp relief.

“The latest Hurricane Matthew projection estimates the financial impact will be approximately $45.1 million. As of January 31, 2018, the City incurred expenditures of $28.0 million related to Hurricane Matthew,” the report contends.

“87.5% of the total allowable expenses are subject to reimbursement, leaving the City to fund the remainder. The fiscal year 2017/18 approved budget includes an appropriation of $7.0 million from the GF/GSD to cover the City’s estimated obligation,” the report adds.

Irma is worse: the financial impact will be approximately $86.4 million.

“This could result in an estimated $10.8 million negative impact to the GF/GSD in the future. As of January 31, 2018, the City incurred expenditures of $45.8 million related to Hurricane Irma,” the report contends.

Jacksonville’s general fund budget is $1.27 billion currently. Reserve levels are in the $150 million range.

Even before Hurricane Irma, there was pushback from the Jacksonville City Council in terms of bolstering the city’s reserve levels.

Mayor’s Office staffers cautioned that obligations were coming due and it would pay off to bolster reserve levels.

That ultimately was not convincing to the Council Finance Committee.

In September, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said that he was confident that the city had sufficient reserves to weather a storm with an impact comparable to that of Matthew.

However, Irma’s track created a greater impact.

With slow reimbursements, one wonders if the discussion of reserve levels will be a more forceful one this summer.

The city has already been dinged by analysts for high fixed costs. These, combined with a reluctance to hike taxes, are leading influencers and policy makers to take a hard look at JEA privatization, which could net the city $3 to $6 billion.

Meanwhile, the city has worries regarding increasing interest rates and the equity market volatility of recent weeks.

“Also, a flattening of the yield curve continued throughout the 4th quarter, as the current market expectation is that the Fed will raise rates approximately three times in 2018. The downward shift of the long end of the curve continues to be interpreted as a sign that increased volatility may be on the horizon,” the auditor’s report contends.

No fix for Duval residents vexed by CSX crossing blockages

Duval County residents continue to be vexed by CSX trains stalled out at railroad crossings during the “precision railroading” era.

They shouldn’t expect recourse from local government, however.

A correspondent to Mayor Lenny Curry attempted this week to get recourse from the company. She was directed to make her grievance known on a webpage but with no response.

Some excerpts from her email follow.

“Today I was stopped in Baldwin by a train in the early afternoon.  When I got to the tracks at Rt. 90 (West Beaver Street) where North 301 connects with it, many people were in a long line; they’d already been stopped for quite a while & were backed up … I was there waiting in line for 20 minutes while the train just sat there across the tracks, blocking traffic, not moving.  Many more cars got in line behind me.  Finally, it started up again, but we still had to wait another 10 minutes because there were so many cars on it,” she wrote.

In an effort to save money, especially in light of recent staff eviscerations, trains have gotten longer. With predictably tragicomic results:

“One day I counted over 200 cars from beginning to end.  It doesn’t matter what time of day, but frequently, a very long train will come and just sit there blocking the road for 20 minutes to over an hour and a half or more; one man told me he’d been stopped by a train for 2 hours one day.  I have missed doctor appointments, been late for work, gotten home late for dinner, errands, meetings, etc.  Sometimes it happens in the morning, sometimes at lunchtime, afternoon and evening, ANYtime of day.  One evening, I came home from work downtown late, got to Baldwin, just a few blocks from my home & was there waiting for TWO trains for over an hour and 15 minutes.  I just live down the street, & there was no way for me to get home. It is very frustrating.  I have lived in quite a few other areas, even in other states, that were near railroad tracks, and I have NEVER seen anything like this.”

“There have been other times on South 301 near Rt. 90, that the freight trains block both tracks we have to cross in Baldwin, and I saw ambulances getting in line, waiting, then finally turning back to try to get away via I-10.  People’s lives are at stake because of instances like this.  I would hate to be injured or having a heart attack in an ambulance that got stopped by a train for an hour.  It isn’t right,” the correspondent wrote.

She goes on to suggest potential solutions, such as shortening the trains.

 Curry, in a response, notes that he has no oversight over CSX.

“Although CSX is a private company, over which I have no oversight, I have shared these same concerns expressed by other citizens with their executives,” Curry wrote.

CSX had claimed to cut blockage times just weeks before.

“CSX noted that in the past three weeks they have changed their operations using a utility switchman and this should reduce some of the blockage time.  The mayor will monitor the complaints and let us know if this changed reduced the amount of time trains block the roadway,” asserted Doreen Joyner-Howard, FDOT’s District Freight, Logistics and Passenger Operations Manager, in an email to other FDOT officials.

Clearly, that operations change isn’t helping in the cases described in the email.

Motivations for CSX to fix the issue seem opaque, given the lack of recourse a local government has.

Late in 2017, there were so many citations written on the “precision railroading” company that the city of Jacksonville and CSX had an “arrangement” to pay a few citations and junk the rest — a salutary legal arrangement that most scofflaws will never enjoy.

Blockage issues abound beyond Duval County.

Jalopnik reports of a nine-hour crossing blockage in Michigan in October. CSX told the gullible city manager that the problem that caused blockages would be resolved in a “week to ten days.” CSX told others that the train had broken down, a potential consequence of overburdening the locomotive.

First responders in Ohio, dealing with situations where seconds could mean the difference between life and death, often have to race the trains to traverse a town bisected with rail infrastructure.

“You pray and hope there is no train,” said a firefighter to a Cincinnati television station.

In Richmond, a CSX train was abandoned during a shift change. It sat dormant across tracks until the next crew arrived.

In addition to delays, other issues have cropped up with CSX, as spotlighted into an Amtrak train crashing into a parked CSX train in South Carolina on Feb. 4.

The State, a Columbia newspaper, notes that “CSX employees suspended the traffic control signals system on Feb. 3 and were to work on the system through the next day. The installation of components for the positive control system was partially complete when work crews quit at 7 p.m. on Feb. 3.”

“While the collision remains under investigation, we know that signal suspensions are an unusual operating condition, used for signal maintenance, repair and installation, that have the potential to increase the risk of train collisions,’’ NTSB board chairman Robert Sumwalt said. “That risk was not mitigated in the Cayce collision.”

The State also reports that, in Columbia, epic crossing blockages are a fact of life and the city ordinance recommends fines of $5 to $20.

For CSX, a company who paid a man on his deathbed to come in, fire thousands of people, and collect $84 million even as his infirmity was as apparent as his oxygen tank, $5 may not be real money.

In any event, multiple courts have ruled in favor of railroads over cities, and with aggressive lobbying arms on behalf of CSX and the like, there is no move to change federal law to impose accountability.

Aaron Bowman gets Jacksonville City Council presidency backing from two former presidents

Jacksonville City Council Vice President Aaron Bowman made it official Monday, launching his bid for the board’s presidency.

On Friday, Bowman came away with pledges from two former council presidents and a former mayor serving on the Council.

Tradition holds that the vice president moves to the presidency, barring some unusual development, such as what happened in 2017 when Anna Brosche defeated John Crescimbeni for the top job.

Tradition looks like it will hold in this case.

Backing Bowman on Friday: the two most recent past presidents, Lori Boyer and Greg Anderson, along with former mayor and current Councilman Tommy Hazouri, and Councilmen Doyle Carter and Matt Schellenberg.

Boyer and Anderson worked well with Mayor Lenny Curry during their presidencies; conversely, the Brosche presidency has been a divisive one, with competing narratives between her and fellow Republican Lenny Curry on a variety of issues, including pension reform, children’s program reforms, and exploring the prospect of selling local utility JEA.

A special City Council meeting Wednesday, held at Curry’s request, was so fractious that Brosche would not recognize Curry to speak.

Bowman, a former commander of NAS Mayport, sent councilmembers a letter Monday declaring his candidacy, which boiled it down to a return to civility and order. This will be especially timely given that his year as president will be an election year for the majority of council.

Bowman’s letter urges a City Council strategic plan, to rectify what the first-term Republican calls an “undefined direction” on the 19-person legislative body.

Bowman also seeks regular meetings with all councilmembers to drill into district issues; one of the hallmarks of the current president was the marginalization of key members, such as Tommy HazouriBill Gulliford, and Crescimbeni, and these meetings would seem to be a way of ensuring that all councilmembers have a voice with leadership, fostering “unity and respect.”

To that end, Bowman vows to seek board and commission candidates from councilmembers, rather than reserving selection as the prerogative of the president.

Bowman also vows to regularly meet with the mayor, continuing the “consistent communication” he has forged with Curry and his senior team as VP. Curry prioritizes downtown development and business recruitment; these also are two priorities of Bowman, who is a vice president of JAXUSA, a business recruitment arm of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

Bowman also prioritizes building relationships with the Duval delegation, in order to ensure coordination of priorities at the state level.

While it’s conceivable that someone could launch a run for president against Bowman, it’s a fool’s errand.

The race for council vice president is in flux, with a number of candidates who have yet to garner significant commitments of support. But the race for the top job is all but decided with this declaration of candidacy.

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