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Jacksonville City Council pushes back hard against JEA sales pitch

In what has been one of the roughest weeks in the tenure of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, his administration presented to a skeptical City Council — and a more skeptical overflow crowd — a controversial report outlining the benefits of the sale of the local public utility.

Profits could be up to $6 billion, the report said. But for City Council members, there was a desire to put the brakes on before moving as quickly as the study would suggest is optimal to make the biggest profit.

With JEA brass saying there would be no move without a “commitment from the community,” what was clear was the Council did not want to commit.

That lack of commitment was underscored toward the end of the meeting. When asked to stand up if they opposed the sale, the entire audience did so as one.

The valuation study from “Public Financial Management” was pushed out in draft form last week, and it suggested that this is the best time ever for Jacksonville to unload all or part of its public utility.

JEA Board Chair Alan Howard had requested a City Council meeting. He was rebuffed by Council President Anna Brosche, who nonetheless had to preside over the meeting anyway when Curry called a conclave.

The halcyon days of Curry and Brosche cheerleading the Jaguars during Friday pep rallies in Council chambers are gone, lost in a phalanx of claims and counterclaims, character assassinations that included the Mayor calling the Council President a liar when she said Curry wanted an authorization to explore a sale in Wednesday’s meeting (then tweeting out a quote from “On War” by Clausewitz) followed by Brosche’s assistant saying Curry’s chief of staff “accosted” her, creating a hostile work environment.

The charter change that would allow all or partial sale, per a General Counsel memo, would require a two-thirds vote of the City Council, with follow-up votes for dispensation of assets being a simple majority.

That would be the proverbial heavy lift, given that most on council who had an opinion going into Wednesday were skeptical. Some wanted a referendum (which is not permissible, per the memo). Others think a sale is bad business.

And for many of those skeptics, it wasn’t lost on them that Curry patron Tom Petway, a board appointee who replaced one of Alvin Brown‘s picks soon after Curry took office, was the primary pusher of the sale option last year.

Lots of prologue for this meeting, essentially.

Brosche noted, with an edge in her voice, that the valuation report would be given out only after the presentation — another sign of the chilly dynamic between the Council President and the Mayor.

Brosche also maligned anonymous phone calls to citizens alleging JEA mismanagement, saying that “whoever is playing politics [with this issue] should come forward.”

JEA CEO Paul McElroy took the mike with Chairman Howard, and dynamics were chilly: Brosche noted that the notice discussed an “e-valuation report,” then, with an edge in her voice, said she’s “really looking forward to this.”

Brosche was not looking forward to hearing from the Mayor; she refused to recognize Curry to speak.

Curry tweeted that “it is unfortunate the Council President refused to call a public meeting to distribute a public document in a transparent manner. I called this meeting so all could get this document at the same time. I called this meeting for information purposes. No action to be taken … Also unfortunate she publicly refused a request for me to make brief remarks. Here is what I would have said. I am not against or for privatization of the JEA. My focus is &will be 1. what is good for rate payers/ taxpayers 2. What is good for the hardworking folks of JEA.”

“We are presented with a historic opportunity,” Chairman Howard said, a “once in a generation” chance to sell.

Howard, seemingly oblivious to the dynamic, discussed going forward with “unity,” before introducing Michael Mace of PFM to present.

Mace noted that the report was intended to provide a value range for the utility as an “overall enterprise … for the sake of simplicity.”

Proceeds, the report said, could be between $2.9 billion and $6.4 billion after the retirement of debt. Mace stressed that is a range of values, and he verbalized the range as “three to six billion.”

Values range from $7.9 billion up to $10.1 billion, based on cash flow, price/earnings ratios, and other metrics.

The report noted that as recently as 2012, a sale would not have been in JEA’s interest; however, conditions (low-interest rates, high stocks, and a thirst for expansion/consolidation by big service providers) have changed. Lower corporate taxes make transactions more attractive, Mace said, along with a decrease in capital investment in the industry.

Utility stocks and assets, Mace said, were highly valued, doubling since 2009 to a price/earnings ratio of 20.

While markets can change during a transaction, Mace’s contention is that the time is good to make a move.

Debt retirement to the tune of $3.9 billion would be paid for with proceeds, as would other costs.

Once a commitment to sell is made, the process could take up to nine months ahead of regulatory hurdles, which could take up to a year.

“This is a very complex undertaking,” Mace said.

Curry addressed media after the presentation, saying he wasn’t “for or against” privatization, and saying that those who noted one of his biggest donors made the proposal were guilty of “political gamesmanship.”

Curry had “no idea” of the value range listed in the report pre-presentation, saying that the report suggested it “may be a good time to sell.”

From there, Council members posed questions for Mace.

Many of those questions — such as Councilman Reggie Brown asking if a sale would benefit areas in town that have waited half a century to be put onto city sewer — were outside the scope of the report.

Displaced employees and contractors, and lack of local control, were concerns for Brown, as were rectifying long-neglected infrastructure promises.

CEO McElroy said that in some scenarios, there may be little change to that local control.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri likewise was skeptical of the lack of experience with mergers and acquisitions by the consultant. Hazouri, normally a reliable ally of the Mayor, questioned the honesty and reliability of the report.

“Our number one concern is the ratepayers and employees,” Hazouri said. “I worry about the employees and pensions … I feel like we’re being rushed … pressured. I don’t know why we’re even dealing with this.”

CEO McElroy noted that the board had been watching markets for 18 to 24 months, noting that the environment is “different” now, when asked if major political donors drove the exploration of a sale.

“We’re putting the cart before the horse,” Councilman Danny Becton said, saying that the valuation report was incomplete in terms of pros and cons.

Becton, the most outspoken fiscal watchdog on the Council, questioned the lack of evaluation of why the city would even want to sell.

CEO McElroy noted, toward the end of the meeting, that there would be no move forward without a “commitment from the community” to do so.

Judging from the spectacle Wednesday afternoon, with even reliable allies of the mayor asking skeptical drill down questions, such a commitment is a long way away.

Councilman Garrett Dennis closed the meeting by calling for the JEA Board chair to step down, calling the meeting a waste of time and a fumble.

Committee messages against JEA privatization

Save JEA now.

That’s the rallying cry of a political committee (Florida Committee for Infrastructure Investment) designed to stop the exploration of selling Jacksonville’s utility in its tracks.

The charge: “Mayor Curry and his buddies are trying to sell JEA behind your back. He has already been caught giving misleading statement to the media about the sale. Executives have already been promised a golden parachute after the sale.”

The timing of the committee is no accident; the joint meeting of the JEA Board and Jacksonville City Council to discuss the sale is at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Mayor Lenny Curry is open to exploring a sale of JEA, a proposal first floated by Tom Petway — a leading Curry supporter from when the Republican first got into the Mayor’s race.

Petway, leaving the JEA Board in 2017, said it was time to explore privatization.

A draft valuation report commissioned by JEA came to the same conclusion; the final product will be released Wednesday.

City Hall is steeped in drama: the Jacksonville City Council President’s assistant accused Mayor Curry’s chief of staff of “accosting” her on Monday.

That Council President, Anna Brosche, has stated that she wants a referendum as a precondition for exploring a sale, and made a charge that Curry wanted emergency legislation pushed Wednesday to authorize next steps. Curry has denied that.

However, this particular political committee comes from outside of City Hall. Its registered agent and treasurer, Michael Langton and Heather Pullen, both have connections to Lisa King, the chair of the Duval Democrats.

With resistance on City Council to exploring a sale of JEA, and Mayor Curry’s political adversaries sensing an opportunity to score a victory, what is clear is that Wednesday will be a day of confrontation in the City Council chambers.

Bad blood: Lenny Curry, Anna Brosche clash over potential JEA sale ahead of Wednesday meeting

A power struggle between Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and City Council President Anna Brosche continued Monday.

The latest field of battle for the two Republican CPAs: the JEA valuation study that will be finalized Wednesday.

Brosche rebuffed JEA Board Chair Alan Howard‘s call for a special Council meeting that day to discuss the study, which will suggest exploring the true market value of Jacksonville’s public utility. So Curry called the meeting.

The two have very different narratives, continuing a leit motif established throughout the Brosche Presidency.

Brosche contends the mayor’s office wanted “emergency legislation” passed. Curry vigorously denied that assertion, and slammed Brosche’s assertion as one in a series of falsehoods.

“Her suggestion that me or a member of my administration wanted emergency legislation, to push forward something without public input is disgraceful, irresponsible, ridiculous, and consistent with what she did when she made those slanderous allegations about a member of my staff during the Kids Hope Alliance [debate],” Curry said.

“We all have resumes, we all have histories. We can evaluate people on how they’ve acted, not [just] what they’ve said. Hopefully the two are consistent,” Curry continued.

“Two and a half years in office, campaigned before that. Said what I was going to do in office. Pursued those issues in a very public way. Town hall meetings on tough issues, pension reform — a referendum and a very public discussion. Kids’ reforms — a very public discussion,” Curry added.

“This is consistent with how I and my team have operated for two and a half years in office. I’ll let our action speak for itself,” Curry said.

In an op-ed over the weekend, Brosche indicated interest in a voter referendum; it’s unclear if that referendum could be binding, given the General Counsel’s position is against referendums that assume a super-legislative role.

“I’m not opposed to a referendum. I don’t flinch at a referendum. I had a very big issue on the ballot that folks said ‘you shouldn’t do this now. You shouldn’t do this in your first year.’ I did it. I looked the people in the eye. Described the problem and together me and the people of Jacksonville and the City Council got it done,” Curry said.

“All options will be on the table should there be next steps,” Curry said. “I think the question for the Council President though is when you throw a position out there, specifically what does that mean?”

“Is she suggesting a referendum now that asks the people of Jacksonville should we consider a sale, or a referendum in the event we get a buyer and work out a transaction? Those are two very different scenarios with two completely different outcomes and approaches. I’ve not heard any specificity,” Curry said, noting there would have to be a charter change.

“This call for ‘transparency’ from the Council President is completely inconsistent with not agreeing to this meeting,” Curry added. “It is consistent with what happened with children’s reform,” Curry added, when Brosche called a meeting and cancelled it.

Curry noted that, despite “a year of a Council President that has chosen to oppose many of the things that we put forward, that’s the Council President’s prerogative.”

Curry, vowing to “take all the information available and making it public” for “ratepayers and taxpayers,” said his office would “facilitate a way to make sure that you and everyone in Jacksonville” have an opportunity to see what’s being laid out Wednesday by the utility.

“I’m going to facilitate that,” Curry added. “I think it’s important that the public, the city council, the media all absorb this information at the same time. There may be next steps, there may not. We’ll have to see.”

There will, Curry affirmed, be no action items in this meeting.

In comments Monday, Curry noted two questions to be answered: “Is it good for ratepayers and taxpayers in Jacksonville? And is it good for JEA — the thousands of employees that put literally their careers and families invested in this organization to serve the people of Jacksonville.”

“We can’t answer those questions until we see the results of the study and the report that’s been done, and follow the process from there like I’ve done everything in the two and a half years I’ve been in. And do it in a way that communicated with the public,” Curry said, as his administration did with pension reform (“a very public discussion that I led for a very long time”).

“I believe that the public, the media, my administration — that we should all see this report when it’s available,” Curry said.

Reporters asked why the Council president would obstruct that process.

“I can’t speak to why the Council President would do that,” Curry answered. “It’s unfortunate, but I’m working right now to facilitate, to make sure this information is public when it’s available, and it looks like it’s going to be available Wednesday.”

“I haven’t seen the report. I think we should all see it at the same time,” Curry said, adding that “talk is cheap. Rhetoric is easy. I’m all about action.”

Curry and Brosche have clashed on issues before.

Brosche led in calling for the removal of Confederate monuments, an issue on which Curry didn’t take a position.

And Brosche was not as enthusiastic about pension reform as Curry would have liked.

And the aforementioned children’s reform issues.

On this issue, as previous ones, there is daylight between the leader of the City Council and the leader of the city.

“Clearly we have different interests or different plans … I don’t know what drives him,” Brosche said. “I can’t speak to what motivates him. I can only speak to what motivates me.”

Developing story … updates to come.

Quiet January fundraising for Lenny Curry, Mike Williams committees

How to describe the January fundraising for political committees of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and Sheriff Mike Williams?

In a phrase: “Ho-hum.”

Curry’s “Build Something That Lasts” brought in just $34,000, constituting the committee’s slowest month since May 2017.

Except for $5,000 from Comcast, all of that money was local.

The bulk of the $15,822 spent went to consultants: Meteoric Media, Data Targeting and the Archmann Group.

Curry has yet to draw a credible challenger for re-election; he also has not filed himself yet, but that is a formality.

The committee carried over $600,000 into February.

Williams’ “A Safe Jacksonville” raised $8,000, a number that pushed the committee close to $200,000 cash on hand.

Though January numbers aren’t available due to the slow updates offered on the Duval County Supervisor of Elections office, we are told that between hard and soft money, Williams’ campaign operation brought in just $15,000 in January.

Operations will be ramped up in March, however.

Williams, who has $138,000 on hand in addition to the $200,000 worth of committee cash, will square off against a Democrat, Tony Cummings, in the 2019 election.

Cummings filed in January, and his first finance report will be available whenever the Duval County Supervisor of Elections gets around to uploading it.

Jacksonville Bold for 2.9.18 — Drive, or be driven

In 2015, A.G. Gancarski coined a phrase: “Drive the narrative, or it drives you.”

It came as a response to Alvin Brown’s failure to message efficiently in his mayoral election loss to current Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry.

This axiom applies to politics up and down the ballot, from city council races to the presidency. Someone must set the parameters of the story — if it isn’t one candidate, it’ll be another.

We will see that in 2018.

Brown, hamstrung by sloppy re-election messaging, is taking it to Al Lawson in the Democratic primary for Florida’s 5th Congressional District.

In neighboring CD 6, Republican operatives Brian Swensen and Tim Baker are going nuclear against each other’s respective candidates (Swensen works for John Ward; Baker for Mike Waltz).

And we will see more of it.

Who will win the election?

The person who best tells a story, time after time.

As 2018 progresses, pay attention to the narrative arc.

Rutherford, DeSantis prop up Nunez memo

Rep. John Rutherford, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, defended the “Nunez memo in the context of what we already know” this week on Fox News Channel.

Facetime for Rep. John Rutherford on friendly Fox News.

“The bias that was in those text messages between Peter Strzok and Lisa Paige,” Rutherford said, was “what has brought the integrity of the FBI and DOJ into question” regarding inconsistencies in 2016 election investigations.

Not only bias but “impropriety,” said Rutherford, must be “ripped out by the roots.”

Rutherford, of course, is not the only Northeast Florida Republican to preach to the choir on FNC.

Rep. Ron DeSantis, starting when the memo was released Friday of last week, made similar contentions, noting that evidence of collusion between President Donald Trump and Russians has yet to be presented.

DeSantis wants Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to come in front of the Congress and justify extending the surveillance. Conservatives, including Ann Coulter, have called for Rosenstein’s dismissal.

Lawson, Rutherford push for TRICARE clarity

As legacy costs and deficits pile up, even previously untouchable entitlements like the TRICARE insurance program for military veterans and dependents are feeling the squeeze.

First Coast News reports that Jacksonville’s two congressmen, Republican Rutherford and Democrat Lawson, are seeking answers regarding autism treatment copays.

TRICARE and tribulations: Congressmen are frustrated with care, customer service issues.

Lawson wrote Humana, the insurance company, and the Defense Department demanding answers, per FCN.

Lawson said, “I am aware of poor customer service and am deeply concerned about the level of care TRICARE patients … I am also aware of providers claims of having health care costs owed by Humana because of lack of payment. This is simply unacceptable.”

“People’s premium rates are going up; we expect to hear something from them soon. The sooner, the better,” Lawson said. “We were really caught off guard that they are having these problems, the corporate people are not responding, and we want to make sure they do.”

In its response, TRICARE defended its practices, saying “Humana Military has gone above and beyond the contract requirements to pay Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy for autism care providers before the 30-day contractual requirement has lapsed because we understand that many of these behavioral health providers are small businesses.”

Plan B for Lawson?

Lawson started his re-election bid slowly. He has about $100,000 on hand and no campaign apparatus to speak of, while Brown has been able to attack Lawson on optical issues like applauding President Trump at the State of the Union.

Trouble ahead for Al Lawson? Speculation emerges that he is worried about losing to Alvin Brown.

There is some thought that Lawson isn’t completely confident in his ability to beat Brown, and those feelings weren’t buried when Lawson weighed in on local Tallahassee politics, saying that Sen. Bill Montford should not run for Mayor.

“I know he needs to make a decision, and other people are leaning on him to bring stability to City Hall, but he has two years left and a lot of us hope he will finish the term,” said Lawson. “Bill carries a lot of clout in the Senate. Among Democrats and Republicans. There’s no question about it.”

If Lawson loses to Brown and Montford finishes his term, it’s very easy to imagine Lawson returning to the state Senate.

Lawson, should he lose, will have done so because Alvin Brown was able to drive the Duval base. When Lawson beat Corrine Brown in 2016, he won the western part of the district with massive numbers.

Trump lauds Lawson

In the words of someone somewhere, “Please clap.”

The Tampa Bay Times flagged Trump lauding Lawson for applauding him during the State of the Union.

Expect the Al Lawson/Donald Trump connection to be a leitmotif in CD 5 campaign materials.

“Who was that guy? He was a nice guy. I think he was a reverend. And he was clapping,” Trump said in Cincinnati. “And I wouldn’t say it was exactly a rousing — but he was putting his hands together. And I want to find out who he is. I’m going to send him a letter of thank you. And he was probably severely reprimanded.”

It’s doubtful whether a “letter of thank you” from Trump would help Lawson in a primary against former Mayor Brown, who is happy to pillory the incumbent as a DINO.

“It is deeply troubling that Al Lawson claps for the Trump agenda in Washington as people back home struggle to make ends meet. While the black jobless rate is at its lowest levels following President Obama’s years of hard work, there remains more to be done,” the former Jacksonville Mayor said.

Duval vs. Y’all

In yet another plot point in the Congressional District 5 race, Jacksonville Democrats backed Brown for Congress this week.

Duval County Democratic Party chair Lisa King led the wave.

Lisa King was removed from the Jacksonville Planning Commission for backing Alvin Brown for Mayor against Lenny Curry, per sources familiar.

Other endorsers rolled out in Wednesday’s media release include former Jacksonville Human Rights Commission Chair Mario Decunto, Duval County Black Caucus Chair Hazel Gillis, and former Northeast Florida United Way CEO Connie Hodges.

Brown is taking advantage of an as yet un-launched re-election campaign by Lawson to score some news cycle wins.

Last week, he rolled out the endorsement of former Congressional Black Caucus Chair Emanuel Cleaver.

When CD 6 Republican candidate Ward backed Democrat Brown

The hits keep on coming in the brass-knuckled GOP primary race in Florida’s 6th Congressional District.

The latest salvo came Monday when Florida Politics obtained records of candidate Ward giving to a Democratic candidate in the 2015 Jacksonville mayor’s race.

Democratic dalliance: Trump Republican John Ward gave money to Alvin Brown’s re-election bid.

Ward, a resident of Ponte Vedra Beach, was one of several Jacksonville Republican donors to Brown, the now-former mayor primarying Lawson from the left in Florida’s 5th Congressional District.

Ward gave $250 in May 2014, days before Curry jumped into the mayoral race. However, most observers knew Curry was eyeballing a run as far back as 2013.

Notable: Ward’s campaign is being run by Brian Swensen, who was campaign manager for Curry in that race for Jacksonville Mayor.

Ward has attacked Waltz, his GOP primary opponent, for cutting an ad in opposition to Trump in 2016 during the fractious Republican primaries.

Another Curry strategist is running waltz’s campaign: Tim Baker.

Baker believes the donation raises questions.

“Why was it important that Ward from Massachusetts support a liberal mayor of Jacksonville,” Baker wondered.

Baker deemed Ward a “dishonest politician who will say or do anything to win an election, even hypocritically attack a decorated veteran.”

What is clear: Curry’s consultants from 2015 are running hard-charging campaigns against each other in this 2018 race, in which both Baker and Swensen have reasons for wanting to score a victory against each other.

New roadway for Cecil Commerce Center

This week, Gov. Rick Scott came to Jacksonville and — as is always the case when he visits Northeast Florida — Duval got its money’s worth.

Jacksonville got its cut from the fund, which has $50 million left to dole out.

Specifically, $6,000,000 of it: for the construction of a new 1.5-mile access roadway to the city-owned Cecil Commerce Center Mega Site to provide access for the manufacturing industry.

The money comes via the state’s $85 million “job growth” fund.

The fund, a compromise solution to Enterprise Florida’s previous practice of directing money to businesses (many were companies that had donated to Scott’s “Let’s Get to Work” political committee), includes money for public infrastructure and workforce grants.

Scott also sought to ensure legislators pass another $85 million for the fund in the current Legislative Session.

While in Jacksonville, the Governor also messaged on the importance of VISIT FLORIDA, which the Senate wants to cut down to a $50 million budget (half of what the Governor wants).

Not every Jacksonville legislator was thrilled with the job growth fund spending. Sen. Audrey Gibson questioned the fund’s existence on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Motto matters to Daniels, as bill heads to House floor

HB 839, which seeks to mandate school districts display Florida’s motto “In God We Trust,” cleared its final House committee Wednesday.

The bill requires display in all “school buildings” in a given district, including school district structures.

House members are not agnostic about the motto.

The House Education committee cleared the bill with just one no vote Wednesday, with Republicans and Democrats alike generally agreeing with Kim Daniels, the Jacksonville Democratic co-sponsor of the proposal, that the motto should be displayed.

Daniels’ Republican colleagues from Jacksonville, Jason Fischer and Fant, were among supporters.

Committee chair Mike Bileca lauded Daniels for having the “courage to take this issue on,” setting up an impassioned close from the first-term Jacksonville Democrat.

“This is not Communist China,” Daniels correctly noted. “This is America … on a bad day, the greatest country in the world. The disrespect against flag and country makes me sick.”

Daniels noted that the motto is a “symbol that represents something that we need to get back to,” and the bill comes from the “spiritual, not natural realm.”

The Senate version of the bill has yet to be put on a committee agenda.

Fant blasts Moody at AG debate

The strategy in the race for Attorney General on the Republican side is pretty clear at this point.

Rep. Fant and state House colleague Frank White will team up against Ashley Moody, the runaway choice of Florida Sheriffs and the best actual fundraiser in the race, to malign her as insufficiently conservative.

Jay Fant and Ashley Moody: opposite sides of the table, and the political spectrum?

We saw evidence of this Saturday at the Federalist Society Attorney General debate.

Moody and Fant went after each other hard Saturday over third-party ads charging her as “liberal,” exchanging charges during an Attorney General’s forum held during the Federalist Society Conference at Walt Disney World Saturday.

“This is what we do in the big leagues,” Fant said.

Florida Politics had reported earlier that White appeared to be behind the independent political committee attacks; at one point, Fant denied being behind the mailers that Moody cited.

Fant, who had challenged her conservative and Republican credentials before, replied to her question by calling her a “newcomer to partisan politics,” and lecturing her that, “the issues matter, and just because the issues make you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean you’re being attacked.

“I might also add I’m not the only campaign that has discussed this contrast. There is more to this. So, if you’re going to support a Bill McBride over Jeb Bush, we’re going to talk about it. If you’re going to have a history of suing Donald Trump, we’re going to talk about it. If you have alliances with liberals in the bar, we’re going to have to talk about it.”

Pill bill moves through House, Senate

WJCT reports on a bill by Rep. Clay Yarborough that is currently working its way through committees in the House and the Senate.

The measure would allow donating unused medicine to low-income people in need.

Second life for unused pills, if a Clay Yarborough bill passes.

“If you had a patient who was in a nursing home or a hospital, or something like that, and they had a lot of medication prescribed to them but then they passed away and the medication had not been opened or compromised in any way or expired, then those drugs could be donated,” Yarborough asserted.

“It’s just a way to help the citizens of our state and consumers in our state that would be in need and save money and use these drugs that [are] perfectly fine and there’s nothing wrong with them,” Yarborough said.

Jacksonville City Council consternation over JEA sale potential

Watching Jacksonville Mayor Curry roll over the City Council is like watching a season full of homecoming games.

However, a public notice meeting this week showed a lot of skepticism from the legislators, about the potential sale of JEA.

The utility, which has been pilloried for service issues, saw a VP grilled Monday on why serious moves toward underground power lines weren’t made in older neighborhoods.

And Tuesday, Councilors balked about the proposed sale of the utility.

Some, including Councilman Garrett Dennis, believe the sale is all but a done deal.

Notable about this meeting: Dennis, an irritant to the Mayor’s Office, had many Council members on his side in opposition to the Mayor’s Office.

Garrett Dennis takes questions from Jacksonville media, with A.G. Gancarski standing behind him.

Councilman John Crescimbeni and Council President Anna Brosche, recent rivals, wondered why the Office of General Counsel was slow in responding to inquiries.

Dennis’ Northwest Jacksonville colleagues backed his play.

Katrina Brown wants “town halls” in her district to discuss the issue.

Reggie Brown wants to make sure infrastructure, such as $3 billion in sewer projects, are addressed in the sale.

Reggie Gaffney asserted that “JEA has a plan,” and wondered when Council would be made aware.

“We’re all kind of blindsided by this,” Dennis said, vowing to ensure that the Council does “whatever is best for the shareholders … the 850,000 people who own JEA.”

For Dennis, who took on the other Democrats from Northwest Jacksonville last week, this has been a strong galvanization of support after what many activists saw as a betrayal.

Supplementary reading: Folio Weekly wonders: The sale, what the mayor knew and when he knew it?

Jacksonville Councilman takes part in anti-fracking rally

From the “blink and you missed it” files, Jacksonville City Councilman Jim Love was one of a few participants in an anti-fracking rally last weekend.

Via First Coast News, Love and the St. Johns Riverkeeper came out against fracking.

Deepwater Horizon fears on the horizon for Jacksonville Councilman Jim Love.

”We saw what Deepwater Horizon did for the Gulf Coast. We don’t need that on any part of our coast. It’s obvious we don’t need this to happen in Florida,” Love said.

“Florida is not the right place to do this sort of this. It will threaten our drinking water, it will threaten our springs and rivers and we need to stand up to ban this practice in our state,” St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said.

The Florida Legislature is mulling fracking ban bills this session.

After delays, St. Johns River dredging begins

After a Port Canaveral project delayed availability of the dredging vessel, deepening has now begun on a three-mile stretch of the St. Johns River.

“We are very pleased to initiate construction on this nationally significant project,” said Col. Jason Kirk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville district commander. “The Jacksonville Harbor deepening project ensures our nation’s infrastructure stays strong, which in turn boosts the United States economy, bolsters global competitiveness, creates jobs and reduces risk.”

After delays, JAXPORT dredging begins.

According to the Jacksonville Business Journal, issues with a tugboat resulted in the Dutra Group missing its initial Dec. 15 start date, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ mandatory start date of Jan. 31. Dutra, a California-based dredging and marine construction company, could face financial penalties if it does not finish the project by July 31, 2019.

Dutra Group is now working on the first phase of the $22.8 million project, known as Contract A, which will deepen the St. Johns to 47 feet. About 3 million cubic yards will be removed from the first 3 miles of the channel, sent to the designated disposal site 6 miles southeast of the entrance channel jetties, the Journal reports. Work will continue 24 hours a day, seven days a week, an Army Corps representative said.

JAXPORT on upswing for Q1

Strong gains marked JAXPORT’s first quarter of the fiscal year, CFO Michael Poole said this week in a board meeting.

The port authority saw increases across the board – 14 percent more vessel calls, 16 percent more tons of cargo and 16 percent more revenue compared to the same period last year, reports the Jacksonville Business Journal. JAXPORT also handled 27 percent more containers, moving 2.7 million tons in total for $16.7 million in revenue.

Among one downside for the quarter, Poole noted. Maintenance dredging is over budget by more than $1 million, or 153 percent. Hurricane Irma forced the port authority to dredge nearly 40,000 cubic yards more than anticipated. Nevertheless, Poole is confident JAXPORT will find enough savings to offset, rather than having to ask for more funding.

JAXPORT is having a strong first quarter of its fiscal year.

Once the dredging project is complete – deepening the St. Johns River to 47 feet – the port authority will experience faster growth, said Roy Schleicher, JAXPORT chief commercial officer. The dredging project, which began this week, is scheduled to be completed in 2019. Currently, the Port of Jacksonville can handle vessels that hold 10,000 containers, but, once deepened, it can accommodate 14,000-container vessels.

“When the 14,000s start coming in when the dredging is done, our container numbers are going to go through the roof,” Schleicher told the board. “We’re really excited … All new opportunities.”

Downtown Jax eyes driverless shuttles

Traffic in downtown Jacksonville could soon include autonomous vehicles.

Driverless shuttles could be cruising Bay Street in the near future, a project that CBS 47 reports will use new technology to help recruit companies downtown.

Action News Jax’s John Bachman recently visited Las Vegas to speak with Nat Ford, CEO of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, about the pilot program in that city and how it can apply to Jacksonville.

Driverless shuttles, like this one in Las Vegas, could be on Jacksonville streets soon.

Las Vegas currently offers a driverless shuttle on a half-mile loop that includes parts of the old Las Vegas strip. The shuttle tops out at 12 miles an hour but is capable of doing 30 miles an hour.

Ford said Jacksonville could see a driverless shuttle program within the next five years. Over the next two to three years, Ford expects to convert the current Skyway platforms for shuttles – with the federal government interested in supporting driverless technology.

Driverless shuttles in Las Vegas currently cost around $250,000 each, compared to a JTA bus, which runs about $650,000 apiece.

Jacksonville Beach Pier to reopen soon

Storm-ravaged Jacksonville Beach Pier is close to a partial reopening, a year and a half after damage from Hurricane Matthew closed the iconic landmark.

Half of the pier is scheduled to open in April, according to First Coast News.

Storm-damaged Jacksonville Beach Pier to partially reopen in April.

As of this week, crews working on the pier finished re-paneling and railing half of the original length of the pier. The back half is not yet structurally stable to begin work, one of the workers told reporters.

Portions of the new railings will be recessed, allowing people in wheelchairs to fish from the pier.

The City of Jacksonville budgeted $1.3 million to replace the deck and guardrail in the pier’s front part. As for the back portion, no timeline is available yet.


Jacksonville ‘Talleyrand Connector’ money slides into Senate budget

It appears that Jacksonville may get state money for a priority project after all, money it has pursued since 2016.

On Wednesday, Sen. Aaron Bean got $1 million into the Senate budget for the Talleyrand Connector,

This project was originally pitched as a $50 million ask from the state ahead of the 2017 Legislative Session.

Back then, the project was pitched as a way of knocking down Hart Bridge offramps that were installed when Jacksonville’s waterfront was industrialized, and routing traffic onto the underused Bay Street.

Members of the Duval Delegation didn’t carry the ask as an appropriations request, which left the Lenny Curry administration adjusting expectations and rationales for the project.

By 2017, when the Jacksonville City Council approved a design criteria project to examine the project, the new rationale had more to do with port traffic than access to the sports complex; to improve freight traffic to the port, a rationale not mentioned in 2016, via Talleyrand Avenue.

This design criteria project includes a survey of the current conditions, preliminary design alignments (such as lane location and speed rates), and other such basic criteria.

The project was a prerequisite to a federal infrastructure grant of $25 million (via the Department of Transportation’s Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program), with $12.5 million from the state of Florida in matching money and $12.5 million from the city.

The federal money has yet to be doled out, though letters of support have been crafted by Florida’s two U.S. Senators, Rep. John Rutherford, and other stakeholders, and Mayor Curry has also made his case personally in Washington.

By the time Curry went last fall to make the case, he used an FDOT study to contend that port traffic would benefit most, with the Bay Street traffic routed by the Sports Complex and future “entertainment zone” just being “gravy.”

The $1 million Bean got put into the budget, of course, is just a fraction of the $12.5 million Jacksonville ask. But it’s a placeholder amount, and budget conferencing could make it more — or less — in the end.

“It will be a conference issue – rules say it has to be in either the Senate or House budget to become a conference issue.   $1M is all I was able to muster today.  It is a start and hopefully not the final number,” Bean said.

Bean getting the $1 million in the budget is important, as there was no House appropriations request for the money. Even if just $1 million is budgeted, it still potentially opens the door for future state appropriations to cover the balance.

The project has been a first-term infrastructural priority of Mayor Curry, who was in Tallahassee last week.

On that trip, Curry discussed removing regulatory impediments to Downtown Jacksonville development with Gov. Rick Scott; he also met with area legislators and statewide powerbrokers.

From the Senate, he met with Aaron Bean, Senate Minority Leader Designate Audrey GibsonTravis Hutson and Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, along with Wilton Simpson.

Curry also met with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, in addition to meeting with regional representatives Travis Cummings, Jason FischerClay Yarborough, and Tracie Davis.

JEA draft valuation report lays out benefits of sale

Public Financial Management is developing a valuation report for JEA, and a draft released to media makes the case that Jacksonville’s utility may have a “new answer to the old question of whether the city should sell JEA.”

The most telling paragraph in the 25-page draft of the potential sale comes at its close.

“In the past, it could be expected that the sale of JEA would not produce enough proceeds to satisfy JEA’s liabilities and still leave sufficient net proceeds to compensate the City for future economic and qualitative differences under a new ownership structure.

”Because of recent changes to the utility market and to JEA, those old expectation[s] are no longer valid. A more thorough, updated valuation of JEA, and perhaps an exploratory sale process could lead to a new answer to the old question of whether the City should sell JEA.”

Indeed, the report makes it clear that JEA can see a way forward to what, the report concedes, could be among the “largest and most complex” transactions in the history of municipal utility markets.

“While local control and presence are appealing, there is also a fundamental question of whether it is prudent for the City to remain in the utility business. It is a business that is changing rapidly due to technology and market forces. It may be more prudent to leave this business to larger, more nimble companies that have the ability to absorb risk and uncertainty.”

The sale of JEA, per the report, “very likely, in whole or in part, can produce substantial up-front net proceeds to the City – even after all of JEA’s liabilities have been accounted for. Current market conditions can be expected to provide for a greater net value of JEA to the City than at any time in the past.”

Among the challenges: contractual arrangements, including service and property deals; continuity of operations; commitment to the process, working through the sale, and securing regulatory permissions.

While the JEA Contribution of $116.6 million per year would be in doubt, incoming revenue could be created by doubling the franchise fee to 6 percent and imposing property taxes on the private owner/operator, the report says.

“Should a private entity take the place of JEA, the taxable assessed value of property in Duval County could increase by approximately 10% (the addition of ~$5bn net capital assets on the City’s ~$50bn taxable base). Based on current millage rates, this increase in assessed value will equate to approximately $101 million of additional property taxes receipts, of which $63.5 million would go the City of Jacksonville General Fund.”

Jacksonville City Council members were “blindsided” by explorations of the sale as recently as Tuesday, even as Mayor Lenny Curry‘s office has been open to this exploration since it was pitched by outgoing board chair and Curry supporter Tom Petway in November.

As of the end of September 2017, JEA had $4 billion in debt, and $5.3 billion in capital assets, per the study.

That $1.3 billion difference represents roughly what Jacksonville’s general fund budget, $1.27 billion in the current fiscal year, is.

Jacksonville City Councilmembers want answers before selling JEA to private investor

On Tuesday, Jacksonville City Councilmembers struggled, in a meeting in a packed Council chambers, with the idea of a sale of the JEA to a private company.

This was the second straight day on which Council members did a deep dive into JEA operations, with Monday offering Council calling for underground power lines.

The office of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry has been open to (at least) discussing a sale, but speculation is that the process has moved beyond discussion.

Some, including Councilman Garrett Dennis, believe the sale is all but a done deal.

Notable about this meeting: Dennis, an irritant to the Mayor’s Office, had many Council members on his side in opposition to the Mayor’s Office.

Councilman John Crescimbeni wants a “referendum,” but the office of general counsel says that’s not necessary.

Crescimbeni and Council President Anna Brosche await further guidance from the OGC; in a sharp exchange, Brosche wondered how OGC’s Peggy Sidman knew that the potential sale would not be on the JEA Board meeting’s next agenda.

OGC does say that any sale of a utility’s assets amounting to more than 10 percent is contingent on a vote of the Jacksonville City Council. A charter change would be necessary to make that vote a referendum.

Katrina Brown wants “town halls” in her district to discuss the issue.

Reggie Brown wants to make sure infrastructure, such as $3 billion in sewer projects, are addressed in the sale.

Reggie Gaffney asserted that “JEA has a plan,” and wondered when Council would be made aware.

“We’re all kind of blindsided by this,” Dennis said, vowing to ensure that the Council do “whatever is best for the shareholders … the 850,000 people who own JEA,”

GOP operatives squabble over CD 6 candidate John Ward donating to Democrat Alvin Brown

The hits keep on coming in the brass-knuckled GOP primary race in Florida’s 6th Congressional District.

The latest salvo was Monday afternoon when Florida Politics obtained records of candidate John Ward giving to a Democratic candidate in the 2015 Jacksonville mayor’s race.

Ward, a resident of Ponte Vedra Beach, was one of a number of Jacksonville Republican donors who gave to Alvin Brown, a former mayor who is now primarying Al Lawson in Florida’s 5th Congressional District, running from Lawson’s left.

Ward gave $250 in May 2014, days before Lenny Curry jumped into the mayor’s race. However, most observers knew Curry was eyeballing a run as far back as 2013.

Notable: Ward’s campaign is being run by Brian Swensen, who was campaign manager for Curry in that mayoral race.

Ward has attacked primary opponent Mike Waltz, for cutting an ad in opposition to Donald Trump in 2016 during the fractious Republican primaries.

Another Curry strategist, Tim Baker, is running Waltz’s campaign.

Baker believes the donation raises questions.

“Why was it important that Ward from Massachusetts support a liberal mayor of Jacksonville,” Baker wondered.

“I wonder if he supports [increasing] the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid,” Baker asked, given that these were Brown positions down the stretch.

Baker deemed Ward a “dishonest politician who will say or do anything to win an election, even hypocritically attack a decorated veteran.”

“At least Michael Waltz supports Republicans. Ward wants to bash Waltz for supporting other Republicans in a primary but donates to Democrats himself,” Baker asserted.

What is clear: Curry’s consultants from 2015 are running hard-charging campaigns against each other in this 2018 race, in which both Baker and Swensen have reasons for wanting to score a victory against each other.

Ward’s campaign was contacted for on record comment Monday afternoon, and offered this, via Swensen, Tuesday morning: “Just like the vicious lies Mike Waltz spread about President Trump, the contribution his campaign questions was clearly made before Mayor Curry became a candidate.  Mike Waltz will do anything to distract from his record as a Florida’s leading #NeverTrumper.”

Jacksonville Councilors want underground power lines in older neighborhoods

Jacksonville’s relationship with its municipal utility, JEA, is on shaky ground.

The office of Mayor Lenny Curry is, depending on who is telling the story, at least open to the possibility of selling off JEA to a private owner.

Jacksonville City Council members have their concerns, which will be discussed in a public meeting on Tuesday to explore “the true implications of a sale.”

Things are moving quickly enough: so quickly, in fact, that JEA created a draft employment agreement that would pay bonuses to keep people in place during the transition.

There is clearly a worry about stability institutionally.

That larger worry necessarily frames operational concerns, rendering them less important in some ways, yet requiring them to be addressed all the same, as happened Monday in the Jacksonville City Council’s Transportation, Energy, and Utilities committee.

The subject: electrical system resiliency.

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, city leadership expressed frustrations with the slow pace of power recovery.

Michael Brost, vice president of Electrical Distribution, reprised points he made in a board meeting last month, discussing the merits of underground utilities.

But unlike in the board meeting, council members drove the discussion toward undergrounding pre-1970 construction.

Brost noted that underground power lines began in Jacksonville in 1970, via an ordinance for new developments.

“Everybody loves underground … they’re more storm-resilient … the challenge is they are more expensive,” Brost said, and “not cost-effective compared to overhead systems.”

Councilman John Crescimbeni pressed Brost on the underground issue.

“100 percent underground would be great,” Brost said, noting that the city made the right decision in 1970 to mandate underground utilities.

There are also initiatives designed to deal with outages of over a minute at least five times a year. Purportedly, only one percent of customers deal with these issues (though this writer knows all of them seemingly).

JEA will spend $30 million on a four-year program to shorten outage length further; whether that and other long-term projects will be completed if the utility is sold remains to be seen.

Crescimbeni noted that the vast majority of outages (2,232 to 12) during Irma were overhead outages.

Crescimbeni noted the soft costs, such as mutual aid crews, as being significant.

“About $45 million out of pocket for those storms … it’s time this community come up with a significant plan for undergrounding,” Crescimbeni said.

“We chip away at it … but I think it’s a path we need to decide to go on … and start plotting a course to get there,” Crescimbeni added.

“You’re probably going to have a reduction in manpower … because there won’t be so many lines,” Crescimbeni added.

Brost noted that, given a $3-$6 billion estimated cost for undergrounding, it could take 200 years to make the project cost-effective.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri seconded the call for underground utilities, given issues with workman safety and other factors during storms.

“I am all for underground,” Hazouri said.

Councilman Jim Love wanted a plan that would underground 95 percent of city utilities, but JEA doesn’t have that plan.

“What we get hung up on,” Brost said, is “what’s the funding source. We [may] need a comprehensive program to enforce it.”

“I would like to see some plans from you … the smartest way to do it, the cheapest way to do it over a period of time,” Love said.

Crescimbeni is skeptical of any such plan from JEA, citing the possibility of a “doomsday” report because the utility doesn’t want to commit to the project.

Councilman Aaron Bowman noted that solar is coming on as a source, and technology may evolve over decades.

Bowman wanted some mapping to show which overhead areas are most prone to outages, and then remedying those first.

Jim Overton, representing Scenic Jacksonville, noted a broad swath of the political donor class locally wants undergrounding.

Winter Park, said Overton, is undergrounding currently. Jacksonville Beach, 80 percent underground, performs better in storms.

And there are savings on maintenance and tree trimming, as well as on conversions.

“JEA wants this as well as we do,” Overton said. “It’s just a matter of how to get there.”

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