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Very quietly, Jacksonville scored its biggest victory in Tallahassee last weekend, at least since the pension reform legislation in the 2016 Legislative Session.
At the time, earning the right to hold a referendum and move new public employees to a defined contribution pension plan was called a “heavy lift,” given the extension of a half-cent sales tax that would be in play.
The pension reform may not survive Mayor Lenny Curry for too long (even as the sales tax could extend until 2060), but given the interest held by both mayoral candidates in moving police and fire hires to the Florida Retirement System plan, the move allowed for the re-amortization of legacy pension debt and an actual capital improvement budget in recent years.
A big deal, to be sure.
But the $75 million in state money for the University of Florida Health and Financial Technology Graduate Education Center in Jacksonville could be just as transformative.
Furthering the longstanding partnership between the City and the University of Florida, Mayor @lennycurry, @UF President @BenSasse, and board members announced plans for creating a new graduate campus here in Jacksonville.
For more details, please visit: https://t.co/KdXzf6kDuO pic.twitter.com/PGzPURlQCn
— City of Jacksonville (@CityofJax) February 7, 2023
The original request was for just $50 million, but the House moved it to $75 million even as the Senate initially offered just $5 million, so the result was an overperformance.
This means the state will contribute more than the $50 million private donors will chip in and the $50 million city commitment to match those private donations.
How did it happen?
UF Board of Trustees Chair Mori Hosseini, a man with connections to the Republican power structure both regionally and statewide, leveraged relationships, including with House Speaker Paul Renner of Palm Coast (a man whose Jacksonville ties also run deep, including practicing law here for many years and even running for the House once to replace former Rep. Daniel Davis).
A BFD, to be sure. A Big Florida Deal.
Given the hyperpartisanship of state politics, a push for the money illustrated another truth about Tallahassee: Budget wins are often bipartisan.
Jacksonville Republican Rep. Wyman Duggan and Democratic Sen. Tracie Davis carried the legislative requests, and both were confident even as the House and Senate offers were far apart that the appropriation would land.
This was the second sizable chunk of state cash to come to Jacksonville for a UF project in recent years, joining the $80 million slotted for the UF Health Trauma Center in 2022. Given the intense skepticism from the local media on this project, however, it’s worth noting that Curry’s team actually overdelivered on the state match, offering a cushion that will come in handy as the project moves forward.
The project also has buy-in from Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“What people have said, and I think there’s some truth to it is (that the University of Florida is) doing a good job, but 95% of the people leave Gainesville when they graduate, right? Probably even more than that,” DeSantis said. “Well, if they’re going to move, they can move to Atlanta or Charlotte just as easily as they can Jacksonville or Miami or wherever or Tampa.”
The Governor then made the case for “having those institutions in places where we have a lot of economic opportunity.” He deemed it “more likely that people will end up staying in the area if the program is located in this area.”
“You see that in different parts of the country,” DeSantis noted. “Part of the reason Silicon Valley is what it is because you have those universities and people tend to just stay there.
“You look at other places: the Northeast; Boston; you look at Chicago, although Chicago is going through a lot of problems, but, you know, they’ve got some really good universities there and then a lot of the people stay there and they’re able to contribute,” he added. “So, it’s good and I’ve been favorably disposed to it.”
“I have not seen the line item in the budget, you know, as you know, we go through, we go through everything. But I think that there’s a clear vision of how this can be successful. And I think there’s been huge support from the local community, which really makes a difference.”
DeSantis also remarked that “a lot of the people in the private sector have been really supportive of this initiative and I think that there’s a lot of potential there.”
The House and Senate “sprinkle” lists include some wish list items for Northeast Florida.
The biggest item looks to be for a key economic driver in Jacksonville and surrounding areas.
House lawmakers are sending $15 million to JAXPORT for a crane replacement, which is one of the more high-profile items on the 2023 sprinkle list — supplemental appropriations from the Legislature.
While the $15 million is just a third of the total requested by Jacksonville Democratic Rep. Kimberly Daniels, the money will allow for the replacement of one of the three cranes that are already more than 12 years past their life spans.
The Senate list had no money for the project, so the other two cranes will have to wait.
The House budget request also has $12.5 million for dune replacement in North Ponte Vedra Beach, a priority of Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, the St. Johns County Republican who represents the erosion-prone area. This will complete the $25 million appropriation sought, half of which was already agreed to in budget negotiations, carried by Sen. Travis Hutson.
The $25 million total appropriation adds to $5.2 million in already provided state funding and $8.2 million in local funding. Expectations are that the project will begin in July 2023 and finish within a year.
Another Hutson priority, the St. Johns County Police Athletic League (PAL) Youth Sports Complex is getting $5.4 million from the Senate.
“The project includes the planning, permitting, engineering and construction of two synthetic turf multisport fields, one natural grass multisport field, one running Track, one covered multisport court, parking, irrigation, restrooms, storage facilities and lighting systems. St. Johns County has donated 35 acres for this project. The funding would provide PAL with a permanent home,” the funding request notes.
Another House Sprinkle List winner: the Flagler College Institute for Classical Education, which is slated to get just over $2.9 million, a boon for Flagler President John Delaney. That money will supplement the $5 million in recurring funds in the base budget and will serve as a carry-over for previous funds thus far allocated but unspent, per the funding request.
“Funds were allocated during the 2022-2023 Legislative Session to establish the Classical Institute at Flagler College … to be spent over a five-year period to develop a model for focusing on first-year students. … Due to hiring timelines, only $838,068 were spent during this fiscal year. This request is to carry forward $4,161,932 in unspent funds.”
Nassau County will get $1.5 million from the Senate for its County Road 108 Extension, duplicating the east/west corridor to SR200/A1A through Yulee.
The Wayman Academy of the Arts is slated for $500,000 of the $1 million sought by Rep. Angie Nixon.
That money will match more than $2.6 million from federal, other state and local sources and will allow for “expanding access to technology … improving energy and sustainability improvements around campus, extending the school day for students living in high crime, low-income communities within the urban core of Duval County, while also improving wraparound educational services for the underserved community.”
The Jacksonville School for Autism STEP Program, which stands for Supportive Transition and Employment Placement, looks likely to come out ahead as well, with $150,000 from the House side in the budget and another $150,000 from the Senate, fulfilling the full $300,000.
Another big winner in the state budget: The University of North Florida.
UNF is getting $25 million in additional recurring operational support.
Additionally, $26.2 million will be slotted to complete the Coggin College of Business Building.
And an additional $7.3 million will be slotted to complete the Brooks College of Health remodel.
This has been a strong year for university capital budgets, and UNF is not left out.
Marty Fiorentino is speaking May 10 at Cuppa Jax, offering a legislative recap as only he can do. We caught up with him this week for a preview of the event, which kicks off at 8 a.m. at the usual spot: the Skyline Room at the Riverplace Tower. Below are questions and answers from one of the leading lobbyists in the state, who is particularly attuned to Northeast Florida’s needs.
What are the biggest legislative wins for the region in 2023?
The biggest win is undoubtedly the landmark $75 Million appropriation for the University of Florida’s Jacksonville campus. This project will be transformational for downtown Jacksonville and is a good example of successful collaboration between local government, state government and the private sector — all working together to move our city forward. Our firm was proud to be able to work on this exciting effort.
Our team also assisted with securing the $30 Million investment the state is making in cranes at JAXPORT, which is another great project and will enhance the Port’s already excellent operations. The key focus the Governor and Legislature have placed on infrastructure investment in Northeast Florida and throughout the state is going to pay dividends in our area for years to come.
It feels like there were a lot of capital projects this year in Jax and beyond. Did leadership feel comfortable given the strong budget situation?
I believe a combination of factors led to the state’s ability to fund the many investments proposed this session. The Governor’s strong leadership during COVID resulted in an influx of out-of-state dollars being spent in Florida.
Having a Speaker from Northeast Florida is obviously a big advantage. Speaker Renner’s visionary policies and funding proposals for the region have been an added bonus.
I would also add that the level of cooperation between the Governor’s office and legislative leaders is stronger this session than at any time in recent history. The harmonious working relationships have resulted in a lot of positives for Floridians.
What advantage did Renner provide the region this year?
A leader is only effective when he has the trust of the individuals he leads. Speaker Renner has proven himself to be a strong, steady leader who has the courage in his convictions to go along with the power entrusted in him. His thoughtful approach and commitment to ensuring success for projects he believes in — like UF’s Jacksonville Campus — will be groundbreaking for our area and will bring positive results to Northeast Florida for many years to come.
What would happen if the leading journalists in Jacksonville held a mayoral forum but only one candidate showed up?
That’s what WJXT and First Coast News and panelists Anthony Austin, Kent Justice, Nate Monroe and Melissa Ross are dealing with Wednesday, as it appears Republican Daniel Davis will be elsewhere during a 7 p.m. event scheduled with Democrat Donna Deegan.
Looking forward to this collaboration with other journalists in Jacksonville. https://t.co/lfA97l1Pj8
— Kent Justice (@WJXTJustice) April 29, 2023
Davis will be at the Fraternal Order of Police building yet again, where he will hold a “conversation with parents” with his wife Rebekah.
Those familiar with event planning aren’t happy with this decision to schedule the event a week ago. They note that candidates knew this was planned back in January. The Davis side did not know that it was going to be an all-star media panel, however, and they frame their commitment as much softer given the fact that the original event was pitched back in January.
Counting on making it to May would have been tantamount, as one Davis camp source put it, to “counting chickens before they hatched,” given the crowded First Election field.
There is an argument that the room could have been stacked against Davis, anyway, embraced on his side. WJCT has offered Deegan friendly forums and Davis has largely passed on numerous invitations to give his side of the story to Ross’ First Coast Connect. They also note that Monroe is an opinion columnist and hasn’t seemed especially sold on Davis’ candidacy.
Despite this, is Davis making a mistake by giving Deegan an hour of free media during early voting? Depends on if you think televised debates matter.
As we’ve seen from the selective media strategies employed by DeSantis, who is most comfortable with hand-picked press lackeys and former President Donald Trump, already planning to skip debates months down the road, there is a precedent. But will that play in Deegan’s favor given her campaign’s belief that “moderate” Republicans are still in play?
Cook seeks second term
Clay County’s Sheriff unsurprisingly is going for another four years.
Michelle Cook launched her re-election campaign this week, for the 2024 ballot.
“Serving as Sheriff of our great community is the honor of my life. By working together, we’ve kept our neighborhoods safe by adding uniformed deputies to the streets, given our officers and staff a well-deserved pay increase, and rebuilt the trust and faith our community has in the Sheriff’s Office,” Cook said.
“As Sheriff, I have fought every day to build an agency that our county can be proud of — but the work isn’t done yet. I am asking the people of Clay County to put their trust in me again and humbly ask for your vote on Aug. 20, 2024.”
Cook, a longtime member of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office before the chief role in Atlantic Beach, is the first female Sheriff of Clay County. She has brought stability to the job after the turbulent Darryl Daniels era.
At large Group 5 candidate Charles Garrison is touting an endorsement from a former Congressperson who represented part of Jacksonville through last year.
“I am proud to endorse Charles Garrison for City Council,” said Congressman Al Lawson. “Charles is a veteran who knows how to serve, and I have seen firsthand his commitment to serving our community. Charles has the experience, the vision, and the leadership skills that are needed to move our city forward.”
“I am honored to receive the endorsement of Congressman Al Lawson,” Garrison said. “Congressman Lawson is a true public servant, and his support means a great deal to me. I look forward to working with him and with all members of our community to build a better future for our city.”
Garrison is up against Republican Chris Miller on the May 16 ballot. The most recent poll of the race, via the University of North Florida, shows Miller up, 45% to 38%. Miller is a former John Rutherford aide, but it’s clear that congressional backing is on both sides in this battle.
As we noted last week, Dr. Diana Greene was running out of time as Duval County Superintendent. Tuesday saw the board approve a separation and retirement agreement, the latest superintendent sweep in the fast-changing world of Florida public schools.
The meeting Tuesday brought to a head weeks of tensions and disquiet about safety issues, accelerated by the scandals at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts.
What’s next? The board will have to find an interim Superintendent, someone to fill the seat while they figure out who the full-time hire will be. The workshop for that is the third Tuesday of the month (May 16), and there is a certain irony that Election Day won’t be the only major news that day.
There were those who were skeptical that this would happen at all or happen this quickly. Those skeptics have been quieted in the wake of the rapid transition that the school board is now undertaking, one that will consume the summer.
Conservatives on the board want a real change agent. And they will have a chance to get it.
A St. Augustine liberal arts college is one of the most beautiful in the country.
That’s not just our opinion, either.
Travel and Leisure hails Flagler College as one of 25 schools in the United States that embody “academia with style.”
“This private liberal arts college, located in beautiful St. Augustine, Florida, started out as a luxury hotel. Now the home of Flagler College, the Ponce de León Hotel was built in 1888 in the incredible Spanish Renaissance style. Today, the building is the centerpiece of the college and a National Historic Landmark,” the editors note.
The school is in a rarefied company, joining august institutions like Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, William & Mary, Yale, Duke, University of Virginia … you get the idea.
Flagler can’t be called a hidden gem anymore. But it can be said to be getting due recognition as one of the most attractive campuses anywhere in the United States.
Jacksonville University wants to hear from those parties interested in solving climate issues, and they are backing that desire up with a “Shark Tank” style competition this month.
The JU Climate Innovation Challenge is offering prizes of up to $10,000 for good proposals on how to address problems.
“This competition unites Northeast Florida around the multifaceted issue of global climate change and utilizes the community’s different skill sets to drive positive change to our environment,” said Dr. Christopher Corbo, Dean of the Jacksonville University College of Arts and Sciences.
The application period starts May 15, and they are casting a wide net.
“The grant competition is interdisciplinary and welcomes participants and projects from various fields such as the arts, humanities, sciences, medical and health services, engineering, business, military offices, law, public policy and government. Possible projects include mitigating an environmental problem, raising public awareness of the impacts of climate change, investigating the causes of and viable solutions to global climate change or promoting positive community action. Submissions can take the form of an invention, scientific study, performing or creative arts and other mediums,” per the media release.
Interested? Reach out to [email protected]
A former Times Union editor is now working her magic in academia.
Mary Kelli Palka has swooped into UNF, where she will oversee strategic comms.
We asked Palka about the new gig and how it compares to her TU stint this week, including why she ended up at UNF.
“If I was going back to a full-time job, I wanted to find an organization that helped make Jacksonville stronger. UNF has been doing that for more than five decades, and it seemed like a great fit,” Palka said.
She also noted that after her stint at the Times-Union, she wanted a similarly good vibe in her next job. At UNF, she has it.
“I was so fortunate to work for almost 20 years in an environment with incredibly talented and caring people at the Times-Union. I can already tell this will be a similar environment. I’ve been amazed by how warm and welcoming everyone has been at UNF,” Palka said.
There is a learning curve and a big job ahead, she notes.
“I will be overseeing media relations, as well as external communications. I started the job May 1, so I plan to spend time getting to know the campus and the people here better before determining how I can best help.”
After 30 years of bringing the news to Jacksonville, longtime WJXT anchor Mary Baer is signing off.
Baer, a multiple Emmy winner who is also the wife of The Fiorentino Group’s principal Marty Fiorentino, reflects on her interesting career and gives thanks to her loyal viewers, via News4Jax:
“Half my life. I’ve spent half my life on the set in the Channel 4 studios, bringing you the news!
“It feels like I’ve grown up here. I raised my beautiful daughter here who took her first steps on Jacksonville Beach.
“I found the love of my life in this city and I became a grandmother. 30 years of being challenged, inspired, and so grateful to be part of the Channel 4 family.
“30 years of laughing along with you at home at the silly stories, crying over the heartbreakers, and breathless over the astonishing moments in history we’ve witnessed together, taking place right before our eyes.
“I’m so grateful to have had this experience and can honestly say, I don’t regret a moment. It’s been a whirlwind of emotions, reflecting on the countless stories I’ve had the honor to bring to our viewers.
“I will always treasure the time spent with friends at 4, and sharing this time with you, our loyal viewers. And to those of you I’ve had the privilege to interview through the years, thank you for sharing your joy, your pain and your insight.
“It’s truly been an honor. You’ve taught me so much.”