Category Archives: Jacksonville City Council

Preserve The St. Johns River Ferry

It’s amazing, sometimes, how you can find yourself in the center of something that can really make a difference in your community. Such is the case with the task force to save, and then preserve, the St. Johns River Ferry Service.

Ferry Task Force Beaches WatchThe ferry, often referred to as the Mayport ferry, is in danger of being permanently docked. And as 13th district councilman Bill Guliford said at Wednesday night’s Beaches Watch meeting, if the service ends, it will be very difficult to resurrect it. So, led by former council president Elaine Brown, long a champion of beach community issues and beaches businesses, we are embarked on a mission to see that it is not allowed to come to that end.

Jacksonville Port Authority spokesperson Nancy Rubin says that the ferry carries an annual operating deficit of some $600,000 to $700,000, and is in immediate need of about $4 million in repairs and upgrades to the berths at either end of the short trip across the river. JPA executive director Paul Anderson has said that the continued operations of the ferry is not consistent with the port’s business model, and is not sustainable in its present form. At a meeting on February 27th, he will ask the board for guidance as to how to proceed, but he has been very clear that he hopes to return the ferry, and the associated land, to the city. The city has been reluctant at best to agree to consider re-assuming responsibility for the service. The state, which most believe should be the entity operating the ferry, washed its hands of the service several years ago. Basically, it’s like they determined that they were no longer going to pay to maintain a bridge over a waterway that connects a state highway … which the ferry does.

Ferry DockingAll of that to say that, I’ve been asked by Elaine to lead the media and PR efforts for the task force. We will have a website, Facebook presence, and other social media components to the effort. If you ride the ferry, occasionally or regularly, you can expect to see very shortly volunteers at both landings asking you to take a brief survey and sign a petition. I’ll be posting about the issue here, and producing some video pieces to illustrate the issue.

If you care about the ferry, and there are a multitude of reasons for you to do so, from its historic significance to the economic impact is has on Mayport, the beaches communities, and many other businesses that line A1A between St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach, consider signing a petition, making a donation, contacting the Mayor’s office and your representative of the City Council to make your opinion known. Do keep in mind that all e-mails sent to the Mayor and City Council are public records. If … I probably should say when … we go to the city for funding for the ferry, it will require the votes of 10 council members to get it back in the budget.

But most importantly, tell your friends. I can’t imagine the First Coast without the ferry. Let’s see that it doesn’t happen. (Pictured L-R Elaine Brown, Task Force Chair; Val Bostwick, President, Friends of the St. Johns River Ferry; Nancy Rubin, Jacksonville Port Authority spokesperson; Sam Floyd, Mayport Waterfront Partnership Chairman; Councilman Bill Guliford presenting at Beaches Watch)

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Filed under Atlantic Beach, Beach Living, City Budget, City Council, Florida Budget, Jacksonville Beach, Jacksonville City Council, Mayport, Mayport Ferry, Neptune Beach

Special Election

GOP elephantThe date for the special election to replace State Senator Jim King will be September 15th.

That’s a very short time.

State Senator King lost a short but intense battle with cancer. Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive disease. It’s what took Andie’s mom in December, just 3 months after her diagnosis. The time frame was about the same for Senator King.

The entire dynamic of the race has changed. In 6 weeks, we’ll be electing a new State Senator, as well as a new 13th district City Councilman as Art Graham has to resign his seat to run for the Senate. Since John Meserve has filed for the City Council seat, Atlantic Beach will be electing a Mayor. Meserve had originally said he’d seek another 2 year term as AB Mayor, but now, that race has changed as well.

There are currently no Democrats looking at these races, as far as I know. AB is technically non-partisan, but the rest of them need primaries and generals … unless there are all Republicans in the races. It’s not unheard of for someone to get into a race as a “No Party Affiliation” or write in candidate just to close the race. If every candidate in the race is in the same party, then the race is open to everyone. Democrats can vote in a Republican race, which can also change the dynamic. The State Senate race is so far all GOP. There is a Democrat in the City Council race, so that one’s already closed. Update: I’m reminded that city elections are unitary. Everybody votes regardless of party.  Run-offs are needed if no candidate gets 50%+1 vote. I used to know all that stuff by heart. So c’mon out and vote.

Dem Donkey It’s amazing how things can change so quickly. All of the candidates for the District 8 race were planning for a short turn around, but I don’t think any of them were expecting to have an election in a month and a half. Some say the time frame favors John Thrasher, who has raised a lot of money in Tallahassee for the race after moving into the district earlier this year. Art Graham, Aaron Bean, and Dan Quiggle are all long-time residents of the district, but Thrasher has the fundraising edge so far. Money didn’t win every race in 2008, but it’s always good to have. The sure thing is voters need to start paying attention to this race in a hurry.

The same is tru e of the District 13 Council seat. Meserve is a political veteran, and Richard Pait, his Republican Challenger, is a newcomer. Pait has been campaigning for a while, but he’ll have an uphill battle against Meserve. The Democrat in the race is Neptune Beach resident Dave Smith, and I don’t know anything about him.

So, it’s the political season again.

Popcorn, anyone?

Sig

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Filed under Jacksonville City Council, Local Elections, Local Government, Thoughts

The Debate Begins Tomorrow

Peyton Mayor Peyton has floated the idea of a property tax increase. And a pretty healthy one. 8.4 to 9.6 mils, or about 14%. The impetus is a $60 million gap in the city budget. City, police, and fire pensions have an enormous unfunded liability, and and we spend less per capita on almost every major service than any other major metropolitan area in the state.

The millage rate has steadily declined since 1992, and has only increased in three years since 1972. The rest of the time, it’s either declined or remained flat. Mayor Delaney was famous for his long string of millage rate cuts. As property values rose, the millage could be cut and revenues would still increase. Add to that the (non binding) referendum that passed in 1991 that capped property tax increases at 3 percent. Coincidentally (?) 1992 was the last year that property taxes actually went up, and then only .09 mil. So the 1.2 mil increase proposed would be the largest property tax increase since Jake Godbold bumped taxes 1.75 mils in 1983 … and the rate had dropped 2 mils the previous year. Not surprisingly, property tax revenues peaked in 2007, after the huge run-up in property values in 2006, and even then Mayor Peyton was telling us how tight the budget was going to be. The past two years, the decline in property values, and by extension revenues, has be steep.

The JCCI budget study said very clearly that revenues had to increase, or spending had to be cut. Since we are required to have a balanced budget, those are the choices. Property taxes were not specifically mentioned, but given the headroom that’s available in our millage rate, the state allows up to 20 mils, and the fact that property taxes can be used to replenish the general fund where fees often have strings attached, that’s most likely the easiest place to go.

There are so many factors to be considered. Unfunded mandates from the state are also and issue, and it doesn’t even touch the levy for schools. It is a very deep, complex, and frankly ugly issue. When they talk about watching the sausage being made … welcome to the meat grinder.

Interestingly, The Florida Times-Union is reporting that it interviewed 18 of 19 council members, and they all said that while a property tax increase was not their first choice, they could be convinced. There will be enormous political pressure to not raise property taxes.  And with a campaign coming up, not only for Mayor but for the council seats as well, the debate should be spirited. Particularly since there are two or three members of the council who are eyeing the office at the other end of the 4th floor at City Hall. DSC_5938

Property owners are understandably concerned. Adding a tax during a recession, when people are struggling to pay their bills anyway, makes people who own property nervous. In an unscientific poll in “The Jacksonville Observer”, the responses are overwhelmingly in favor of cutting spending rather than raising taxes, or a combination of both cuts and revenue increases. On the other side of that coin, many of the local non-profit organizations who depend on money from the city to survive and provide a certain level of service are breathing a cautious sigh of relief.

There are no easy answers, nor even particularly politically palatable ones. There’s an old saying about a rock and a hard place. After sitting through most of the JCCI meetings, I’d have to say we’re pretty much there. The quote from JCCI’s Ben Warner in the T-U pretty much sums it up. “Business as usual won’t work and doing nothing is not an option,” he told the paper. “There are no non-painful choices.”

Mayor Peyton holds a news conference on the topic tomorrow morning at 10 at the T-U Center downtown. I have to be here in the morning, but I’m hoping I can get away in enough time to get down there for some of the news conference. Whether I’m able to get there or not, the debate begins tomorrow, and the Mayor’s budget is due in a couple of weeks.

Everyone who owns property, and probably those who rent (because landlords WILL pass along a tax increase to their renters eventually) should be watching.

Sig

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Filed under Budgets, City Budget, City Council, City Government, Jacksonville City Council, Local Elections, Local Government, Politics, Thoughts

Thoughts on my First Live Blog

dsc-5938.jpg Well, I picked a great one for my first outing. I don’t how how much I was       competing with Tia Mitchell from the TU … but since she’s on jacksonville.com, she has a built-in audience for hers. I only publicized mine on Facebook and Twitter, and thanks to Joey Marchy from urbanjacksonville.info for tweeting a link to the liveblog. The stats were pretty good, actually, with a big spike in traffic for the 4:00 and 5:00 pm hours. Thanks to everyone who came by to see what I was doing.

I have to say that the liveblogging experience was different.  I tried to keep up with the conversation, and from the few initial conversations I’ve had following the hearing, I think I managed to convey what was going on pretty well.  It was a challenge trying to keep up with what was going on in the conversation.  I felt at times like I was writing the crawl for a CNN or Fox News live event.  You know the ones where they tell you what the President or whomever has just said in a crawl at the bottom of the screen.  But in this instance, you hadn’t just heard what had just been said.

Since Councilman Davis had made such a point of wanting the representatives from Republic testify under oath, Council President Fussell swore us all in.  We stood up en masse and swore to tell the truth.  But the only people to actually answer questions from the Council were Alan Mosely, Mayor Peyton’s Chief Administrative Officer,  and General Counsel Rick Mullaney.

What eventually happened was the the Council voted to withdraw the bill from committee consideration and pass it along to the full council on April 28th.  I’m still unclear as to whether the representatives from Republic will answer questions from the council, and whether they’ll be under oath if that happens.

The primary takeaway for me tonight was when General Counsel Rick Mullaney said no matter which way this goes, there will be litigation.  If the council votes to move forward with the contract extension, the litigation will focus on state statutes, and he feels as if the council is on solid ground to waive the rules on bidding in this instance.  He went on to say if they vote to bid the contract, the focus of the litigation will be on contract law, which is a much different situation.  Either way, he said, the city will be in litigation with a multi-billion-dollar corporation with very deep legal pockets.

So, it was a, I think, a good first attempt at live blogging on an event that’s important to the city.  I’ve linked a transcript below.  Thanks for checking it out.

Trail Ridge Landfill Hearing Jacksonville City Council

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Filed under City Council, Jacksonville City Council, Journalism, Media, Thoughts, Trail Ridge

Trail Ridge … Part 1

DSC_5938The Jacksonville City Council met today as a “Committee of the Whole” to hear from the Peyton administration on the re-negotiated city landfill contract, and to hear public comments.  At stake is a multi-year nearly billion dollar contract to dispose of solid waste in the Trail Ridge landfill … the city’s only operating facility.

Today, the city’s case was made by Ebenezer Gujjarlapudi, director of the city’s Environmental Compliance Department.  Mr. Gujjarlpudi made a lengthy presentation of the city’s case to extend the existing contract as negotiated over the past several years, without opening the process to competitive bids.

According to the city, Waste Management was the low bidder on operating the entire Trail Ridge site for the life of the facility … which they contend would mean the entire 944 acre site.  Waste Management has built a lot of infrastructure at the site, but it conveyed the actual land back to the city with the contract to operate there.  I’ve spoken to at least one former member of the Jacksonville City Council when the original contract was approved who said his feeling was the spirit of the 1992 agreement was for the entire facility, but he could see the ambiguities currently under dispute.  The city also contends that extending the contract will save taxpayers $266 million dollars over the life of the contract, including $16 million immediately on a reduction in the current tipping charge.  Waste Management has threatened legal action should the city not honor what it (Waste Management) feels is a valid contract by opening it up for bids.  No city official will estimate what defending that suit would cost taxpayers.

The city also says Waste Management can fill the space that would exist between the two mounds, extend the life by building higher and maintain all the liability for environmental problems arising from the landfill.

But the thrust of the argument on the part of the city is that they have a low bid, they legally can extend the contract without opening up the process to new bids, and there will be a significant savings to taxpayers by taking that course.

Not so fast, says Republic … the company leading the effort to open the process for bids.

Republic will make it’s official presentation to the Committee of the Whole on April 23rd in a meeting that will begin at 4:00 pm.  But several representatives of the company spoke in Public Comments this afternoon.

Tom Ingram, an attorney for Republic, said that company disputes much of the savings the Administration says taxpayers will realize by extending the existing contract, and that he “respectfully disagreed” with General Counsel Rick Mullaney’s assessment that the City Council can waive the purchasing code and not bid the contract.  He also insisted, without giving specific numbers, that the deal Waste Management has negotiated with the city can be beaten.  Ingram produced an affidavit from the former CEO of Waste Management, now the CEO of Republic, that said his understanding was that the contract would be re-bid at the end of the life of the current mound.  It was distributed to the council members.

Later, Republic services manager Andy King said Waste Managements’ profit margin on the current operation is about 40%, and that the industry standard is about 20%.  He insisted that Republic could beat the Waste Managements’ negotiated price … and that rather than $10.21/ton, the price should be closer to $8-$9/ton.

We’ll hear more from Republic in two weeks.  Council Member Daniel Davis has asked that those giving testimony for Republic be under oath, which the council has the authority to do.  Later, Council Member Denise Lee indicated that there have been other instances where the procurement rules have been waived, for instance when the Jaguars were brought to town.

I’ve only scratched the surface of what went on in the chambers today.  I hope what I’ve been able to convey is that this issue is far more complex than a soundbite or a t-shirt or a button.  I will say that, after listening to the Mayor a week or so ago in one of his endless presentations on this issue, I don’t believe the restated Waste Management contract that is at the center of this debate was crafted “in a smoke filled room”, as some have suggested.  I don’t imagine a lot of people paid attention.  It’s also fairly obvious that no matter which side “wins”, there will be legal action.

At the end of the day, most of us just want the trash trucks to come around regularly and take the trash away, and as is human nature, we don’t want to pay a lot for that.  The Jacksonville City Council seems to have a very difficult decision on their hands.  They’ll hear several more hours of testimony on the 23rd, and there could be a vote later that day.

I wish them well, and I imagine I’ll be in the council chamber’s watching.

Sig

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Filed under Jacksonville City Council, Republic, Thoughts, Trail Ridge, Waste Management