Category Archives: Local Government

Mayport Ferry Update

Ferry DockingWe heard from Councilman Bill Gulliford Monday night at our First Coast Republican Club meeting on the status of the Mayport ferry. While nothing’s been resolved just yet, Councilman Gulliford said there is a great deal of activity going on in an effort to keep the A1A connection … connected.

The bad news is that the ferry needs some $4 to $4.5 million in repairs. That doesn’t go at all to operating costs. Councilman Gulliford seems to think that there may be some untapped grant money out there that can go towards getting the boat back up to par.

We heard about the responsibility of the state to maintain a contiguous A1A. The short ferry ride connects a state highway, which would have to be re-routed around to the Dames Point bridge. And it’s pretty well understood that any Mayport revival will be nearly impossible without the traffic the ferry brings.

A1A SignBut the ferry is also considered historic by some. It was mentioned that it might be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is the only auto ferry between Miami and Ocracoke Island in north Carolina. It is a unique resource which everyone loves, but no one apparently wants to pay for.

A question was asked how high the fare would have to be to make the ferry self-sustaining. Mr. Gulliford said it would have to double to $10 each way and maintain its current ridership … which if the fare were doubled is pretty unlikely. How much would ridership increase if the fare were rolled back to $2.50? Maybe not enough, but some.

From his position on the council, Gulliford is advocating an umbrella organization that would take responsibility for running the ferry. The citizens of the beach, he said, poke their heads up to save it every time it’s threatened, and once a “band-aid” is applied, go back to napping on the issue. That, he says, is part of the problem. There seems to be a feeling that the band-aid will somehow not need to be changed at some point, and we’re surprised when it does.

There is a lot of activity. Former Council President Elaine Brown is chairing a task force to save the ferry, which will have an organizational meeting Monday night at the Mayport community center at the launching ramp in the village. Mr. Gulliford said he was going to bend the Mayor’s ear at a breakfast Tuesday morning.

Floirda SealIn Tallahassee, representative Janet Adkins, who lives in Fernandina Beach, held a meeting to discuss the issue. The Florida Times-Union reports that Adkins advocates a public-private partnership to operate the ferry, but it should be paid for by stakeholders. Those would include several city and county governments, as well as the state.

“As you are getting your budgets together, as if you would be willing to fund a little piece,” she said, according to the paper. The president of the Friends of the St. Johns River took a different, and somewhat more pessimistic tack. The loss of the ferry would “(leave) the businesses along these routes to a slow economic death,” he said.

But  everyone is crying poverty. From FDOT, which arguably should maintain the boat because it connects a state highway, to the city of Jacksonville to the port, no one says they have any money for the ferry. The state, through JTA, seems to have no trouble subsidizing the Skyway, which has never realized anything close to its ridership potential. But to move 100,000 cars across the river every year, not a dime.

The good news is, the community is not going to let the ferry go down with out fight. It’s worth saving. But councilman Gulliford is correct. We should do a better job this time so that we don’t wind up a few years down the road having to go through the entire exercise again.

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Filed under A1A, Beach Living, Local Government, Local Issues, Mayport, Mayport Ferry, State Budget

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

Randomness

Michigan State seems to be way overmatched by North Carolina in the National Championship Game.  14 minutes and change to go and UNC leads 61-43.  MSU might as well be playing at home, as the game is in Detroit … but Carolina just seems to be too much for the Spartans to handle.  Still a lot of time to go, but it’s a big, long hill to climb.

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Over in Tallahassee … the legislature is past the halfway point, and a body controlled by conservative Republicans, many of whom have taken a “no new taxes” pledge, are facing a deficit of $6.1 billion.  So, to provide political cover, they’ll turn to “user fees”.  From “Florida Capital News“:

If approved, they would hit everyone who drives a car, files a lawsuit, goes fishing or takes out the garbage. College tuition could zoom 15 percent.

The legislature has also “zeroed out” “Florida Forever” … the state’s signature preservation and conservation program.  It’s $300 million budget gone.  Still to come is a potential complete re-write of the business tax code.  It would be difficult to imagine a Republican legislature increasing taxes on businesses during a recession, but I suppose not impossible.  About 1200 state jobs are likely to be cut, 800 currently vacant but that still leaves a lot of state employees in a bind, and the rest likely facing salary cuts.  The session ends in 26 days.

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The committee studying the City Budget begins crafting it’s recommendations tomorrow.  I joined this study late, but I’ve learned an incredible amount about how the city crafts it’s budget.  There are so many challenges in our consolidated government, and Jacksonville has been, by almost any measure, fairly fiscally responsible, but still finds it’s self with some serious challenges.  I think when the report is released that people will be surprised at how involved the process is, and yet how basic some of the issues are.  I know I have been.

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I’ll likely spend some time Thursday at City Hall at the committee meeting discussing the city’s landfill dilemma.  I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days talking to people about the issue, from longtime political observers to current city councilmen and one who voted on the original contract.   There will be public comment on Thursday, along with another iteration of the Mayor’s presentation.  No matter what, it’s going to be close.

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Wreck 295 cropDriving to improv rehearsal tonight, traffic was at a crawl on I-295 from I-95 to Old St. Augustine Road.   Why?  Someone had managed to flip an SUV in the eastbound lanes.  That’ll make for a really bad evening.  The only camera I had was the iPhone, and since we were staring to get moving again, it was difficult to get any composition on the shot.  I had to make sure I didn’t have a wreck myself while trying to get a shot of this carnage.  I hope everybody was OK.

And speaking of improv … yes we rehearse and I’m getting a little disappointed with people making the “you rehearse improv?” joke.  We rehearse to build trust among the players, to learn the structure of the games, to develop characters, to learn new games, and to laugh and have fun.  All to make sure the audience has the best possible experience.  And if you don’t believe it, just give it a shot sometime with no rehearsal.  Stand up in front of 50 to 100 people with someone you’ve never been on stage with before.  Get a relationship and location suggestion.  Build a scene.  Make it funny.

Go!

Nah, I wouldn’t want to do that either.

And now, with 10 minutes until midnight, and North Carolina running out the clock on their 5th national championship (tying Indiana), it’s time to get this up to the server and call it a night.

Sig

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Filed under Florida Budget, Florida Legislature, Improv, Improv Comedy, Local Government, Local Issues, Thoughts

We Are Not Alone

As the JCCI study group on the city budget begins to craft recommendations for the report comes news that we’re not the only metro area in the state suffering from budget woes.  From today’s St. Pete Times:

As many as 1,000 jobs – about one-sixth of Hillsborough County’s county work force – may be eliminated because of declining property tax revenues, County Administrator Pat Bean said.

Hillsborough County is projecting a $114-million drop in property and sales taxes revenues next year. That’s a decline of about 13 percent in property taxes compared to this year’s revenues.

Then there is this article from today’s Miami Herald about the eminent resignation of the Hialeah Fire Chief Otto Drozd:

Drozd is now leaving his post amid similar worries and in a contract negotiation year that is sure to be a tough one because of the city’s declining tax revenues, primarily due to the drop in property values, rise in foreclosures and voter-approved tax cuts.

Emphasis mine.

It’s no secret that declining property tax revenues are one of the factors at the core of the financial issues we’re facing here in Duval County as well, although in a recent conversation with a Neptune Beach City Commissioner, I learned at least that our little municipality is still staying above water.  At the beach, that’s a pretty good thing … staying above water.

Of course, when I interviewed Governor Crist last year about his proposed property tax cuts, he held that the people of Florida were clamoring for property tax relief, and that cutting property taxes would be the end of all the states woes.  Or at least that’s the impression he gave.

I’ve talked to plenty of people who still believe there is wasteful spending at all levels of government, and that simply making the right targeted cuts can bring harmony back to the accountants office.  It’s also no secret that raising taxes is a very politically unpopular thing to do, at pretty much every level of government.  So Florida, with the news today that the unemployment rate hit 9.4 percent (9.2% in Jacksonville), seems to be between a rock and a hard place.

The legislature, for it’s part, seems to at least be trying.  But with a $6 billion dollar hole to fill, some programs are likely to be slashed entirely to avoid deep cuts in education … where we already spend less than 46 other states.  And with 36 days to sine die, there’s quite a bit of discussion. From today’s edition of “The Florida Capital News:

The philosophical rift between the House and Senate grew wider Thursday as both chambers worked on competing plans to deal with a $6 billion budget shortfall.

Chief among them is a refusal by House Republicans to accept up to $1 billion in federal stimulus money that would go to 250,000 Floridians whose unemployment benefits are about to expire.

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Democrats balked at a proposal that would save $35 million by dropping 12,000 people from nursing-home diversion programs.

Sen. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise, fumed about a threat to trim state spending on foster care by $7.9 million, a move that would actually cost the program $18.9 million when the loss of federal dollars is included.

I’m not sure where the answers lie, though I’m hopeful that some of the recommendations we come up with at JCCI can make a difference, at least locally.  We don’t even start working on those until this coming week, and based on what we’ve heard from the folks who’ve come to talk to us, the choices will be difficult, politically and otherwise.

Sig

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Filed under Budgets, JCCI, Local Government, Politics

Another Blank Page

Sometimes I do my best writing when faced with a blank page.  Tonight may not be such a night.

It was another day of working the phones and e-mail.  There will be more of that tomorrow, and pretty much every day until I start getting some interviews.

I’m sure regular readers, if there are any, are starting to find this a bit tedious.  Hell, I’m finding it a bit tedious.  I need to find some muse to give me something to write about day after day.

It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood.  Temperatures were in the high 70’s here at the beach, and it was a great day for a bike ride.  I did my normal 18 mile southern loop down to Corona Road, which normally takes me a little more than an hour.  It was my second day this week to make that ride.  Winds were out of the south, and that’s helpful on that loop.  I prefer to have the wind at my back on the return leg of a ride, and my legs were really feeling it on the last mile this afternoon.  Still, I got it done, and that always gives me a sense of accomplishment.

Tonight, though, more December-like weather is on the way, and I’ll have to turn to the elliptical strider for my workout.  I’m trying to get serious about getting some of this weight off.  I’m not happy at all that the stress of losing my job has caused me to let myself go.  I’ve got to start feeling better about myself, and one way to do that is simply to have some success.  I know how to do it.  It’s just a question of having the discipline to get it done.

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It’s a slow news day in Jacksonville.  Watching the 11 o’clock news, I’ve seen stories about the weather, Jeb Bush NOT running for U.S. Senate, Florida playing in the National Championship game Thursday … the only story that is news to me was the one about a delay on the cruise terminal vote by LUZ, which is the City Council Land Use and Zoning committee.

Celebration 1 LG JAXPORT and Mayport have not been able to reach an agreement about the terminal, citing environmental concerns about the fuel the ships will burn at pierside and potential discharge.  Now, the discharge issue shouldn’t really be a concern, as the Coast Guard station is just west of the proposed cruise terminal site … and the Coasties take a dim view of inshore sewage and offal discharge.  Mayport wants a concession that the ships be connected only to shore power when they’re at the pier, which would be a very expensive proposition.  I’m not sure what the particulate concentration is from the “clean” fuel that JAXPORT says it will require ships to burn, but I DO know that I always wind up with plenty of soot and dirt on my boat NOW in it’s storage space at Jacksonville Marina.  It wouldn’t be ideal to have more to clean up before I get out on the water.

Still, I’m overall in favor of the cruise terminal at Mayport.  There will in all likelihood be a nuclear carrier in the neighborhood in a fewMayport Sign years, which may require some infrastructure improvements in the area anyway.  The county, state, and Atlantic Beach have done a nice job on Mayport Road (A1A) heading north to the A1A / Mayport Road split.  I drive up there pretty regularly, and I’m sure the terminal and parking garage construction would be an annoyance, and improving the road could prove problematic, as there seem to be a lot of areas that could be considered wetlands from the split to the ferry.  But on balance, I can’t help but believe that the overall economy of the area would improve with terminal.

I know Mike, Linda, and Paul stayed at one of the national chain motels in Atlantic Beach, and it was in pretty dismal condition.  Those places would do well to improve if people were staying a night or two before or after a cruise.  I really think it would be a boon to the Mayport region, and perhaps the entire north beaches area would see a boost.  It couldn’t hurt.

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And finally … is it a sign of the Apocalypse?  Letterman almost made an Obama joke.  Not quite, but skirting the edges.

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Filed under Beach Living, Cruise, Life, Local Government, Mayport, Weather

Local Government at its Most Local

I went to a couple of events tonight, both of which were good in the job search arena.  A Beaches Chamber of Commerce council mixer and then the special meeting of the Neptune Beach City Council … where Harriet Pruett, Kara Wade Tucker, and Eric Pardee were sworn in on the Council.

It was at the council meeting that I started thinking about the most local of local governments.  I covered a lot of Jacksonville City Council meetings when I first went to work at WJCT.  I mean a lot.  Every other Tuesday, I’d plan to spend most of the night at city hall, and the rest of it at the station writing a story for our morning magazine show.  The 19 member Jacksonville City Council can be unwieldy at times.  And sometimes the meetings could drag on, and on, and on, and on …

Tonight, the new and newly re-elected members of the Neptune Beach City Council were sworn in, and there were only three little items of business on the agenda.  At the JCC, there could be zoning discussions that could do on for what seemed like hours … and that was never the interesting part of the meeting I wanted for the show.  The agenda could run 15-20 pages, with supplemental and “emergency” items, plus public comments.  Meetings could be marathons.  They still are.

Tonight’s Neptune Beach City Council meeting had the swearing’s-in, and three bills on the agenda.  Three.  One was on first reading.

Doggy Dining passed on third reading.  Only one person spoke to the council in favor of Doggy Dining, and none against.  I almost went up and spoke against, simply to make it fair, and because I’m not really sure I’m all about having dogs underfoot at a restaurant, even outdoors.  But I hadn’t given the issue any thought, don’t feel that strongly about it, and didn’t want to seem like a dog-hater … so I let it go.  It passed unanimously.

The other bill, which was a technical correction on an existing bill, also passed unanimously.  The third was a first reading dealing with education funding.

That was it.  Half an hour, including the swearings-in.  30 minutes.  Local government at its most local.

Now, when the debate was whether WalMart should be allowed to come to town, it was a very different story.  The anti-WalMart crowd packed the tiny meeting room, and were very vocal about not letting them come into Neptune Beach.  Never mind that the zoning allowed it and they would have been paying taxes on a now-vacant strip shopping center.  Never mind they tried to be good neighbors and conform to the local architecture (such as it is) and followed all the rules.  People heard “WalMart” and were up in arms.  I still don’t understand how that happens.  WalMart won, of course, and then decided not to build it anyway.  As the arguing went on, the economy soured, and they decided it wasn’t going to be as profitable as they had originally thought.  So, the shopping center remains empty.

But now that I can, I should go to more local city council meetings.  Maybe volunteer for a board and get more locally involved.  I actually enjoy watching the sausage being made, and ever have ever since Illona Nickols talked about the federal legislature during C-SPAN orientation.  It was the civics class everyone slept through in high school made interesting in an afternoon … and now I enjoy the process.

So that was that.  I had the camera in the car and didn’t take it into the council chamber.  I should have.  But so many people don’t realize that it’s at the local city council meetings … particularly if you live in a town like Neptune Beach, where decisions are made that really effect your everyday life.   The President and federal congress pass and sign laws that sometimes seem so esoteric … but when you realize that it takes “an act of congress” at the local level to allow you to take your dog to the outdoor seating area of a restaurant … that’s where the rubber meets the road.  And it’s why everyone should pay far more attention to who their local representatives are.

It’s that important.

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Filed under City Council, Civics, Local Government, Neptune Beach, Thoughts