Monday, September 19, 2016

The Budget Shell Game In the Twilight Zone at County Center


Did the taxpayers of Hillsborough County once again get the wool pulled over our eyes?

We posted here about Commissioner Higginbotham's transportation funding plan that passed on September 8th. It drastically reduced the amount of money going to fund our neglected roads and transportation needs over the next 10 years from what Commissioner Murman's proposal would have funded.

What occurred:
As part of Higginbotham's transportation funding plan, $35 million would go to transportation in FY2017. 

How is the county funding the new $35 million of transportation funding? 
With $14.1 million of reprioritized DEBT and only $10.6 million from new revenues.

And while the county is funding transportation with new debt, they are syphoning off $10 million of our new revenues to fund an untested $30 million impact fee buyback scheme that benefits developers.

And we've gone through ANOTHER budget cycle where the commissioners have refused to appropriate the $23 million BP oil spill settlement money that has no restrictions on its use. It should be going to our greatest funding gap and need - transportation!

And County Center thinks we're supposed to break out into a happy dance?

How did it occur?

First, Higginbotham would not have proposed $35 million go to transportation in FY2017 if he had not already discussed his plan with County Administrator Mike Merrill. The specifics for how the $35 million would be funded was not disclosed when the plan was discussed at the September 8th BOCC meeting or at the budget public hearing that same evening. 

Higginbotham's plan initially included mobility fees as a funding source. Luckily, Commissioners Beckner and Murman stopped that funding shell game by removing mobility fees from the plan before it was approved September 8. 

The funding was disclosed at the eleventh hour last FY2017 budget public hearing held on September 15th. Again, poor Governance, there was no time to react when the budget had to be approved that evening for the new fiscal year beginning October 1. 
Source of funding for $35 million of
transportation spend in FY2017
What a Surprise! 

Almost half (over 40%) of the FY2017 $35 million transportation funding is re-appropriated DEBT from the FY2016 budget.

Where did this reprioritized debt come from?

The FY2016 budget earmarked $46.5 million of debt financed projects, including $16.8 million for redevelopment projects. (Note the parks and service center debt financed projects are capital expenditures for which we asked for the operating expenses and were told by the county the operating expenses are TBD - bad budgetary practice - but a post for another day)

Always skeptical of such nebulous development projects, we attempted to get information about them from County Center.  No one at County Center nor any county commissioner could provide any details about these projects. Because there were none. This earmarked debt was for "ghost" redevelopment projects that did not exist so the county never borrowed any of the $16.8 million in FY2016. 

We don't know why county commissioners approve debt for projects they know nothing about or that do not exist. However, the already approved earmarks can be used as a holding place to fund something else.

Voila!

At the September 15 budget public hearing the county disclosed they how they complied with the new transportation funding policy. The county re-appropriated $14.1 million of the $16.8 million of DEBT financing earmarked in FY2016 for those redevelopment "ghost" projects to transportation. Since only  $10.6 million of new revenues for FY2017 is going to transportation, more new debt is funding transportation than new revenues

We were told Higginbotham's plan was an enhancement to Murman's proposal?

Hmmm….Reprioritizing debt is considered an enhancement?

Again the choreography done behind the green curtain was perfectly orchestrated.

The debt maneuver was already planned because Higginbotham's proposal includes new financing as a new revenue source and the plan stated:
If the policy is adopted effective for the FY 17 budget, first year policy compliance could be maintained by requiring that $12 million of the currently appropriated Redevelopment Program be designated for transportation uses in Redevelopment Pilot Project Areas.
Actually $14.1 million, not $12 million was re-appropriated from the redevelopment ghost projects to transportation. 

But who would've known or fully understood Higginbotham's plan thrown out at the eleventh hour? The public was notified of the proposal via the agenda sent out by the county on a Friday afternoon before the long Labor Day weekend. We all know about data dumps on Friday afternoons, especially before holiday weekends - most folks are focusing on the holiday weekend. 

While the commissioners removed the $30 million of impact fee buybacks from the transportation budget, that money is still appropriated in a non-departmental bucket. 

Lo and Behold $10 million of the $30 million impact fee buybacks scheme - that benefits developers - is funded with new revenues. Only $10.6 million of new revenues in FY2017 is going to our #1 issue with the biggest funding gap - transportation - that benefits us all. Can't make this stuff up…..
Chart presented at September 15 budget public hearing
When our roads and transportation needs have been neglected for years, spending $30 million in FY2017 for impact fee buybacks is outrageous and irresponsible.

The county will fund an impact fee buyback scheme with new revenue growth at the same time the county is funding our #1 issue transportation with new debt. 

How more backwards and upside down can things get with our county budget? 

The commissioners should demand a monthly update on the status of the impact fee buyback program. If it's not successful within 6 months, start re-appropriating those funds to transportation projects. 

There has to be some enforced accountability instead of lack thereof.

The irony of all this is amazing. 

The commissioners agreed in June to appoint a citizens committee to review and vet Murman's transportation funding proposal. It was apparent they wanted another "set of eyes" looking at the plan. But the committee was never established and the effort vanished into thin air. 

Instead, Murman's proposal was only reviewed by County staff who have an entrenched bias to maintain status quo and maintain their control over the entire budget. At the August 10th transportation workshop, Staff presented faulty revenue numbers low-balling the 10 year revenue stream estimates and half truths ridiculously predicting doom and gloom about Murman's plan. It was all very theatrical.

Subsequently, we get thrown the curve ball of Higginbotham's plan at the eleventh hour when no one had sufficient time to fully review or vet it. 

So much for the county commissioners really wanting another "set of eyes" but the county bureaucracy looking at any transportation funding plan.

To recap, the direction the commissioners gave County staff was to pursue using new growth revenues within our existing growing budget to fund our roads and transportation need. The chart below was presented as part of the FY2017 budget planning.

That is not what we got. 

What we got is a budget shell game.

What we have is a convoluted budget mess with no limits to where growth revenues in our ballooning budget can be spent - bigger bureaucracy, new baseball stadium, pork projects, special interest handouts, more parks, etc.

We are being led right back to the bloated budget era we were in prior to the recession. 

The trust issue with County Center continues to looms large and over two-thirds of those polled in 2015 said the county must do a better job of spending money it already has. 

We have been requesting for years that the county reprioritize our ballooning budget to start appropriately funding our roads and transportation. 

But has County Center turned into the Twilight Zone?



Only in the Twilight Zone of County Center would requests for reprioritizing our budget equate to reprioritizing debt that was previously appropriated for "ghost" projects.

Only in the Twilight Zone of County Center would anyone think taxpayers should do a happy dance when the county uses more debt than growth revenues to fund transportation in FY2017.

Only in the Twilight Zone of County Center is spending $30 million of taxpayer money in FY2017 on some untested impact fee buyback scheme a higher priority than funding our roads and transportation needs that have been neglected for years.

Is it time for those operating in a different dimension in the Twilight Zone at County Center to encounter a reality check?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Transportation: Taxpayer Victory But Lots of Room In Budget To Do Better

It was a long day at County Center last Thursday. There was a regular Hillsborough County commission meeting during the day and the first county budget public hearing regarding FY2017 budget in the evening.

We want to thank Commissioner Murman for leading the effort to fund transportation within our existing budget. Without Murman championing her plan for a dedicated and committed transportation funding source using our growth revenues, we would still have no transportation funding. Murman's leadership, together with strong support from Commissioner White got us to where we are today.

Finally, the county is using our existing budget to fund our roads and transportation needs. We've been requesting they do that for years as our revenues have been going up and up and up.

While Murman's proposal got substantially changed, the end result is a victory for the taxpayers of Hillsborough County.

Let's recap what happened.

At the June 9th sales tax hike public hearing, the commissioners agreed to pursue Murman's transportation funding proposal to dedicate and commit at least a third of our new growth revenues to transportation. They had also agreed to appoint a citizens committee to review Murman's proposal and that effort somehow vanished into thin air.

We previously posted here that the commissioners discussed Murman's proposed ordinance for a TIF like concept that would provide a dedicated funding source for transportation at the August 10th Transportation Workshop. Commissioner Higginbotham led the effort at that meeting for the Board's decision to bring Murman's proposal back to the Board in the form of a Board policy rather than an Ordinance. That was already a compromise that took some teeth out of Murman's proposal because a Board policy does not have the same discipline of enforcement that an Ordinance has.

Therefore, Murman asked for the Board policy language be brought to the next BOCC meeting scheduled a week away on August 17th. The Ordinance language had already been drafted by the County Attorney's office.

It was astounding to hear County Attorney Chip Fletcher say he could not reformat the Ordinance language into a Board policy format in time to bring it back to the commissioners at their very next BOCC meeting on the 17th.

It is beyond belief that Fletcher's County Attorney's office could not reformat Ordinance language already drafted into Board policy format in a week. The size of staff at the County Attorney's office is huge. They are so big that they farm out their resources and county legal services to other organizations - a post for another day.

Therefore, Murman's transportation funding proposal as a Board policy would have to be addressed at the following BOCC meeting not scheduled until after the Labor Day Weekend on September 8, 2016. September 8th coincidentally was the same day as the first evening budget public hearing was scheduled.

Either the public hearing should have been delayed or the BOCC meeting conducted the day before on Wednesday which is its normal meeting day. Making big budget decisions hours before a budget public hearing is again poor Governance by the County, especially when it could have been handled differently.

Once we heard Fletcher make his statement forcing the delay, we knew the fix was in. Unelected bureaucrat County Administrator Mike Merrill, who has no policy making authority, clearly displayed his annoyance of Murman's proposal at the August 10th meeting. It was clear he opposed Murman's plan.

How dare the county commissioners, who are elected to make policy and provide oversight for the county budget, take control of any part of the budget away from our unelected County Mayor???

What we anticipated played out and it was perfectly orchestrated behind the green curtain.

The choreography, which probably began after the June sales tax hike public hearing, concluded with Higginbotham's plan suddenly thrown out just prior to the Labor Day weekend. The public, of course, was already focused on the long holiday weekend.

How was the public notified? The county distributed the agenda we received on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day at 1:48pm that included the following item:
1:45 PM    F-1    Consider enhancements to the transportation funding plan proposed by Commissioner Murman to provide greater financial certainty of the availability of future
transportation funding. (Commissioner Higginbotham)

We were able to get a copy of the plan on Tuesday, after Labor Day, from Commissioner Higginbotham's office. The plan can be found by clicking on the F-1 blue hyperlink on the online agenda (if you have your browser preferences setup appropriately) or the plan can be found here.

There was barely time for anyone to digest Higginbotham's plan. Why was this change done at the eleventh hour and the same day as the first budget public hearing?

Higginbotham's proposal substantially changed Murman's proposal and we will address the changes in another post. It greatly reduces the amount of our growing existing budget that will go to transportation over the next 10 years and does not provide a dedicated funding source. It does not address limiting the size and scope of county government to continue growing and growing AGAIN as our revenues climb. This is the predicament the county put themselves in prior to the recession.

Transportation is the #1 issue in our county. The county spent over 3 years and $1.35 million of our county tax dollars telling us that. It is unfortunate that this Board once again refuses to commit a dedicated funding source from our revenue growth for transportation.

Higginbotham's plan will increase transportation spending in FY2017 by $35 million. But what are the taxpayers getting for that?

At the public hearing the same evening, we found out. $30 million of our entire FY2017 transportation spending is going to developers for impact fee buyback credits NOT transportation projects. On page 28 of the Recommended FY2017 budget is the Budget Overview and the very top item is the impact fee buyback.
$30 million of FY2017 transportation funding going
to developers NOT transportation projects
This is outrageous. Who can defend that impact fee buyback credits should be included as part of our transportation spending? Especially when the county has neglected our roads for years.

The county should not be spending our tax dollars on an impact fee credit buyback program to begin with. If there is a truly a market for impact fee credits, than let the free marketplace handle it - not our tax dollars.

Sensing there is a public backlash to this buyback program benefiting developers, the commissioners asked county staff at the August 10th Transportation Workshop to go back and find another way to fund these buyback credits.

That request vanished into thin air too.

Merrill builds a huge amount of slack into our county budget each year. He could have found the funds necessary somewhere else if this program is so important but he did not. We're left assuming that the slack slush fund must be available for other things - pork projects, subsidies and handouts when needed - instead of funding a primary responsibility of county government, our roads and transportation.

Taxpayers did get a Victory last week and we would not be where we are now without Commissioner Murman leading the way, but there is tons of room for improvements.

And the first improvement must be to remove the $30 million going to impact fee buyback credits from the FY2017 transportation budget.  That $30 million must fund much needed "real" transportation projects.

This is a no brainer if the commissioners are truly serious about funding transportation NOW.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Respect the Will of the People So Tampa Bay Can Lead the Way in Transportation Innovation

Rail is like a cat with nine lives. While the rail cartel has lost every transportation sales tax hike referendum in Tampa Bay since 2010, they continue pushing their rail agenda. 

With a sales tax hike now dead for November, the rail cartel shape shifters are morphing into their latest two prong strategy. The first prong is pushing AGAIN to create a regional transit agency that will result in a regional taxing authority. Their second prong is to push our state legislature to allow cities to have their own "transit" (not transportation) referendums to fund high cost rail.

These are bad ideas on numerous fronts! 

In government, bigger is not better nor more efficient, especially over the long term. Bigger agencies just keep getting bigger and bigger and more powerful. Powerful government entities can be a breeding ground for more corruption. When local taxpayers are an arms length away from the decision makers, their influence is diluted while special interest influence increases. It is much harder for local taxpayers to fight a regional taxing authority's bad policies. 

Regarding city referendums, where is the business model and business case that confirms the cities of Tampa or St. Petersburg could ever fund costly rail projects? Remember Buckhorn was on the only NO vote on the Tampa Streetcar when he was on the Tampa City Council in the 1990's. He said back then the Streetcar did not have a viable financial model. And he was absolutely right.

Taxpayers do not want to be responsible for bailing out more rail boondoggles. State taxpayers bail out Tri-Rail in South Florida every year to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. State taxpayers have been forced to pay for SunRail that is drowning in deficits through 2020. If the state legislature ever passed legislation to allow transit referendums by cities, they better ensure there could never be any taxpayer bailouts when the high cost rail projects go financially south and drown in deficits. 

The reason for a regional transit taxing entity? The entire region would fund the costly rail boondoggles and bail out the financial disasters.

The media arm of the rail cartel is doing their part. The TBT published this editorial recently.
The half-full, half-empty Tampa Bay transit debate
Any significant change — from merging the Hillsborough and Pinellas bus systems to creating a new regional transit authority to allowing transit referendums by cities — would require action from the Legislature.
It's going to take multiple approaches to meet this challenge, from better bus service to express highway lanes to light rail.
Too many public officials still lag behind private business leaders in acknowledging the urgency of the issue and agreeing that mass transit including light rail, not more roads, is the long-range solution. 
The earliest another voter referendum could be held on a new transit plan may be 2020. That's how long it likely will take for any structural changes to transit oversight to be adopted, a premium transit study by the state and HART to be completed, and a new transit vision to be created and sold to voters.
State Senator Latvala, Appropriations chair, is pushing for a third time the merger of HART and PSTA. He already forced two taxpayer funded studies previously done and after both studies a merger was rejected. Latvala must not threaten to withhold state funds to our local transit agencies if they don't agree to merge. That is bully tactics and totally unacceptable behavior.

Latvala should focus instead on a real problem in his own backyard - reforming PSTA. PSTA has been fiscally mismanaged for years.

Latvala should focus on overhauling the incompetent PSTA Board dominated by almost all electeds who continue to provide too little oversight and allow CEO Brad Miller to run amok. It was Brad Miller who misused Federal transit security funds to promote Greenlight Pinellas. That alone should have been grounds for removal.

PSTA has too many issues and Hillsborough county taxpayers want no part of them. Merging PSTA into HART is not the answer to PSTA's problems.

If Latvala wants better productivity and to save taxpayers money, he should focus on getting rid of agencies we simply do not need. Start by eliminating the Hillsborough County PTC that is the inhibitor to innovation and the poster child for cronyism and corruption. Then get rid of TBARTA which is duplicative, a waste of taxpayer money and their responsibilities can be folded in elsewhere such as FDOT.

Also, according to the TBT editorial:
The 2010 Hillsborough referendum was supported by voters in Tampa, and the 2014 Pinellas referendum won its strongest support among St. Petersburg voters.
Sunbeam times blog reported after the 2014 defeat of Greenlight: Majority of St. Petersburg Residents Also Rejected Greenlight Pinellas, 52:48
An analysis of voter data by the Sunbeam Times reveals that the measure failed by a 4 point margin, with 52% of residents voting it down and 48% voting in favor (the county rejected by 62% to 38%). 49 of St. Petersburg precincts voted against Greenlight Pinellas and it was only favored by 40 precincts. It was approved only in a geographically contiguous area largely in the South and East of the city. The Greenlight plan was soundly defeated in Western and northern areas of the city.
Below is a picture of the precincts (in green) that supported the 2010 Hillsborough County rail tax.
Hillsborough County 2010
Rail tax map of vote results by precinct
Precincts near the proposed rail lines voted for the tax in 2010. However, there were still a significant number of precincts in the city of Tampa that voted against the tax. Since then, voters within the entire Tampa Bay region have become more educated on the issue, thus the even bigger defeat of Greenlight Pinellas in 2014. 

The Go Hillsborough debacle did not help the rail cartel's cause. It simply added more skepticism and distrust. 

There is absolutely no guarantee that voters in the cities of Tampa or St. Petersburg will vote for a sales tax hike into perpetuity to pay for high cost trains that few of them will ride.

The reality is innovation and technology are and will continue disrupting traditional transit services.  Uber and Lyft continue to expand their quasi-transit businesses, UberPool and Lyft Line. We used UberPool numerous times when we were in San Francisco last March and it worked great at a real nice price. 

Hat tip to Robert Poole's Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter this month that included "Disrupting urban transit":
If automated shuttle buses and automated versions of Uber/Lyft/Didi (Didi is in China) ride-sharing vehicles materialize in a decade or two, does it really make sense to be investing many billions of dollars in light-rail and heavy-rail systems over the next several decades? In an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Daily News on July 6th, Susan Shelley raised this question about current transit expansion plans in that region:
"Metro CEO Phil Washington says his agency is building a transit system for 100 years from now, but every day that sounds more disconnected from reality. The future has arrived, and it's on the road. We could be planning for improvements to our freeways, and transit service upgrades made possible by cost-effective driverless buses."
Three days later Bryan Mistele, the CEO of traffic firm INRIX, had an op-ed in the Seattle Times, headlined "Sound Transit's Expansion Will Be Obsolete Before It's Built." That plan, estimated to cost $54 billion, would be constructed over the next 25 years, and would provide transit with an additional one percent of daily trips by 2040. He argued that autonomous, connected, electric, and shared vehicles will likely cause the system to be obsolete before it opens. These are sobering thoughts, from a transportation professional who is very knowledgeable about these disruptive forces.
According to this recent article, Columbus will 'leap-frog' light rail as transit option after Smart City Challenge win
A wave of new transportation technology is coming to Columbus after the city won the federal Smart City Challenge. 
The grant money will usher in driverless cars but could end the idea of rail as a mass-transit option.
“The City of Columbus plans to leap-frog fixed rail” by using new modes of transportation, Columbus says in the U.S. Department of Transportation application.
The reality is the window of opportunity for building costly rail systems is quickly closing and our local rail cartel surely understands that. 

As costly rail becomes passe, the Feds and the States may stop funding costly outdated rail projects as more cost-effective, flexible and more efficient transportation solutions are available.

The best place to be to take advantage of the biggest transportation disruption since the automobile is to stay flexible and not get financially forever locked into costly projects.

It's exciting times for transportation as innovation is fast emerging. From platooning and "connected" vehicles to autonomous vehicles and buses to deliveries being made by drones, we will be able to more efficiently utilize our existing rubber-wheeled infrastructure. 

The rail cartel needs to change course because they have lost every transportation sales tax hike referendum they have championed. They must respect the will of the voters, the will of the taxpayers and the consent of the governed. 

Stop trying to push tax hikes for costly trains!

Because Tampa Bay is in a great position to take advantage of new technology and innovation. 

Instead of looking in the rearview mirror, we can charge ahead and lead the way in Transportation solutions for the future.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A City Transportation Referendum is a bad idea

Once this mess begins, getting the locals to work together will be a bigger nightmare than the recent referendum efforts have been.


St. Petersburg Fl
Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Author: In Search of Robin
Talk continues to surface regarding a city only transportation referendums in the bay area. The thinking seems to be these over hyped transit ideas would be an easier sell in the big Cities than they are in the un-incorporated areas and smaller towns.
It seems odd when these same people were talking about the “regional” benefits from a transportation tax and light rail during GeenLight and Go Hillsborough.
Locally, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman are supporting the idea of a city referendum to get the transportation ball rolling or more likely the trains running.
Most of the opposition I have seen is based on Republican reluctance to raise taxes. So far, the local transit tax initiatives of the mayors have died a quiet death in the Florida Legislature.
There are a number of reasons why city transit referendums are a bad idea.
For any transit system to work in the bay area, it must be regional in design and scope. The thought of each of the larger cities in Pinellas or Hillsborough county developing their own public transit project is humorous at first and frightening when you think about it.
How do we provide for common technology, physical connection, intersystem transfers, ticketing and so on?
What this concept leads to is a patchwork quilt of disparate transit systems that do not communicate or seamlessly interconnect at any level.
A lot of people will make a lot of money, and nothing will work.
This whole approach is just another way for the light-rail  people to get their foot in the door. It is easier to fool a few people than all the people.
Once this mess begins, getting the locals to work together since each will have a fixed amount of money will be a bigger nightmare than the recent referendum efforts have been.
Then there will be the hold out(s) who will refuse to go along and the whole process will be a huge waste of taxpayer money, political capital and effort.
Instead of running around the state Buckhorn, Kriseman and the rest of the mayors pushing this local transit tax effort should work together to develop a multiphase transportation plan for their respective areas that shows some common sense and actually works.
Here locally, that means dumping the MPOs, TBARTA, transit oriented redevelopment disciples, light rail lobbyists and hire a group of professionals who can develop a multiphase transportation plan the people can have confidence in.
Hash it out, refine it. Use best brain power available. Put that plan on the ballot supported by a sales tax increase and watch it pass.
The people are not opposed to a transit plan that is based on common sense and regional needs.
e-mail Doc at mail to:dr. webb@yahoo.com send me a Facebook (Gene Webb) Friend Request, and be sure to Like or Share on Facebook.
See Doc’s Photo Gallery at Bay Post Photos
Disclosures:

Saturday, August 27, 2016

We Need More Honesty, Not Fear Tactics at County Center

As we posted here, the taxpayers got a Victory recently as the Hillsborough County commissioners finally took action to approve using our existing growing budget to fund our roads and transportation needs.

This action will be implemented through a Board policy, not an ordinance that would have greater teeth. Therefore, this will only be a Victory if the county commissioners ensure and force county staff to strictly follow the Board policy each year.

We have concerns, though, because at the August 10 Transportation Workshop, County Administrator Mike Merrill clearly showed his annoyance at some commissioners who were  justifiably questioning and challenging him. Merrill used fear tactics to paint a doom and gloom picture distorting the reality of our budget and our existing growing revenues. 

Merrill even left out 20% of the county revenues in his budget impact presentation. While his math (or lack thereof) was questionable, the intentions were clear. How dare the county prioritize its budget to fund transportation first. 

(In other words - We need our growing revenues to grow the county bureaucracy, pay for a new baseball stadium, more parks, more pork projects and more hand outs to special interests.)

What the county bureaucrats presented at the August 10th workshop had holes in it, included half-truths and some outright distortions. Their tactics used in an attempt to obstruct the county from prioritizing its budget was appalling. These tactics need to stop now. Trust is an issue with County Center and trust must be earned back. We must have honesty down at County Center. 


Jim Davison, a doctor who lives in New Tampa who has been involved with the transportation issue for many years made a public comment at the August 17 BOCC meeting. Davison has spent his own time scrutinizing the county budget. His comment is below and can also be found at 54:34 in the August 17 BOCC meeting video on HTV.
GOOD DAY, COMMISSIONERS, I’M HERE TO MAKE A FEW COMMENT REGARDING THE WORKSHOP LAST WEEK AND CONGRATULATE YOU ON INCHING FORWARD. 
THE ADMINISTRATION HAD SOME STARTLING FIGURES AND ASSUMPTIONS THAT I CAN'T ALL ADDRESS IN THREE MINUTES. BUT I WOULD APPLAUD THE ADMINISTRATION FOR INCLUDING A 3.5% GROWTH FACTOR IN THE SALES TAX IN THEIR MODELING. 
IF THAT NUMBER HAD BEEN APPLIED TO THE SALES TAX AND THE TRANSPORTATION REFERENDUM YOU WERE CONSIDERING, THE REVENUE WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN $3.5 BILLION OVER 30 YEARS THEY WOULD'VE BEEN $5.9 BILLION, A SMALL MISTAKE. 
THE INFLATION RATE THAT WE USED IN THE MODELING IS NOT USED BY MOST EXPENDITURE LIMITATIONS LEGISLATION IN THE UNITED STATES. THE INFLATION RATE THAT IS USED IS THE CPIU, THE REGIONAL CPIU WITH THE TAMPA ST. PETERSBURG INFLATION RATE FOR ALL URBAN CONSUMERS. AND IT'S DONE THAT WAY FOR OBVIOUS REASONS. 
I DON'T HAVE TIME TO ADDRESS THE MODELING BUT TO ASSUME THE FIRE AND THE SHERIFF GROWTH WOULD BE UNLIMITED OVER THE NEXT 10 YEARS IS LUDICROUS. DURING THE RECESSION, THE METRICS FOR THE SHERIFF CHANGED AND THEY WERE LOWERED. THEIR BUDGETS DID NOT INCREASE. CRIME WENT DOWN.AUTO ACCIDENTS WENT DOWN SO THE ENTIRE METRIC SYSTEM HAS TO BE CHANGED AND LOOKED AT MAKING SURE THE SAFETY OF THE PEOPLE ARE PROTECTED. 
AND THE ANTI DILUTION CLAUSE I MEAN THAT'S REALLY SEARCHING FOR A REASON NOT TO DO THIS. IT'S A MATHEMATICAL FORMULA. THERE WAS NO MATHEMATICS PRESENTED, AND I'M SURE YOU HAVE IT, AND BUT THE PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW WHERE THE COUNTY IS ON THEIR BORROWING. THEY SAID THEY NEEDED REVENUES TO PAY FOR THE BORROWING. WELL, IF YOU LOWER THE BORROWING, YOU DON'T NEED AS MUCH REVENUES. IT'S JUST A SIMPLE MATHEMATICAL FORMULA AND YOU DON'T NEED CONSULTANTS TO TELL YOU THIS.
YOU CAN ACTUALLY PICK UP THE PHONE, CALL FITCH, CALL MOODY, CALL STANDARD & POOR'S AFTER YOU GET THE PLAN TOGETHER WHEN YOU HAVE TIME BECAUSE THE CONSULTANT SAID THIS WOULDN'T BECOME A PROBLEM UNTIL FURTHER OUT YEARS IN THE PROGRAM. SO THAT YOU WOULD HAVE TIME TO CONSULT FITCH AND MOODY AND SAY YOU KNOW THIS IS WHAT WE’RE DOING, THIS IS WHY WE'RE DOING IT, IS THIS GOING TO AFFECT US. 
I CAN SHOW YOU COUNTIES IN THE UNITED STATES WHOSE REVENUES DROPPED TO 2% WHO STILL RETAINED A TRIPLE A RATING FROM ALL THREE, AND THERE ARE COUNTIES IN THE UNITED STATES THAT HAVE FAR MORE RESTRICTIVE TAX AND EXPENDITURES LIMITATIONS THAT HAVE TRIPLE RATINGS SO THIS IS A HERRING, BUT THAT'S UP FOR YOU TO DECIDE. 
BUT I CAN TELL YOU PEOPLE WANT THEIR BOND RATING PROTECTED BUT THEY DON'T WANT TO GO BACK TO THE EXPENSES AND HOW THE COUNTY WAS GROWING BEFORE THE RECESSION. WHEN THE COUNTY WAS HIRING ONE OUT OF EVERY 100 PEOPLE THAT WAS MOVING TO THIS COUNTY. WHEN WE WERE THE SECOND LEADING EMPLOYER IN THE COUNTY. WE DON'T WANT TO GO BACK TO THAT. SO PLEASE GO BACK. GOOD LUCK TO THE ADMINISTRATION.
According to the County's latest Comprehensive Financial Annual Report for FY2015 (CAFR), Hillsborough County is the fourth largest employer in the County (behind Hillsborough County Schools, MacDill and USF). The CAFR states the County was the second largest employer behind the Schools in 2006 when the economy was humming.

The county became bloated when revenues were furiously flying in and no one was watching the hen house. The county had absolutely no incentive to be efficient as they could easily move money around and hire as many people as they wanted. 

As our revenues are going up and up and up, we cannot afford to grow local government and the bureaucracy again - while continuing to neglect our roads and transportation. 

We need a fiscally responsible local government not a bloated one. 

The way to stop another bloated bureaucracy is to prioritize our budget, reign in our spending and have the fiscal discipline to fund our roads and transportation first.

The commissioners must get this transportation funding Board Policy done on September 8.

Because taxpayers demand no less.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Largo Zip Line Generates Neighborhood Opposition

Who knew that the City of Largo was pursuing a "tree adventure", more commonly known as a zip line, in a park and recreational complex that backs up to residential homes?

Apparently the neighboring residents who use the park did not know.

A community meeting was held on Monday, August 15th at the Largo City Hall about the proposed zip line/tree adventure proposed at the Highland Recreation Complex. The Eye was there, and so was a packed room full of residents who live near Highland park and had strong opposition to the proposal that is literally almost in their backyard.

Daryl Works, in the blue shirt speaking in the video below, brought his own picture board armed with information and concerns for why he and his fellow neighbors oppose this proposal. Works thinks there are alternative locations better suited for this type of venture by the city. A direct link to the Youtube video is here.




It appears that those who would be most impacted by the "tree adventure" proposal were not made aware when this project started over two years ago.

According to the Minutes of the May 13, 2014 City of Largo Commission Work Session
As part of the recreational offerings at Highland Recreation Complex, staff have researched the viability and revenue potential of a tree adventure course. A tree adventure course is a collection of aerial games and zip lines in the canopy of a forest where participants face varying challenges.
There were some questions raised by the commissioners at that meeting about noise and the impact on parking and neighboring homes but no question was raised whether the idea or proposal had ever been brought up with the residents most impacted. The commissioners reached a consensus at that May 2014 meeting to support city of Largo staff soliciting proposals for a tree adventure course at Highland Recreation Complex. 

According to the city of Largo's Parks and Recreation website, there are numerous parks and nature preserves in Largo.

Why did staff recommend Highland for this "tree adventure" course? According to the Commission Work Session minutes, the county had already been engaging with vendors and took some vendors there who "liked Highland Complex's central location and visibility."

Didi the vendors drive the decision for the location? Were any other locations seriously considered?  

An RFP was solicited by the city of Largo and TreeUmph was selected as the vendor for the proposed zip line tree adventure project at Highland park. It appears that it was after a vendor was already selected that the city finally made the effort to inform the neighboring residents about the project. 

Residents told us that some small signs were placed this past June (two years after this effort started) to notify the residents of a community meeting about a "tree adventure" - no mention of the "zip line". Only three people showed up at that meeting. 

The residents felt that meeting was not properly noticed and it was very late in the process to finally be engaging those most impacted. There was never any notice placed at the park itself about the zip line/tree adventure proposal. The notice about the June community meeting was never posted at the park complex.

Many of the community residents did not know what a "tree adventure" was but they would have understood "zip line" if that term had been used on the meeting notice signs.

Needless to say, the neighboring residents most impacted are not happy and they oppose this project. Once many of them understood what this project actually was, they started organizing with their neighbors who showed up in droves to voice their opposition at the August 2nd city of Largo commission meeting. An ordinance authorizing leasing the city property at Highland Recreation Complex for a tree adventure course was on the commission agenda.

Go to 42:15 of the video recording of the August 2nd meeting to hear the discussion and public comment. 

A motion was made to deny the ordinance but it failed 2-5. 

Further discussion by the commissioners requested city staff reach back out to the neighboring residents regarding the proposed design. Motion to bring the zip line/tree adventure ordinance back to the September 6, 2016 commission meeting passed 6-1.

And thus the August 15th meeting held at Largo City Hall.

City staff brought renderings to Monday's meeting, "Rendering A" for the original zip line/tree adventure plan and a slightly modified version "Rendering B". Version B moved the end of the zip line a bit further away from some residences backyards.  

City staff emphasized at the beginning of the meeting they were there to get input on which version (A or B) at Highland the community preferred not whether the zip line/tree adventure should be there or be somewhere else. 

City staff attempted to use the infamous "put your dot on the plan you prefer" consensus building technique. However, the consensus from those attending this community meeting appeared to be "Neither".
Neighboring resident weighs in at
City of Largo community meeting on zip line/tree adventure
proposal at Highland Recreation Complex
The opposition in the neighboring community has done their homework, perhaps much more than the city of Largo staff. 

Information they have found include:

  • Other zip lines are not as close to a residential neighborhood and in larger footprints further away from where people live.
  • Tree adventure vendors will place a zip line where ever they may be provided an opportunity to do so and site is not driven by the vendor
  • While other zip line locations have limited access that can be gated or chained, Highland has numerous open access points.
  • The city has insisted there are restrictive covenants to prevent use of the Nature Preserve for such "tree adventure". The restrictions in the Quit Claim Deed for the property deeded from SWFMD to city of Largo convey the Preserve cannot be used for hunting, firing ranges, rehabilitation camps, sports stadiums, arenas, or commercial amusement parks. The city has insisted the "tree adventure" zip line is not an amusement park. 
  • The Largo FY2017 budget capital improvement plan includes adding restroom facility to Largo Central Park and creating a master plan for the use and access of the park's 100 acre midsection. The budget document states "Public input will be sought once the process begins." 
Why didn't the city of Largo seek out public input when the process began on this tree adventure venture? 

Some opponents believe Largo Central Park or the Nature Preserve that have a bigger footprint away from residential would be better suited for a zip line/tree adventure.

The city of Largo expects at least 45K guests to use the zip line the first year. The city will get 5% of the annual revenues. The city says they will receive $50K to $100K a year but if 45K ride the zip line the first year at a cost of about $50 a ride, the city will receive over $112K. 

All the money received from this venture will go into the general fund for use anywhere.

The Largo city commissioners will vote on September 6th whether to approve the "tree adventure" zip line at Highland park. It is expected the opponents will show up again to voice their concerns. 

The project has generated ill will from those who live nearby who felt there was not proper public outreach from those impacted the most.

The Largo commissioners will have to decide whether it is worth approving the now tainted project. 

And fair warning if a proposed zip line disguised as a "tree adventure" comes your way.


Links to recent local media coverage:
Opponents target Largo zipline course

Neighbors draw the zip…line on proposed project at park

Residents voice opposition to proposed Largo zip line

Monday, August 15, 2016

A Victory for Taxpayers - Now County Center Must Commit to Making Board Policy Work

The Eye was at the county commission Transportation Workshop last Wednesday. The video of that meeting can be found on the HTV website by selecting the meeting date August 10, 2016. Everyone should watch it. 

The Workshop was opened for public comment. All but one of the citizens who spoke were supporting Commissioner Murman's proposal for an ordinance to use our growth revenues within our existing budget to fund our roads and transportation.

It has taken years to get here, but finally the county commissioners voted 6-1 (Miller voted no) to pursue a Board policy requiring 1/3 of our new revenue growth to be put aside to fund our roads and transportation. The Board policy language will be brought to the September 8th BOCC meeting for approval. 

While Murman's proposal will be accomplished through a board policy and not an ordinance, this is a seismic shift from where we were a year ago. 

This is a victory for the taxpayers of Hillsborough County.

After Hagan fought the effort with Merrill (watch the video), he ended up voting for the motion. We will watch closely to see if there's an attempt to obstruct the intent of the policy or water it down when the policy is up for Board approval September 8th.

The eventual 6-1 vote is not representative of the discussion that actually occurred at the meeting. Hagan's mocking comments did him no favors but they are recorded for all to see.

County Administrator Mike Merrill brought in the big guns, the county's financial advisor and bond counsel, to provide their comments on Murman's proposal. 

Budget Director Tom Fesler presented an analysis on 10 years of revenue growth, analysis of 1/3 of new revenue growth going to transportation and 10 years of funding analysis. The budget analysis was done based on numerous factors including estimated population growth, estimated inflation rate and estimated growth rate. 

The presentation was flawed, however, as Commissioner Murman pointed out Merrill had left out 20% of the revenues in the analysis. Somehow the Times failed to report that tidbit.

This is the first time we've ever seen such level of analysis during the budget cycle. Unfortunately, too many budgets recommended by Merrill have simply been rubber stamped, no questions asked.

We're a growing county and their doom and gloom attitude towards funding transportation within our existing growing budget was quite astonishing. More astonishing when we continue to watch Merrill pull tens of millions of dollars out of his rabbit's hat to spend on all kinds of other things. 

This behavior is no longer acceptable!

The meeting showcased that County Administrator Mike Merrill and Commissioner Hagan do not want to prioritize our county's budget. 

Neither does the Tampa Bay Times. According to their Sunday Op-Ed, prioritizing our county budget is an "empty gesture".
The county is not creating a new revenue stream for transportation; it's merely raiding money already there.
Their attitude is absurd and out of touch with reality and the electorate today. 

The Tampa Bay Times would better serve their readers if they started questioning the county budget. There are a number of questionable oddities including ghost projects being financed by debt and budgeting for capital projects with no known operating costs. These oddities go against any normal budget process we know and is not good governance. 

The Times should look at past budgets of a decade ago or more ago. They prove that the commissioners will re-align spending to higher priorities, including towards funding our roads and transportation. 

The county commissioners are elected to make tough decisions not rubber stamp unelected bureaucrat Merrill's budget recommendations. If the commissioners can't, won't or refuse to make tough budget decisions that the rest of us must do everyday, they need to find another job.

As we posted previously, 69% of those polled last year during the Go Hillsborough campaign stated the county needs to do a better job spending what we already have. 

How is that done? By prioritizing the budget to fund our highest priorities FIRST.

If the county cannot prioritize it's spending, there's no limit to the expansion of local government and no limit to what the county will spend OUR tax dollars on. 

If the county cannot prioritize its spending, then the county is telling the taxpayers that everything must be a priority. 

No one believes that. 

But we get it. Merrill, Hagan and the Tampa Bay Times want a new baseball stadium and costly trains. They know the county will have to pick our pockets more to get them.

The county was forced to prioritize our budget during the recession. The services that the county cut the most was our transportation funding. They diverted all property taxes that historically always funded our roads to other things when the recession hit. 

However the county refused to re-appropriate those dollars back to transportation as our revenues began going up and up and up.

When forced to, the county had to prioritize. When our revenues are healthily increasing, suddenly the county cannot prioritize. What hogwash!

Requests were repeatedly made by citizens during the budget process over the last few years for the county to fund our roads and transportation. Those requests fell on deaf ears. 

Why? 

Because the tax hike and spenders down at County Center, Mayor Buckhorn, their cronies and special interest backers and our local media (Tampa Bay Times) want another sales tax hike referendum.

According to this recent Tampa Bay Business Journal article, Mayor Buckhorn, wants to get behind a citizen petition led referendum to force a sales tax hike get on the 2018 ballot. 

Buckhorn also stated this in the TBBJ article:
“I would think that if [St. Pete] Mayor [Rick] Kriseman and I had the ability to do that within the municipalities that we could pass it and we could fund the beginnings of a transportation system, particularly rail, that would link downtown St. Pete to downtown Tampa and the airport,” Buckhorn said.
We'd like to see the financial viability of that business case. 

Buckhorn, the mayor of downtown Tampa only, is now living in the twilight zone.

Remember it was Buckhorn on the Tampa City Council back in the 1990's who was the lone NO vote on the Tampa Streetcar. He said it did not have a long term viable business model. And he was right.  

CIT revenues are another local funding source for transportation capital projects. 

Those who continue fretting and lamenting that the county cannot prioritize our budget to fund our roads and transportation know that the CIT tax will come up for reauthorization between now and 2026 when it expires.

It was the county who blew out the entire CIT future revenues for unincorporated Hillsborough. Who recommended doing that in 2007? Commissioner Hagan and then county Finance guy Mike Merrill. 

Talk about actually raiding and financially constraining future county commission boards….Where was the Times back then? Crickets……

That is why we doubt taxpayers will stomach another 30 year tax and believe there should be no attempt to extend the CIT for longer than 10 years. 

The MPO estimates that extending the CIT out to 2040 (14 years), using a 3.58% growth rate, unincorporated Hillsborough would receive over $1.7 BILLION of new revenues. If the CIT was extended for 10 years, the county would probably receive over $1.5 BILLION.
MPO's CIT revenue estimates if extended
from MPO's 2040 LRTP

Before the CIT comes up for reauthorization, the county must prove they are being good stewards of the money they already receive. Trust must be earned back. 

Prioritizing our budget is how to get that done.

This move by the commissioners to fund our roads and transportation FIRST before spending our tax dollars on pork projects, lower priority items, unnecessary spending, subsidizing special interests and wealthy sports team owners is a step in the right direction.

We would have preferred an ordinance but when this Board policy is approved, the commissioners will be put on notice that we will now watch the budget process like a hawk.

The policies of obstruction and failing to start addressing our transportation issue must come to an end. 

Because most importantly, the commissioners must have someone at County Center who is committed to making the Board policy work.