Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Tampa airport sustainability workshop trip report

The Eye participated in the Tampa International Airport Sustainability workshop Tuesday night held at HCC.  We decided to attend since TIA is one of the great airports in the world (as a former frequent flyer with gold status or better on 3 airlines at once, I know something about airports), we want to keep it that way.  The airport is a great asset to the region.

It was a nicely attended workshop, about 36 attendees.  We socialized a bit early, met Al Illustrata, VP of Facilities and Administration, Alice Price, the new Project Director over the sustainability efforts, and Janet Zink, public relations.  She's actually been at TIA for almost 2 years after years as a reporter at the St. Pete Times.

The Tribune's Ted Jackovics actually filed a report on the event.  Hi Ted.  Sorry we missed you at the workshop.

Al Ilustrato kicked off the event with some Powerpoint slides on some of the high level objectives of TIA's sustainability efforts so far, and their plans to do more, within the context of their overall 20 year, $2.5 plans.  The core of the sustainability efforts are managed around the "people, planet, profit" triad -- social, environmental, and economic drivers.  After all "It's the right thing to do."  Al also mentioned they'll likely have to settle on a subset of the priorities that will be identified, and the input from the workshops will help shorten the list.  They can't afford everything, despite the funding from FAA grants for their sustainability efforts.  According to last year's press release from then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, TIA received a grant of $607,500 out of the $5.4 million the FAA is providing to 13 airports to "help airports to operate more efficiently and be more environmentally friendly."

We actually generally agree.  The airport does many things right.  Being good stewards of their surroundings is the right thing to do.  TIA is among the best airports in the world.  Let's keep it that way.

Tampa airport, among the best
Meanwhile, Ted reported:
That was the message Wednesday from area residents who gave their input for the airport's first master plan addressing natural resource use and social, fiscal and environmental practices.
A recurring theme among three dozen participants in the two-and-a-half our session at Hillsborough Community College was that the airport should take a leadership role in the region by focusing on sustainability issues.
Yes there were 36 participants, as we did participate in some focus group polling exercises, and 36 voters registered on most of the questions.  Of the 36, 12 were from various government agencies, 5 were from environmental groups, there were 6 - 8 consultants (more than Hillsborough County Aviation Authority staff), and several folks representing various business interests in the airport (although not tenants nor vendors... they will have another workshop).  I'm not quite sure this audience is totally representative of the citizens of Hillsborough County or TIA passengers.

After the polling, we broke out into 3 different focus groups, and the consultant teams rotated around and attempted to facilitate some deeper discussions on several of the questions from the poll.  This part was interesting.  There were some good ideas, and some not so good ideas.
  • Help rehabilitate "parcel 5", which is some airport land, just west of the airport, bordering upper Tampa Bay.  Initially I was a bit skeptical, but the solutions offered were reasonable, and I don't really need to see more development on that plot either.
  • Use goats to maintain the grassy areas.  If that does not work, use sheep... they'll eat anything.  No one mentioned whether we would need sheepherders or not.  No one from PETA was there.  Apparently Atlanta, San Francisco, and Seattle are using some goats.  I fly to Atlanta today, so I'll check for goats.
  • Transit all over.  Lots of folks want rail solutions. I don't want to wait.  We can have bus solutions today, including circulators though TIA and the Westshore district, which is the hottest business district in the Tampa Bay area.  Do it now.
  • Better air quality and climate change.  I don't like jet fumes too much either, but we're not going to affect climate in the few hundred acres of TIA.  Tampa air quality is good today.
  • Water quality.  Various options were discussed on capturing runoff and reclaiming.  This is important given TIA proximity to the upper Tampa Bay.
  • Don't use CFL bulbs, they're bad due to mercury.  Use LEDS.  Did you know you can get LED bulbs with lenses now and direct the the light for more efficient lighting placement?
  • Solar all over.  I'm ok with some solar panels on roofs.  I really don't like them where I can see them.  Visual blight, reflective glare to the pilots... and they also interfere with biodiversity.
  • Recycling, bio-digesters, local food sources, walking trail, kinetic energy rocking chairs to charge mobile devices, women and minority businesses, community outreach, ...
Of course, no one mentioned costs or benefits.  Except me, so at least I got that in.

The breakout sessions had bit of a feel somewhere between my childhood Christmas wishlist and a late night college bull session discussing life, the universe, and everything. While the brainstorming is good to some extent, my own (traveling!) consultant days taught me not to get too far from reality in developing requirements (aka wish list). If consultants are just dreaming up wish lists with clients, but not balancing with feasibility, budgets, and timelines, you'll end up with disappointed clients. There was a little of that balance, but clearly it was light.  Hopefully as they prioritize the results from the workshops and the other research they will do, they'll bring things back into check.  

Pretty interesting night.  Some good ideas, some we definitely support, some ... meh.

There will be more meetings that will be scheduled next year if I recall correctly.  So keep an Eye on the Tampa Airport Sustainability page.  

Traveling by air these days is not much fun.  Airlines annoy me with all the fees (cannot even get a seat for my flight today, and I booked it days ago), TSA, etc. etc. I'm actually driving more to avoid these annoyances.  

However, when I fly, TIA is the best.  My destination airports are put to shame.  

Let's keep it that way.

An Opening - Did the Tribune bury it?

Here at the Eye when we launched earlier this year, we asked the question who does the media work for? We pointed out that the media spends most of their time with the powerbroker newsmakers who feed them the message they want channeled. The powerbrokers decide the news and its importance or relevance to them. Then the media simply regurgitates the talking points with no investigation, no follow up or challenging questions and often shuts out any opposing or confrontational view points. And when the print media decides to cover an important, but perhaps controversial issue, they may relegate it to an obscure part of the paper that ensures a large segment of their reading population does not get it or read it.

The Tribune has published front page news articles regarding the tragedy of the Trayvon Martin case. They have published front page news of a group of protestors, that includes both locals and others bussed in, who are protesting the Florida “stand your ground” law by camping out in our state capitol.  Those are certainly news worthy as they have been pushed out for maximum readership. However, buried on page 4 of today's Carrollwood News section of the Tribune is a revealing article by Tribune columnist Joe O'Neill. O'Neill reports on comments made by Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick on the issue of black on black crime.  According to O'Neill, at the end of a recent City Council meeting, Reddick explores the reactions in the black community of the Martin case with the shooting of the black Family Dollar store manager, Horsley Shorter. A 23 year old black man with a very lengthy arrest record has been charged with the murder of Shorter. 

According to the article, Reddick states:
"I want to say today I'm equally outraged," stated Reddick. "Where is the outrage in this community about this black-on-black crime? This (Shorter) family deserves justice, just as the Trayvon Martin family deserves justice. We must be prepared to explore this issue. 
"No one is marching for black-on-black crime," Reddick added passionately. "That is the problem in our community. No one is speaking about black-on-black crime, and that's the problem. ... We need to make some changes, and I hope we start soon."
Tampa City Councilman, District 5, Frank Reddick
Tampa City Council Districts
We appreciate Reddick's public candidness on this issue because as the Tribune goes on to report:
What Reddick said in public at a city council meeting is the sort of thing that usually stays within the black community
We believe many in Tampa agree this is an important issue. It's time to have an open and honest discussion.  O'Neill goes on to quote Michael Nutter, the black Democrat mayor of Philadelphia:
"Black men across the country are killing one another, yet that epidemic is rarely part of any national conversation."
Like any other issue, one must acknowledge there is a problem first. We hope the local black community, like Reddick, recognizes this violence because as O'Neill states:
Some things need to be said. And some things only a black person can say in order for the remarks to have maximum impact.
We appreciate and applaud Reddick's candidness as he contrasted the lack of local outrage over the Shorter shooting with the vocal black community's outrage over the Zimmerman acquittal. City Councilman Reddick's District 5 is East Tampa, east of 275 from Busch Boulevard southward. We do not know if the print version reached the readership within Councilman Reddick's district since it was inside a local community news section. Is the issue of black on black crime and violence as important as the Zimmerman case or the continuing coverage of the “stand your ground” protestors in Tallahassee?  Why didn't O'Neill ask some followup questions of Reddick, who is a leader in the black community? Would Reddick help lead a local effort to address the escalation of black on black crime?  What would he do next to move forward with finding solutions to the problem? 

There appears today to be more questions than answers. It will take leadership, like Reddick and hopefully others, to raise the issue of black on black crime for public discussion in the black community.  We hope Councilman Reddick continues to speak out on the issue and hope he will take a leadership role in addressing it.  

O'Neill concludes the Tribune article with this:
Shame on us if we, as a society, ignore the candid acknowledgements and urgent calls for change from credible, credentialed insiders such as Frank Reddick and Michael Nutter.
And shame on the Tribune for burying this story.  While the Tribune continues to cover the protestors in Tallahassee, let's hope the Tribune begins giving the broader issue of black on black crime the coverage it deserves. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

More Taxes in Pasco: Always the Answer

Guest Post from concerned reader and resident from Pasco County Kim Irvine

Pasco County (all Republican) commissioners are facing a $17 million shortfall and have thus decided to pass the cost along to taxpayers rather than cut programs. In fact, they are adding staff and programs to our already bloated budget. Many conservative Pasco residents have expressed their outrage including Kevin Wright, 
No public official wants to be the one to cut staff or services.Unfortunately this is the hard choice that Pasco residents have had to make time and again over the last few years. It is especially offensive to me that County Commissioners complain about the necessity to fund county employment retirement pension plans.
Kevin goes on to say
His electric, gas, property tax and health insurance bills have increased and tough choices need to be made to reduce the county budget. If the commissioners cannot make those tough choices, they must resign.
Interestingly, the commissioners are giving themselves and county employees, with the exception of police and firefighters, a 3% raise. Police and firefighters only get a 1.5% raise for risking their lives. Unfortunately, the taxpaying public is not getting raises so again the taxpayer is on the hook for more spending we cannot afford. It is their job to figure out how to make do with less, we are.

We also do not need to fund the Urban Land Institute to do more studies to tell us what we need to be doing, to the tune of another $125,000 this fall. According to this Tribune article,
Once again, ULI members will crisscross Pasco to gather information and speak with "stakeholders."
The ULI team's (2008) "smart growth" advice led Gallagher to hire Gehring to lead growth management and bring Pasco into the 21st century.
2011 Mobility Fee Presentation - "no new fees or assessments being adopted"
The result of this "smart growth" advice is that Pasco Commissioners have since implemented mobility fees and TIF financing.  They put the 10 year extension for the Penny for Pasco on the ballot last year, 2 years prior to it expiring, and voters renewed it for another 10 years from 2014. The Commissioners increased the county property tax millage rate a year ago June and now propose raising the millage rate again.

But hold on because they even want more. The Pasco Commissioners are looking to exercise their second gas tax option for another 5 cents per gallon gas tax in Pasco this fall, despite opposition again from Pasco taxpayers. It will never be enough!  

Why not cut the planners until our budget is under control and we have funds for development projects? We are no better off than we were 2 years ago when we were told the Commissioners had it all figured out implementing mobility fees and TIF and the planners plans for projects back then.

The pattern of continuing to spend, creating new projects and raising county salaries, flipping homes on the taxpayer dimes is leading us on a path like Detriot. Why should county taxpayers have to pay for "wellness programs" for county employees? Let them fund their own like we do in the private sector. What is wrong with returning to what the county government is supposed to be providing and cutting the rest so private enterprise, churches, and citizens take care of other worthy programs? It is not the government’s job to provide everything for everybody. The more tax dollars they take from citizens, the fewer citizens have to fund charities themselves and citizens and churches are much more efficient at providing help for the needy among us. 

So much for limited government from our Republican county leaders! We ask they step up and do the right thing.
Kim Irvine
Pasco County resident

The Eye adds that the Tribune agrees with Kim:
So much for what attracted many people to Pasco to begin with - low tax rates and a fiscally conservative commission. 
Taxpayers have every right to give county officials an earful over such an insensitive plan, which wrongly assumes that all taxpayers have recovered from painful economic times, including lost wages, and have plenty of extra cash to offset skyrocketing property insurance rates and high gas prices.
You can find the Pasco County Budget here.

Budget Public Hearings are scheduled as follows:
September 10 at  6:30pm -  Historic Pasco County Courthouse  Boardroom, 2nd Floor, 3918 Meridian Avenue, Dade City 
September 24 at 6:30pm - West Pasco Government Center Board Rood, 1st Floor, 8731 Citizens Drive, New Port Richey

You can also follow the meetings on Pasco County Government TV, Brighthouse 622 or Verizon 42 and connect on Facebook

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Guest Post: On improving traffic in Hillsborough

Guest post from Hillsborough County concerned citizen and reader Eric Greenbaum:

At the end of a thorough article in Sunday's (publish date July 21, 2013) Tribune on traffic congestion and urban sprawl, light rail as part of a rapid transportation solution was mentioned. But if you looked at the map given of Brandon as an example of our area's current situation, it is apparent that the sprawl is too wide spread for such an expensive mode as light rail to be practical in making a dent in easing traffic flow.

Of course, the reality is that transportation is never the prime reason for light rail. The main purpose is that once it is built, millions of tax dollars in subsidies can be funneled to politically connected businessmen to develop the land around the stations and help herd the residents into those corridors.

This is why in the short and long run buses and advanced traffic light control systems are much more economical and sound ways to improve our areas traffic issues.

Back to the Eye here.

Even if you believe light rail is the solution to Brandon's sprawl, you better be prepared for a long wait for the train.  Buried in the literal small print of an appendix from the Hillsborough MPO 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan:

Hillsborough MPO 2035 LRTP excerpt showing light rail plans for Brandon
So our MPO plans states that Brandon cannot begin to expect light rail until 2035 at the earliest.  Are you ready to wait 22 more years for that train?  And pay over a $1B for it?

Here's another reminder on what Hillsborough County residents think, and not the same old special interests recently paraded in front of the Hillsborough Transportation Leadership Committee, again from the MPO:
MPO Survey
The Tampa Bay area has immediate needs to improve transportation.  We can't afford the time, and we can't afford the costs of light rail.  Let's start with improving our roads, and providing cost effective and improved bus service.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Economic Development and the Circle of Recycled Plans, People and Money

It was great news to see the front page headline in the Tribune today: 4000 jobs in the County pipeline.

But let's dig a little deeper on what we believe is being orchestrated. The Eye previously reported about the unified push this week from the rail groupies.

So now we have Rick Homans, Director of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp (EDC), that according to the Tribune article stated this at yesterday's workshop
"I can tell you our organization would be very supportive of public transportation, mass transit and light rail and very supportive of a baseball stadium downtown," Homans said after the meeting. "Clearly, that's part of the plan as far as the EDC goes, and it supports those measures."
Yes, you heard that right – a baseball stadium downtown....guess Sandy Murman was not kidding when she laughingly made a statement at Tuesday's meeting about a baseball stadium. The Eye loves the Rays and baseball but do you think Homans was talking about a stadium being built thru private enterprise or your tax dollars? Public funding of stadiums is a post for another day but we all know what happened in Miami with the new Marlins stadium.

In addition, the Tribune reported that at this workshop Homans sought a budget increase for the EDC from $450K to $700K.  But wait a minute.  Last evening there was a County Budget Public Hearing and we wonder why the EDC, which is a public-private partnership, did not show up there with their budget increase request. Are budget workshops the venue to ask for more of your tax money? It appears unclear specifically what the increased dollars would be spent on but you can find their 2012 Annual Report here

Let's start by understanding who and what the EDC is. According to the EDC website:
At the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation, we’re focused on one mission alone: attracting and retaining high-wage jobs and capital investment in Hillsborough County and the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace.
Established in 2009 as a partnership between the public sector and private corporate investors, the Tampa Hillsborough EDC is the lead economic development agency for Hillsborough County and the official local representative of Enterprise Florida.
Now who is their leadership and Board members? It's easy to find on the EDC website.
  • David Pizzo, Chair - Market President West Florida, Florida Blue
  • Allen Brinkman, Vice Chair - Chairman, President and CEO, SunTrust Bank Tampa Bay
  • Ronald Vaughn, PhD, Secretary/Treasurer - President, The University of Tampa
  • Gordon Gillette, Immdiate Past Chair - President, Tampa Electric and Peoples Gas

Their Board of Directors includes, among others: Carlton Fields, Cushman & Wakefield, Regions Bank. And on their Executive Committee, you will find the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace as well as the Tampa Chamber of Commerce and SunTrust. Our intent is to simply connect the dots because no one else is.

A little history behind the EDC. It began as The “Committee of One Hundred” which was the economic development arm of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce created back in the mid 1950's. But according to this Tampa Bay Times article in October 2009:
The Committee of One Hundred was rebranded and will be known as the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.

Its steering committee includes both Ken Hagan, chairman of the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.
And even prior to that “breakup”, we found that in August 2009, when unemployment was running high due to the recession, the Business Observer reported:
There was a New Game Plan to Increase the amount of land ready for businesses to move in and start up. 
Hillsborough County commissioners unanimously agreed in February (2009) to have Commission Chairman Ken Hagan form a 12-member Economic Stimulus Task Force. Its mission: “Develop strategies, incentives and tools that will create new and higher paying jobs in Hillsborough County, stimulate economic development and improve its long-term competitiveness.
Sound familiar? Here at the Eye we find it interesting this was occurring at the same time the County Commission's Transportation Task Force, which Ken Hagan was on, was deciding that Hillsborough County needed a light rail system. Hagan later voted to put the referendum on the 2010 ballot. Mayor Iorio spent her last year as Mayor using her Mayoral bully pulpit as one of the biggest cheerleaders for rail in the county.

For historical purposes, we went back to the 2010 campaign finance report for pro rail marketing campaign Moving Hillsborough Forward and noted that there were some sizable donations made to Moving Hillsborough Forward prior to when the commissioners voted to put the referendum on the ballot on May 13, 2010. The reports indicate that SunTrust Bank provided the initial $50K of seed money on 3/26/2010. Also, a company called Fallon Research & Communications out of Columbus, OH donated $24K on 4/5/2010. Now what interest would that company in Ohio have on this local issue? According to their website, they provide serves to help campaigns win ballot initiatives. We can only speculate that $74K was donated to Moving Hillsborough Forward prior to the initiative being on the ballot in 2010 because "they" were confident the votes were already there, even almost 2 months prior to the commission vote.

Fast forward to 2012. Lo and behold, another committee was formed last year by the county commissioners, the Economic Prosperity Stakeholder Committee (EPSC). The same talking points were regurgitated about the need to ease burdensome regulations for economic development. The question that must be answered is have the commissioners actually done something and reduced burdensome regulations?

Today, of course, we have the Economic Development and Transportation Committee revisiting the same issues with the same people. Do you wonder why they continually bring the same recycled group of people and organizations together on these issues? Just how much influence do those people have over our elected representatives? 

It is not rocket science to cross reference the 2009 economic stimulus task force members with the same rail groupies that pushed hard for the 2010 referendum and are now pushing for light rail, round 2. All you have to do is look at the Moving Hillsborough Forward campaign donor list.

While the commissioners form committees with the same old same old, hire facilitators, do studies and talk about the issues, we've got 4000 jobs in the pipeline. That's Great News!

It didn't take a high cost light rail or a downtown base ball stadium.

But according to Homans, we still must have light the "drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain" as the (Rail) beat goes on....

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The "Rail" Beat Goes On (and On and On)

The Hillsborough County Economic Development and Transportation Committee which consists of our county commissioners, the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, met again yesterday. According to today's Tribune six business executives were invited to discuss the county's growing transportation problems. I attended the meeting which appeared quite orchestrated as the Tribune reported:
If the county doesn't invest in mass transit, including a light rail sytsem, it will likely fall behind other major metropolitan areas econonically and won't be able to attract talented young entrepreneurs who prefer the urban lifestyle.
First let's identify who these business executives are and the companies they represented:
  • Gregory Celestan - Celestar and also Chairman of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce 
  • Bryan Crino - Skyway Capital (Investment Banking) and HART Board Member
  • Marty Lanahan - Regions Bank and member of the Florida Transportation Commission that has oversight of FDOT
  • David Pizzo - Florida Blue Cross & Blue Shield
  • Larry Richey - Cushman & Wakefield, Commercial Real Estate
  • Gary Sasso - Carlton Fields law firm and former chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership which had the symbiotic relationship to the pro-rail PAC Moving Hillsborough Forward marketing campaign.
We already knew the Tampa Chamber of Commerce were big rail supporters in 2010 but we did a quick check back to some campaign finance reports from 2010 for Moving Hillsborough Forward and found these donors:
  • Regions Bank - $25K
  • Carlton Fields - $25K
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield - $50K
  • Cushman & Wakefield - $900
So 5 of the 6 business executives were big rail supporters in 2010.  Now here at the Eye we are not surprised that the same rail groupies were brought back again because they always believe next time they'll do a better job of selling the rail product.  And as the Tribune stated
The executives also advised the political leaders to forget an unsuccessful referendum in 2010 that would have raised the sales tax by a penny to finance road improvements, new bus lines and a light rail system.
In their “we gotta have rail” minds, it's try, try, again and finally they will win. Truth is that's how many of these boondoggles finally get rammed through after numerous attempts.

It was no accident that Gary Sasso started off by saying improving our roads and bus service is important but......according to the Tribune article Sasso classified those transportation improvements as short-term solutions and stated:
You can have short-term reactions to business needs or you can have long-term planning that drives business growth. For example, probably one of the most expensive kinds of transportation is rail, but it gives you very powerful business growth in the form of transit-oriented development.
At least this time around, the power brokers and elected representatives let the cat out of the bag and admit that light rail really isn't about transportation, it's about Transit-oriented development aka TOD. Yes good old TOD, the kind of development that Obama's triumvirate of HUD, DOT & EPA has been doling out your tax dollars to subsidize – their version of stack and pack em, mass transit “livable cities”.
Along MARTA in Atlanta
I immediately picked up the “gotta have a rail” gist that all the business executives expressed, as well as many of the elected officials. According to Commissioner Murman, we're in an armegeddon and we must act now or else. Mayor Buckhorn proclaimed that we may “never have a chance like we have now, we need to be less concerned about raising taxes and more about quality of life.” But wait. Which armegeddon are we really talking about? Sharpe stated we have only $10 million for roads which means we can't even meet our short-term needs, include simply fixing our pot holes. The county has several billion dollars of unfunded road improvements. Has anyone yet figured out how to fix that problem? Because 98% of us use roads everyday.

Sharpe also stated, he's “shocked we do not have better transportation system” but he's been on the county commission since 2004. He was a member when the commissioners blew out our CIT tax in 2007. CIT was supposed to be for road improvements over the 30 year life of the tax. For decades while Florida was growing exponentially, we only received back about 70 cents of every federal gas tax dollar we sent to Washington, to help subsidize the high cost rail systems. Florida continues to be a donor state, why haven't our elected representatives been outraged about that?

I guess there is no road envy to getting our “fair share” of road money but plenty of rail envy was displayed yesterday. Comparisons were made to numerous cities we compete with, including bankrupt Detroit that is building a 3.3 mile light rail at an estimated cost of $140 million, scaled back from a proposed 9.3 mile line that would've cost at least a half billion dollars.  Does 3 miles of high cost rail make any sense to anyone,  even if your city wasn't going bankrupt?  I'm not sure any comparison with Detroit, even with some inappropriate chuckles made, is desirable.

Sasso even brought in the human interest element by reading a letter from one of his young employees in Miami that likes to ride the train perhaps insinuating that we need to be more like Miami.  However, we found this article about the train situation there that
Where There Were Once Many Lines Planned, Just One Opens in Miami
Miami’s population density of more than 12,000 people per mile is now about the same as Chicago’s. 
Thus the argument back in 2002 that something needed to be done to significantly improve the rail system. The People’s Transportation Plan, as it was known, wassupposed to have raised $17 billion over 25 years, enough to guarantee the completion of a 10.6 east-west Metrorail corridor and 9.5-mile north corridor by 2016. 
If anyone was paying attention to Miami, they might be especially skeptical of the tax’s value. There, voters passed a 1/2¢ sales tax increase in 2002 by a huge margin. They were promised an enormous expansion of rail transit service, with dozens of miles of new lines shooting out of the existing Metrorail system in virtually every direction. What they got in reality, however, was one project: The 2.4-mile, one-stop Orange Line extension to the Airport, which opened last weekend at a cost of $506 million. No other rail service is expected to be funded before 2035.
Of course, Charlotte always seems to be the gold standard light rail city that we're supposed to be living up to.   Therefore, we looked at the unemployment rates for May from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis Economics:
Hillsborough County - 6.6%
Mecklinburg County - 8.9%
Tampa-St. Petersbug-Clearwater, FL (MSA) - 6.9%
Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, NC (MSA) - 8.9%

So our unemployment rate in Hillsborough and the Tampa Bay area is 2 or more percentage points lower than the "gold standard light rail city of Charlotte".  Yet the rail groupies keep telling us we gotta have rail to compete with Charlotte.  Go figure that circular logic.

We'll be watching the orchestration and collaboration going on around the transportation issue between taxpayer funded agencies, special interests and elected representatives.

And we'll continue to keep an Eye on things because like the old Sonny and Cher song the "Drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain as the (Rail) Beat Goes On".....

Monday, July 22, 2013

Biggest Bang for the taxpayer Buck: Housekeeping or Central Planning

Recently, the Tribune wrote about former Port Authority Chairman Hoe Brown's “trashy trailers”.  Brown resigned his Port Authority position and was forced to shut down his trailer park.
William "Hoe" Brown, a Republican fund-raiser and Hillsborough County's representative to the state party, resigned Friday from the Tampa Port Authority following revelations this week that he owned and collected rent at a trailer park where residents lived in squalor.
That's fine with the Eye.  We should hold all our public servants to a high standard.

The Trib also reported on July 18 that Tampa Mayor Buckhorn ordered a slumlord crackdown.
Starting Sunday, code enforcement crews will begin street-by-street sweeps through northern and eastern Tampa aimed at finding code violations and ticketing the violators. 
Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Thursday the 30-day effort is targeting slum lords and other property owners deemed "the worst of the worst."
Standing in front of the garbage pile, Buckhorn said the time has come to clean up the neighborhoods of central and north Tampa from Grant Park through Seminole Heights and Castle Heights. 
He directed his comments to absentee "slumlords" and uncaring home and land owners who let blight take over their properties.
So the Eye went to the City of Tampa Code Enforcement website to find out just what they do:
Code Enforcement responds to concerns from citizens that affect the quality of life within the city such as zoning, overgrown lots or yards, inoperative vehicles, maintenance of structures, illegal signs and public nuisances. Systematic inspections are also performed throughout the city to ensure properties are in compliance with city code. In addition, Code Enforcement regulates rental properties in Tampa by certifying landlords are in compliance with the Florida State Minimum Housing Standards.
We agree with these community housekeeping efforts to get rid of public nuisances. Complying with our local code ordinances help retain property values and prevent blight that devalues surrounding properties. 
Urban blight -- Just clean it up!
And that brings us back to last year when Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist proposed a grandiose scheme called Innovation Destination to revive blighted neighborhoods in the University/Suit Case City area and some surrounding areas.    According to the Tribune last year:
Crist says tax incentives and a variety of other mechanisms would be used to fund improvements, attract private investment, create jobs and stabilize neighborhoods. With USF at the heart of the zone, he envisions it being attractive to innovative enterprises.
Crist stated these areas were like “third world countries” when he announced his proposal at a BOCC meeting last May.  Really?  Because Commissioner Crist's idea seems to have lost steam and fizzled at this point. In May this year the Tribune reported Progress sluggish on rejuvenating USF zone.
A two-year effort to plan for an innovative business zone surrounding USF has struggled to get off the ground, with too many groups pushing their visions for the project.
The article stated that apparently no one knows how to create Crist's vision of Innovation Destination as the vision began to change.
But competing interests emerged and started pushing for a broader focus than simply attracting business, fixing sidewalks and adding landscaping. He (Crist) and the nonprofit University Area Community Development Corp. pushed hard for a social services component for the new innovation zone, one that would alleviate the crime and poverty in the district.
Here at the Eye we predicted schemes that size would be difficult, if ever, to get off the ground, especially in our uncertain economy. And putting taxpayers at risk may also not be the wisest strategy. We must note that the USF area is not in Crist's district but his nonprofit University Area Community Development Corp that Crist founded is located there. This nonprofit has been funded almost 100% by taxpayer dollars over it's entire lifetime. Did that weigh into why Crist and the nonprofit were pushing hard for the social services component?

Let's take the Buckhorn approach and do some community housekeeping in the USF area. See if that helps to stabilize the neighborhoods, retain property values and attract businesses and jobs back into the community.  The biggest bang for the buck in the USF area is to start with the smaller stuff like code enforcement.

We applaud Mayor Buckhorn's efforts and hope he will continue the focus after the 30 day sweep.

Sharon Calvert

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Confusion on development and traffic

The Tribune seems to be troubled that too much development will lead to too much traffic these days.
Plans for the project on Bloomingdale Avenue near Lithia-Pinecrest Road were approved by the county years ago but lay dormant as developers and retailers rode out the recession.

Now, it turns out, there are even more surprises in store: The same economic recovery that is putting people back to work and energizing the housing market will add a lot more traffic to roads that can't handle it.
Would you rather have prosperity or empty streets?
Tampa traffic
Part of the ongoing problem in these discussions on development is that the Tribune and the development community, which drives much of what masquerades as business coverage  in the local media these days, confuse development with economic prosperity. This was also reflected politically in the recent Economic Prosperity Stakeholder Committee, which was dominated by developers, real estate, and land use attorneys.

For sure, transportation and development are not mutually exclusive goals, nor are they tied to the hip to each other. However, our political leadership in Hillsborough County continues to attempt to drive the two together, despite recent successes that don't align with the economic development plans as we discussed earlier this week.

Back to the Tribune this morning:
The impact of renewed growth, the Tribune's analysis shows, is likely to be greatest in a 45-square-mile area of Brandon where many roads already are graded "F," meaning travel lanes can come to a complete stop during peak hours.

It's an area where a dozen parcels are approved for the kind of development that would allow a big-box store, and it takes in the controversial Bloomingdale store - likely a Walmart, judging from planning documents - as well as a Bass Pro Shops the county is helping develop as a jobs generator by kicking in money for road improvements.
Some analysis is missing here, which of course, is always missing from the Tribune.  For your consideration:
  1. The big box stores are increasingly at their limit. Most national retailers are highly built out. Several are executing plans to get smaller, not larger.  Others are being competitively replaced in the market by internet retailers such as Amazon (which Hillsborough County is also seeking to attract) Some are no longer ... been to Circuit City or Borders lately, anyone?  It seems we are not at a big risk to see all these dozen parcels become big box developments any time soon.
  2. As a possible counter to the traffic woes mentioned in the article, there is an argument that locating retailers closer  to their customers can reduce traffic.  Go where the people are. Rather than drive 10 miles to a retailer, even a Walmart, driving 2 miles to a closer "box" can help alleviate congestion. After all, this is the basis of these centrally planned communities and economic development areas, only without the people nearby. It can happen with a new Walmart too,
We'll also call your attention to Walmart plans on Bearss and Nebraska Avenue in North Tampa.  This is currently under construction.  Immediately east of I-275 and Bearss Avenue (where I counted dozens of potholes on a 3 mile drive last week), this promises to make traffic around Tampa's northern-most and busiest intersection off I-275 even worse than it already is.  Where are the activists against this Walmart?
New Walmart Supercenter construction on Bearss and Nebraska
The State of Florida did change the development laws in 2011. Now developers only have to pay for road improvements based directly on their impact, and not be responsible for improving already failing roads.
[I]f a developer doesn't have to pay to fix overcrowded roads, that leaves the county. But the county doesn't have the money.

The recession, with its housing crisis and double-digit unemployment, sapped county sales and property taxes. Before it hit, commissioners borrowed heavily against the Community Investment Tax - a half-cent sales tax used to build parks, schools and roads. They essentially tied up all the tax's money-generating capacity, leaving nothing for future road projects.

Consequently, the county last year had to shelve $129 million worth of priority capital projects, many of them roads.

"Essentially, what needs to happen is the county needs to come up with new revenue sources other than new development to fund transportation improvements," Corbett said.
We've written before about the wasting of CIT tax and transportation.  The money is gone.  Our Hillsborough County Commissioners spent it all, then gambled on the transit sales tax increase in 2010 and did not invest further in roads, helping lead us into this current poor situation.  We have an estimated $2 billion backlog in maintenance and safety improvements on our roads, and no plans to improve.
Many agencies are studying the problem, trying to reach a consensus that will win support from voters. In March, Sharpe won commission approval to create a transportation policy group that includes mayors of the county's three cities, commissioners and transportation agency heads. So far, the group has made no decisions.
They've not exercised much leadership lately, other than commissioning yet another study group, using more taxpayer funds.
One idea taking hold is focusing growth more compactly along established mass-transit corridors, whether rapid-transit bus or light rail lines. Mass transit moves people more efficiently, and a dedicated transit line with its concentration of potential customers would create reliable opportunities for developers, said Beth Alden, assistant director of the MPO.

"Someone making a real estate decision can't have confidence that five years from now that transit line is still going to be there," Alden said. "But with a rail corridor or dedicated bus lines with nice transit stations, you'll see that confidence there if there is a commitment to a specific transit."
Really?  I thought we were talking about bad traffic in Brandon.  Exactly how will a fixed rail solution help Brandon in the next quarter century?  According to the Hillsborough MPO 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan, (hint, scroll to the bottom) Brandon might get rail by 2035.

So, its not about mobility or improved transportation options, it is all about development.  Which from the opening of this article, more development causes traffic problems.

Got it?

At least they got some new of our ideas,
The MPO is also looking for some quicker, less-expensive ways to relieve traffic congestion. One, called an Advanced Traffic Management System, uses computers to control traffic signals so motorists need not hit a red at every traffic light.

Another idea is reversing lanes during peak commuting hours to provide an extra lane for the heaviest flow of traffic. The MPO and the Florida Department of Transportation are also considering pay express toll lanes on interstate highways.
Emphasis mine.  Can we do the cheaper, easy, common sense solutions before we dive into committing billions on rail solutions?  Why is there even a debate about this?  Beware of the developers, for if we really start solving for mobility, they may not be pleased.
Meanwhile, motorists in Bloomingdale, like Dee Bristol, are "constantly looking for ways around the traffic," wondering when and if those in charge will ever get it right.

Said Bristol, "I think it's just poor planning overall."
Well, yeah.  But wait for government led central planning for transportation solutions that are not about transportation, but development.  Hopefully we won't have to find out how well that does not work.

UPDATE:  Fixed a broken link.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Free the mermaid!

LITHIA - A rule against fins in some FishHawk community pools is making it hard for a woman in a mermaid suit to find a place to swim.

Jenna Conti, "The FishHawk Mermaid" is gaining fans from all over the world after she was banned last week from appearing at one of her local pools wearing her intricate, eye-catching silicon tail.
A Mermaid at FishHawk, making waves

Sounds like fun.  I have some swim fins (I'm an old swimmer swimming against time), but no mermaid merman gear.
Conti - who began performing under the mermaid name "Eden Sirène" before changing the spelling of the last name to "Serene" following a whirlwind week - was asked to leave the pool at the Aquatic Club of FishHawk Ranch because of the no-fin rule. The rule also prohibits the use of goggles and swim masks unless swimmers are taking part in a class.
No goggles?  Even Olympians use goggles.  Me too.  But not at FishHawk.

We have rules, you see.

Ryan Lochte, Olympic Gold medalist, would be asked to leave FishHawk if wore those goggles!
Meanwhile, Conti introduced herself on the community Facebook page.
The comments were overwhelmingly positive, with a few expressing doubts about her motives. Conti herself is the mother of a 10-year-old son.
"People were disappointed she was turned away," said Abruzzese, who videotaped Eden Sirène in action for a post on the FishHawk Area Neighborhood Facebook page. "You don't have to worry about her, she does this for the kids."

Conti brought the tail with her to Tuesday's meeting and maintains the appendage is no safety hazard. However, CDD board members still expressed liability concerns, but seemed open to working with Conti on some sort of arrangement.
Let's not have fun.

I'll see you at the pool dark and early tomorrow morning... with my silicon fins, goggles, paddles, pull bouy,...  I have lots of illegal swim toys.

The revolution begins at the pool!

Mysteries of central planning... revealed!

Update:  Late breaking news last evening - mystery company is Bristol-Myers Squibb but where they plan to locate is still a mystery...The location will be somewhere outside the city limits of Tampa - eliminating a number of those central planned EDA's.

Not too long ago, the Hillsborough County Commissioners voted to use our tax dollars to help bring Bass Pro Sporting Goods store to Hillsborough County.  Just yesterday the Hillsborough County Commissioners approved tax incentives to lure Amazon and a mystery company to come to Hillsborough County. 
Commissioner also gave final approval to more than $913,000 in tax exemptions for the next six years to encourage online retailer to build a $200 million warehouse in southern Hillsborough. 
Hillsborough County commissioners approved more than $2 million in financial incentives for an unnamed pharmaceutical company offering to create 567 jobs in the county.
Amazon considers locating in southern Hillsborough County

So Bass Pro is locating at Falkenburg and US-301, Amazon is considering the South Shore area and the mystery company's location remains a mystery.

But what about the central planning efforts from our Commissioners to tie transportation and economic development together?  And what about last years Economic Prosperity Stakeholder Committee (EPSC), as reported then by the Tribune, outlining yet another economic development strategy.  
The economic development strategies focus on setting aside land in the county for what are called Economic Development Areas. Those areas would be earmarked for transportation projects, and industrial prospects within those boundaries would receive incentives such as reduced fees and flexible development rules. The areas would be connected to other urban centers by mass transit corridors.
So another committee was formed, with a taxpayer paid facilitator, to figure out what exactly to do with these proposed EDA's.  

In addition, we found that the Hillsborough County Planning Commission already did a study in 2011 to recommend a strategic plan for economic growth that identified those EDA's.
This study identifies and delineates potential Economic Development Areas (EDAs) based on the needs and characteristics of targeted industries and businesses.
Proposed Economic Development Areas

And in 2010, Tampa Bay Partnership and Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council received $540,000 of federal tax dollars from the Economic Development Administration, with additional funding from numerous local Tampa Bay area entities, to study future jobs.
The studies will include implementation components to focus economic development and workforce resources to help the region create, attract and retain a higher skilled, better trained, more competitive, and innovative workforce.
So we have paid for numerous studies, witnessed numerous committees and countless government planners, politicians  and bureaucrats trying to wave their magic central planning wand.  We've heard of incubators and medifutures and hints that we will need new revenue sources such as mobility fees or tax-increment financing (aka not free money) to fund these centrally planned EDA's. 

We don't know where the mystery company will locate.  But what the Eye finds interesting is that neither Bass Pro nor the proposed site for the Amazon warehouse, both pursued by the Commissioners, are in an EDA,  nor are an incubator or a medifuture.  

Perhaps the road to economic growth and prosperity in Hillsborough County doesn't require a path to funding EDA's.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Senator Nelson and the MacDill furloughs

We are certainly disappointed that our leaders in DC, from the President on down, could not come to some agreement to work around the sequestration process they themselves enabled in the 2011 budget legislation  negotiation.  It was expected to be a bit  of a "nuclear option" to force the parties to come together to make more intelligent budget decisions in the future, since they were not smart enough to work it out in 2011.

Now as we know, they were not any smarter in 2012 or 2013, and sequestration kicked in.  The fear mongers were all over the media about how women and children would be starving, TSA would not be able to grope as frequently so they would make you wait longer, etc. etc.  It was mostly overblown.

But it has come home to roost here in Tampa Bay as civilian employees at MacDill Air Force Base now face 11 furlough, non-paid days between now and the end of September.
About 3,500 civilian employees at MacDill Air Force Base begin taking unpaid days off Monday, as part of a Department of Defense program to cut costs. The federal government estimates MacDill employees will lose about $8 million in wages over the next three months.

Each employee is to take 11 furlough days through the end of September. The furloughs were mandated by the Defense Department after automatic federal spending cuts went into effect March 1.
MacDill Air Force Base entrance
We certainly empathize with the staff and employees of MacDill that are affected.  They won't only be the ones affected.
"The impact on their lives and those around them cannot be measured, but we know it will add stress to their daily lives as well as their family," Col. Scott DeThomas, commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing and MacDill base commander, wrote in an emailed statement.

The money lost by MacDill's civilians will have a significant ripple effect.

"These folks are going to be using their savings for their needs as opposed to buying things like cars and other things that fuel other parts of the economy," said Rhea Law, CEO and chairwoman of the board of the Fowler White Boggs law firm and chief of the Command Advisory Council for the 6th Air Mobility Wing. "This is a significant hit for our entire country and certainly for our community."
It will also directly affect nearby businesses:
Slice Pizza & Grinders restaurant at 5831 S. Dale Mabry Highway is right down the road from MacDill Air Force Base. With 31,000 Department of Defense civilian workers in Florida alone being furloughed, the sequester cuts could have an impact on the bottom line here if military members start cutting back on their spending.

Jack Caramello owns the restaurant and says, "From what I've heard from my customers is that they're basically taking off one day a week, so if they're not here on base one day a week, they're not going to the local establishments."

That could take a slice out of Caramello's profits. With 12 employees on his payroll, dine-in customers are 90% of his business. Caramello is concerned Congress hasn't been able to stop the sequester cuts.
Most of this could have been avoided.  We needed Congress to do its job and pass some legislation making more intelligent cuts.  There were multiple proposals to do so, mostly from the Republicans.  And while Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL)  in March proposed to cut Congressional pay for the sequester, that was too little too late.  If Nelson truly wanted more intelligent cuts, he would have suggested that when the budget deal and sequester was originally proposed in 2011. The Democrats, and the President, saw an opportunity to demonize the evil, insensitive Republicans, and wreak havoc on the citizens with all the misery the sequestration would evoke.  Thankfully, most of that misery did not happen... but it can ... and is happening to those directly affected.
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL)
Nelson was also recently involved in reviewing the recent MacDill security breeches. Was the sequester responsible?
On Monday, about 3,500 civilians working on base began taking time off without pay. They will be forced to take one day off without pay for the next 11 weeks. That, said Nelson, will make it more difficult for base security.
"If you have part of your civilian component that one out of seven days is not there because of the furlough, then in fact, you don't have all the personnel you are accustomed to and you have to ramp up efficiency in a military organization to make sure you have what you need."
Nelson said he is confident MacDill will remain secure despite the furloughs, which don't affect military personnel.
"With regard to base security, Col. DeThomas is going to make sure they are at max efficiency," but the furloughs present "a handicap they are dealing with. It's like going into a fight with at least part of your arm tied behind your back and yet you are still going to perform at max efficiency."
Of course, little known is that the bureaucracy of government is as much to blame, perhaps even more so than Congress and the President, for letting us down... and letting down the local employees furloughed at MacDill.  From the Washington Post:
Spend the money! Spend it all! Spend it now!

That’s the distinct impression created by a recent e-mail sent by Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) contracting and budget officers to their colleagues.
"Our available funding balances remain large in all appropriations — too large to spend” just on small supplemental funds often required by existing contracts, the June 27 e-mail said. DISA’s budget is $2 billion.

“It is critical in our efforts to [spend] 100% of our available resources this fiscal year,” said the e-mail from budget officer Sannadean Sims and procurement officer Kathleen Miller. “It is also imperative that your organization meets its projected spending goal for June. . .”
Government is supposedly too big everywhere except when it's not.

The defense department should have thought twice about those memos telling departments to spend every cent they had right before the sequester kicked in when it directly resulted in 650,000 furloughs.

These cuts are needed, but they certainly could have easily been made in a much more intelligent manner as not to result in these needless furloughs.  Congress and the President is to blame,  the bureaucracy and Senator Nelson as well.  In 2004, Senator Nelson was slamming the "reckless fiscal path" at that time.

Unfortunately, the Senate hasn't passed any budget, which is required by law, since 2009.  Nelson has conspicuously changed his tune on the budget.  Instead we got sequestration and now it's hitting our hometown now.

Just ask those affected by the furloughs at MacDill.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Taxman, Pinellas edition

Let me tell you how it will be
There's one for you, nineteen for me
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman

Hide your wallet if you live in Pinellas, my friends.
Property values are expected to rise in Pinellas County for the first time in five years, but that didn't stop county Administrator Bob LaSala from suggesting another tax rate increase.
LaSala unveiled a proposal Tuesday to raise the general fund tax rate by 5 percent next year, a move that, if approved, would mark two years of consecutive hikes. The increase is needed, he said, to cover raises for county and sheriff's employees, as well as a state mandate to increase retirement contributions.
Should five per cent appear too small
Be thankful I don't take it all
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah I'm the taxman

Don't forget that St. Petersburg is planning on spending at least $50M tax dollars a new pier.
The proposal for the Lens includes a dramatic lighting plan that will include a display in the evening.
Artist rendering of the propose Lens to replace the St. Pete Pier
Other municipalities in the area are doing a better job holding the line on taxes while the economy is "recovering".
Rising property values have prompted other municipalities to hold the line on taxes. Hillsborough County, which also plans to give its employees their first raises since 2009, is keeping tax rates flat. And neither Tampa nor St. Petersburg, which is in the middle of a mayoral election, have announced plans to raise rates.
Of course, this property tax increase will be in addition to the proposed 14% sales tax increase referendum the esteemed Pinellas County Commission overwhelmingly voted to place on the ballot for November 2014.
Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved putting a question on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot that would ask residents whether they would pay a higher sales tax to support a major overhaul of the transportation system.
The referendum would ask residents to vote on whether to raise the county's sales tax by up to 1 cent — potentially lifting it from 7 to 8 cents to pay for major changes to the public transportation system. The sales tax, which would bring in about $128 million, would replace the property tax that currently funds the county's transit agency, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
If you drive a car, I'll tax the street,
If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat.
If you get too cold I'll tax the heat,
If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet.

Even the Tampa Bay Times, friend of the Taxman, in a brief moment of partial sanity, editorialized Go easy on tax increase.
County administrator Bob LaSala believes its time for the county to start planning for the next recession, but county commissioners need to consider the broader view of what's best for the taxpayer, not just for county coffers.
LaSala proposed raising the tax rate about 5 percent to cover additional operating costs without dipping into reserves. But he proposed another 4 percent increase to flow to reserves in anticipation of a future recession. The combined impact: The county's property tax millage rate would grow from $5.01 per $1,000 taxable property value to $5.49. 
Don't ask me what I want it for
If you don't want to pay some more
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman
The economic cloud for many families in Pinellas hasn't fully parted, and a county government that takes more money out of their pockets to simply stash in reserves won't be helping them.
But of course, the Times has been the biggest cheeleaders for the transit taxes.

Now my advice for those who die
Declare the pennies on your eyes
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman
And you're working for no one but me.

Or could it be that the Times sees the proposed property tax increase puts their hallowed transit tax increase at risk?

Lyrics courtesy of The Beatles Taxman, written by George Harrison.  Here's a George Harrison version, with Eric Clapton.