Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Fix Our Roads First!

Counties are one of the stewards of the US transportation system, owning and maintaining 45 percent of public roads and 39 percent of all bridges nationwide.

Hillsborough County has a critical local road funding gap. Our roads are the county's largest and most highly utilized asset and they must be maintained, preserved and improved. The county commissioners know our local roads have been neglected for years.

The County historically has used property tax general revenues, local gas taxes and impact fees to fund our roads.  The Community Investment Tax (CIT) was passed in 1996 and it funded numerous projects including the football stadium, schools, museums, sidewalks and road improvements

The CIT was sold to voters that the money would be used for projects in 5 year increments so the money would be available throughout the 30 year life of the tax. Instead by about 2008, previous county commissioners decided to borrow and spend the future CIT tax revenues. Then the recession hit. Today we still pay the tax until 2026 when it expires, but it's to pay back the debt incurred.

Therefore, today we have NO CIT tax monies available for roads.

Also since the recession, the county stopped funding our roads with property tax revenues to balance the county budget.

Therefore, today NO property tax monies are funding our roads.

Our local gas tax and a small amount of impact fees is all that is funding our county roads today.

FY2015 county road budget is $6.5 million. That is absurd for a county that is 1100 square miles, has 7,000 lane miles of roads and a population of almost 1.3 million. The county is spending more on Animal Services than on our roads. Why?

In September 2012 as the county was emerging from the recession, our commissioners miraculously "found" $15 million to earmark for a future soccer complex. Is a soccer complex a higher priority than our roads when we cannot even fill our potholes? That is a post for another day....

Something is not right with our budget and our budget process. As the county's revenues started going back up, the county is not allocating additional revenues to our roads. Requests were repeatedly made during the recent budget process to fund our roads in the FY2015 budget - to no avail.

Our county commissioners claim transportation is one of our highest priorities, yet they have refused to prioritize our road funding above other lower priorities. Why? What are they holding our road funding hostage for?

Asking taxpayers to pay higher sales taxes is the easy way out. Hillsborough has already experienced what happened with the 30 year CIT tax. Today taxpayers are skeptical of paying higher taxes. We just saw numerous local sales tax referendums in the Tampa Bay area get overwhelming defeated on Nov. 4th.

We expect our elected officials to make the tough decisions to ensure our priorities are funded first.

Our county commissioners know we have a critical road funding gap. They need to stop holding our road funding hostage in pursuit of any other agenda.

Our county commissions must fund our roads as the high priority it is NOW!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday November 23, 2014 Is it time to stop using Tourist Tax money to pay for Big Boy Toys?

Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD

Wednesday the Pinellas County Commission voted to restrict the funds being used to pay off the Tropicana Field construction bonds when the bonds expire in 2015.

The tourist tax dollars have long been eyed as pot of money for a new stadium for the Rays and St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman also has his eye on some of those dollars for capital improvement projects like Al Lang field and the Walter Fuller Baseball Complex.

While the Tourist Tax was originally conceived to actually promote tourism, like most taxes it was a target for every high dollar idea that came down the road.

Same with Penny for Pinellas.

The County Commission was wise to restrict these funds, but the whole issue begs a bigger question; is it time for local governments to stop funding stadiums where private enterprises make large profits at the expense of taxpayers.

Here in Pinellas County we have seen how much impact major league baseball has had. It’s time for Major League Baseball to lose its federal tax status, fund its own venues and generally start acting like the big business it has become.

If the venue is as important as the team owners would have us believe, then it seems to me that any organization that can sign a single individual player or group of players to  multiyear multimillion-dollar contracts, can eke out a mortgage payment on the facility they play in without taxpayer support.

Baseball and most major league sports see government as a honey pot of money. They tell the sports impact story, which is rarely true, pass out a few hats, some autographed bats, balls or sticks and the politicians swoon. Same story over and over again.

For now the Pinellas County Commission has taken a good step to gain control over the tourist tax revenues. Keeping that control will require significant diligence.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

To Uber or Not to Uber That's the Question

Uber and Lyft, are ride-sharing companies that provide an alternative to taxi cabs. Both companies use a high tech model that allows customers to order a ride using a smart phone AP.

Customers see a picture of the driver, a rating from other riders, and via GPS can watch the progress of the ride as it approaches. The customer can reject a proposed ride and ask for an alternative.

The rate is calculated at $1.20 a mile and 13 cents a minute and the ride fee is processed through the rider's smart phone.

The issue created a firestorm in Tampa as the local taxi cab companies cried foul, and the City struggled with issues like licensing, and passenger safety.

If you would like to know more about how these ride sharing companies work you can check out an article in the Tampa Bay Times by Caitlin Johnson 10 things to understand about Lyft and Uber.

The question is now moving to St. Petersburg as the City begins to work on an Ordinance dealing with ride-sharing companies. Janelle Irwin has a good overview in stpetersblog St. Pete to consider ordinance making way for Uber and Lyft.

The ride-sharing companies are already providing some service in St. Pete so timely action is critical.

With St. Pete in hot pursuit of millennials and a vibrant central core, services like Uber and Lyft are essential to support the life style. These services, which will provide low cost transport between venues in the downtown area, are also essential to the continuing downtown development and expansion to the West.

Some are now thinking that ride-sharing may be a critical component to public transportation. Given the recent GreenLight results it looks like it will be a while before the public transportation is changed or fixed on a large scale.

City Council would be wise to listen to the Cab companies, regarding safety concerns and licensing. Cabbie concerns about competition are really irrelevant. Competition is competition and the Cab companies need to figure out how to compete.

The other pitfall to avoid is looking at ride-sharing as a municipal cash cow.

The real benefits of ride-sharing are not only low fares but easy access which may keep some cars at home and some drivers that should not be driving off the road. A significant level of regulation or licensing costs will defeat the purpose.

Let's not let ride-sharing get bogged down by the entrenched interests like the food truck thing did with hearings, meetings, reports and the ever popular consultants.

This is a simple issue with any number of municipalities already addressing the issue. We don't need to re-invent the "wheel" let's just get a good common sense Ordinance on the books and move forward.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

GreenLight bus ads a pleasant reminder

Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD

You have probably noticed those ads for GreenLight are still on PSTA buses.

I think those ads and the refusal of PSTA to allow opposition access to the same ad space was one of the most maddening parts of the whole GreenLight episode. It just seemed to symbolize the arrogance of the PSTA administration and the PSTA toward the public.

Even though the State ruled the ads did not violate any "campaigning rules" it still seemed a stretch to me to use Public funds to promote a self serving cause.

My view of these little mobile billboards has changed now that the election is over and the people of Pinellas County have soundly sent a message to the PSTA. The message is pretty simple; the public will not be hoodwinked by big rolling billboards, big campaign contributions, and lots of politicians saying something they never really investigated is a good idea.

These days I just can't help but smile every time I roll up behind a PSTA bus with the GreenLight ad plastered all over its back end.

Now those GreenLight ads represent what I really love most about Pinellas County - how genuinely intelligent our citizens are. How they can see through the fog of deceptive politics, special interests and big money and how much they really do understand what this County needs in its public transportation system and what is does not need.

 Most importantly how willing they are to go to the ballot and vote their convictions.

Next time you pull up behind a PSTA bus with the GreenLight logo still on it just smile and be glad you live in a County where the people have a voice and they use it.

As a final thought, if the PSTA is going to leave those ads up for a while, they might want to consider an over lay on the ad - a picture of Mr. Miller and Chairman Welch with the caption "We're Sorry". I'll even chip in a few bucks to help cover the cost.

Just a thought.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday November 16, 2014 A GreenLight Media Perspective

Opinion by: Eugene Webb PhD

Generally the carping about the GreenLight sales tax massive defeat has subsided. There are a number of lessons to be learned from this referendum, many by the politicians and planners but there is also an interesting media conundrum in the GreenLight outcome.

The two large print media out lets in Pinellas County, the Tampa Bay Times and the St. Petersburg Tribune, openly supported the GreenLight referendum.  Both laid out strong supporting editorial positions and neither gave much detailed coverage to the opposition.

The local electronic media, with the exception of 10 News, while generally supportive of Greenlight, also gave only passing coverage of the opposition.

Mainstream media passed off No Tax for Tracks as an underfunded, grassroots, tea party, and extremist effort with little chance of success.

That million dollars of GreenLight campaign money could also have put some stars.... eer dollar signs in mainstream media's eyes.

Local social media, for the most part, was where the GreenLight opposition made its media case. 

With the exception of the area's largest social media site, stpetersblog, local social media bloggers were those presenting the opposition's case. Even though stpetersblog's publisher supported GreenLight, the Blog's coverage tended to be reasonably balanced.

When you add up about 6000 yard signs, numerous appearances by No Tax for Tracks supporters, 3 or 4 local social media sites and about $100,000 in campaign contributions and compare that to the support of both local newspapers including editorials, a good chunk of the electronic media, some of the biggest power players in the County, over $1 Million dollars in campaign contributions and a stunning defeat, it is no wonder some people are scratching their heads and asking some questions.

There is no question the sales tax referendum was one of the worst referendums ever concocted in Pinellas County, but the fact is along with good grassroots politics, social media was the only place people could get the true facts about GreenLight in their homes.

Patch, Eye on Tampa Bay, The Sunbeam Times and Bay Post Internet  were the social media sites that consistently presented the GreenLight facts, uncovered illegal activities at the PSTA and exposed the poor management lack of control at the PSTA.

With the Tampa Bay Times in business trouble laying off staff and borrowing money to operate, and the Tribune now reducing staff, the status of print media and its relevance to the pulse of the community are really in question.

I would not be naive enough to think that social media was the primary reason GreenLight failed. But when the GreenLight facts were presented in a social media format election results and page view statistics tell a startling story.

Next election cycle I suspect that the public will be looking to social media once again for the comments, opinions and facts they can count on.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

St. Pete Waterfront - The people want it remade for them

Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb

AECOM, the consulting firm picked to develop the public input portion of St. Petersburg's waterfront plan presented a summary of its findings Thursday at the Vinoy Renaissance resort.

Charlie Fargo, Tampa Bay Times staff writer has a nice over view in his article: St. Petersburg public shows interest in only small changes to waterfront .

The public does not appear too interested in a massive overhaul of the downtown water front. The consultants seemed to have grasped that desire.

Waterfront redevelopment is now at that critical juncture where all major redevelopment projects arrive.

There is a general consensus from the public about where they would like the effort to go.

Enter the special interests. The public's view does not really mesh well with where the big downtown players would like to see the waterfront go. They would like to see some development opportunities.

The Kriseman administration will now have to navigate the master plan mine field as the special interests try to once again hijack a major downtown effort.

Dan Harvey Jr., who has long been a strong voice in downtown affairs said, "All these guys are smart enough to see through the group interests or individual agendas".

Let's hope so.

The consultants also expressed concern about the failure of GreenLight to garner public support and cited transportation as a major concern in the waterfront plan.

The whole project covers about a seven mile stretch along the water front. If the planners and the Kriseman administration can't figure out how to transport the public around a seven mile stretch then the waterfront plan is in real trouble.

Key to all of this is who the mayor puts on the final committee that will make a recommendation to City Council. 

It would be a good idea for the Kriseman administration and the City Council to remember the LENS and the GreenLight debacle and not create another over bloated project packaged up by the downtown power players that the public will not support.

E-mail Doc at: Or send me a Facebook (Gene Webb) Friend request. Twitter@DOCONTHEBAY. Please comment below, and be sure to share on Facebook and Twitter. See Doc's Photo Gallery at Bay Post Photos