Thursday, April 30, 2015

The False Florida Solar Choice

Floridian's for Solar Choice touts themselves as a grassroots organization, a combination of environmental groups, libertarians, and some tea partiers, to "allow more homes and businesses to generate electricity by harnessing the power of the sun."
Floridians for Solar Choice is promoting a Florida constitutional amendment ballot initiative that would give Florida’s families and businesses the right to choose solar power. Past legislative efforts to overcome barriers to solar choice have been thwarted by large monopoly power companies like Florida Power and Light (FPL) and Duke Energy. These big power companies do not want to lose their exclusive hold on Florida’s electric customers or their wallets.
They are working to get over 600,000 signatures across Florida required to the the amendment on the 2016 ballot.

We are sympathetic to consumer choice, as well as some of the issues with the regulated power companies and the PSC.

We attended a debate about the Solar Choice Amendment hosted by Tampa 912 on March 24. Speakers were Tory Perfetti, frpm Floridians for Solar Choice, and James Taylor of the Heartland Institute. It did get rather testy at times.

Youtube playlist of Solar Choice Debate, March 24

But does Floridian's for Solar Choice constitutional amendment make sense?

We have our doubts.

To be clear, the amendment is limited to "small scale" generation, and selling solar power to contiguously located businesses and consumers. For example, a shopping center could sell solar power to contiguous tenants, or an apartment complex may do the same. The nearby solar powered apartments may not sell solar power to houses.

We have our doubts about policy issues best settled by the legislature showing up as constitutional amendment. The constitution should be about State of Florida governance, not policy.  How our energy is supplied and regulated are policy, not governance issues.  We've seen enough of the policy issues as amendments, from pregnant pigs, to classroom size, to high speed rail.

And we note that there are bills filed this term in the Florida legislature addressing the issue, such as SB 1118, which allows renewable energy source, that Floridian's for Solar Choice could have worked with:
Renewable Energy; Authorizing an owner of a commercial or industrial business or a contracted third party to install, maintain, and operate a renewable energy source device on or about the structure within which the business operates or on a property owned or leased by the business; authorizing utilities to recover the full actual cost of providing services to an energy-producing business or its customers, under certain circumstances; authorizing customers to challenge such cost recovery and receive refunds following a successful challenge, etc.
However, Floridian's for Solar Choice came out against SB 1118.
"We are opposing SB 1118 very strongly as written," said Debbie Dooley, one of the organizers of the petition drive.
We have our doubts about the wording of the ballot initiative, starting with the first sentence:
It shall be the policy of the state to encourage and promote local small-scale solar-generated electricity production and to enhance the availability of solar power to customers.
Emphasis mine. The "encourage and promote" clause is troublesome, since it in effect will require the state, as amended into the constitution, the supreme law of the State of Florida, to provide ongoing incentives and preferences for solar generation over other power sources. Any pro-solar legislator will be able to take this and run to subsidize solar with this language.
This section is intended to accomplish this purpose by limiting and preventing regulatory and economic barriers that discourage the supply of electricity generated from solar energy sources to customers who consume the electricity at the same or a contiguous property as the site of the solar electricity production. Regulatory and economic barriers include rate, service and territory regulations imposed by state or local government on those supplying such local solar electricity, and imposition by electric utilities of special rates, fees, charges, tariffs, or terms and conditions of service on their customers consuming local solar electricity supplied by a third party that are not imposed on their other customers of the same type or class who do not consume local solar electricity.
Likewise, the subsequent sentences constrain regulations (not necessarily bad), but again, sets up a preference by lowering regulatory hurdle for solar in the constitution. This is worrisome, since there are regulatory and technical challenges to consider. It's not that easy to switch power from solar to traditional power when the sun goes down, keeping the precise power flow to keep the lights on, and avoid damaging appliances or equipment due to a power  spike. What standards will be in place for the solar power providers?

Rooftop solar panels
Additionally, solar is highly subsidized with various federal incentives. Nearly all solar installations receive subsidies $39B a year from the U.S. taxpayer, yet solar is only 0.6% of total power generation.  We've established this amendment sets a preference for solar, with potential for more state incentives, with more installations, and therefore more federal subsidies.  This is just even more bailout for the solar industry.

Regardless, we are for more deregulation and more choice, even for power generation and distribution. Floridians' for Solar Choice could have taken their "free market" message to heart, and drafted their language to promote deregulation and energy choice, and worked with the state legislature. But they are only for solar, not about choice.

They are picking a winner for themselves.

This will likely lead to a preference for solar as a policy over other energy sources.

Picking solar as a winner over other energy generation is not a free market solution.

Floridian's for Solar Choice will limit your choice, not expand your choice.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Follow the GoHillsborough Circular Money Trail

We're currently watching the "Clinton Cash" scandal unfold about the Clinton Foundation. The Clinton Foundation looks like it was set up as a global lobbying firm to personally benefit the Clintons, with a little bit of charity, about 15% of the donations, thrown in. While Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was in her powerful and influential Secretary of State position, there's a timeline of President Clinton's speaking fees escalating and lots of money exchanging hands, some of it very questionable, the timing questionable and some of the people involved very questionable. 

Are we getting numb, annoyed, agitated, frustrated or angry when we continue to see money buying access and influence with those in powerful or elected positions.

Closer to home let's look at the money trail of those associated with the GoHillsborough campaign. We previously posted here that the cronies were put in charge of the million dollar taxpayer funded public engagement effort when it was handed over via a no-bid contract to Parsons Brinckerhoff. 

Let's go back in time to 2010. The pro rail PAC Moving Hillsborough Forward (MHF) was created BEFORE the commissioners put it on the ballot in a 5-2 vote May 13, 2010. SunTrust bank was so sure it would get on the ballot they donated $50K as seed money to MHF on March 26, 2010. Deanne Roberts of Chappell-Roberts ad agency was so sure it would get on the ballot she donated $500 on April 15, 2010. Hmmm...
SunTrust and Deanne Roberts (of Chappell-Roberts) donate to MHF PAC
 before rail referendum is on ballot in 2010
Who were some other donors to MHF?
Parsons, Leytham and Roberts all donors to
Moving Hillsborough Forward pro rail PAC 
Parsons Brinckerhoff, Beth Leytham, Chappell-Roberts, Jacobs Engineering all donated, some very substantially, to the Moving Hillsborough Forward pro rail PAC. They are now all getting YOUR tax dollars to run the GoHillsborough campaign.

Commissioner Hagan stated he voted to put the 2010 referendum on the ballot because he wanted the people to vote on the issue. They did by overwhelmingly voting NO. Hagan's ready to put another sales tax referendum on the 2016 ballot - as we reported here.  Hagan has even indicated he may exploit a term limit loophole to jump back into his District 2 seat to enable him the opportunity to remain a county commissioner until 2024.

While anyone can contribute to any candidates race they choose, we do take note of who the very first donors to Commissioner Hagan's 2014 re-election race were when he filed to run again for his countywide seat in February 2013.

Hagan First day donors
The very first day of donations reported was 2/26/2013 and the very first donor, after Hagan himself, was PR consultant Beth Leytham. In fact, she donated twice in one day, as an individual and from her business. Leytham is getting almost $300K of our tax dollars via the million dollars the county handed to Parsons Brinckerhoff for GoHillsborough.

The rest of the cronies running the GoHillsborough campaign also donated on that very first day, February 26, 2013, to Hagan's re-election campaign:
  • George Walton, who is leading the Parsons Brinckerhoff public engagement effort
  • Parsons Brinkcerhoff who got the million dollar no bid contract to do the public engagement work
  • Chappell-Roberts, the ad agency with close ties to special interest Tampa Bay Partnership, owns the webite and was engaged by Leytham to do work for the GoHillsborough campaign.
How coincidental is that? And Hagan and his war chest ran unopposed in 2014.

Now all of these donors are directly involved with our county's million dollar taxpayer funded public engagement effort. Hmmm....

At the March 20, 2013 BOCC meeting, the county commissioned unanimously voted to form a Transportation Policy Leadership Group. The wording of the motion approved that day:
To request the County Administrator to negotiate a contract with the strategic planning consultant for services related to the formation of a policy group and  to assist in preparing and facilitating a series of workshops for this group to develop a transportation strategy which will be integrated into the Boards strategic plan, economic development/redevelopment areas and recommendations 1-10 of the Economic Prosperity Stakeholder Committee.
How did the above motion to have a series of workshops to develop a transportation strategy that would be integrated into the county's strategic plan, turn into a million dollar taxpayer funded GoHillsborough campaign? 

Follow the money. The GoHillsborough campaign is spreading our tax dollars around to cronies.

I got a copy of the Parsons Brinckerhoff invoices submitted to the county for payment. They include what Leytham, a subcontractor, invoiced Parsons. From October 2014 through January 2015, Leytham invoiced Parsons $168,805.76. 
Leytham invoice for PR work 
That's 60% of the $281K total she will be getting for her GoHillsborough work. Below is the breakdown of those costs. We heard Leytham was trying to state she was only getting $75K for her PR work. If she said that, obviously that's not true.
Breakdown of Leytham's PR costs
from Oct. 2014 thru Jan. 2015 (click to enlarge)
Leytham's being paid almost $74K for branding and creative design. We reported here that Leytham simply hijacked the GoHillsborough brand name from the transit lobbyists Connect Tampa Bay's plan of the same name they proposed last year. Hijacking a name is not creative, doesn't take much effort or should not cost much. The website is a standard template that doesn't have any cool or unusual attributes. We're paying $15K for Facebook ads that's resulted in about 2300 Likes on their Facebook page. Is that considered successful? GoHillsborough's twitter handle has under 250 followers and has tweeted a whopping 39 times. We're paying Leytham $80K for focus groups, market analysis and benchmarking polls. Where are the results of any of those activities and how are they being used in this campaign? Does this look more like an expensive taxpayer funded PR boondoggle?

Parsons Brinkcherhoff is known for getting referendums on the ballot, then donating heavily to the pro referendum special interests campaign and then benefiting by getting projects created by the sales tax largesse. Leytham is very closely associated with Commissioners Hagan and Mayor Buckhorn who are both members of the Transportation Policy Leadership Group.  She's a political insider who is now a taxpayer funded political insider with plenty of access. Leytham can now use her close relationships on the inside to lobby or pressure others to support another sales tax referendum - all on our taxpayer dime. If there's a referendum, Chappell-Roberts can just turn the GoHillsborough advertising campaign over to the Tampa Bay Partnership to run the private sector campaign again. This is a very cozy group of folks who have created a circular money trail.

Has the inside lobbying already begun? We don't know. But we do know Commissioner Hagan, Mayor Buckhorn and Commissioner Miller want another sales tax referendum in 2016. They want another big pot of your hard earned money before ANY plan(s) have been discussed, before we know what this new tax would pay for or before we know what the costs involved are. Must we have a referendum before we know what's in it? Sound eerily familiar?

Like the Clinton Cash, follow the GoHillsborough money trail. They are both circular.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Weekend Update

A couple of quick hits on things that grabbed our interest over the weekend.

Joe Henderson of the Trib is sounding a bit resigned about some of the missteps around the GoHillsborough transportation outreach and planning effort in Hillsborough County.
I remain skeptical, however, that voters will approve any sales tax increase, no matter the benefits. The need was great in 2010, too, but that didn’t stop voters from shooting down a similar referendum.
Joe did reach out Sharon, co-author of this blog, for some of her thoughts:
I reached out to Sharon Calvert of the Tampa tea party. She is a regular at transportation meetings and is as well-informed as anyone on the subject. Although I don’t always agree with her views, particularly on rail (I’m for it; she is not), Calvert makes a good point that leaders should consider before this referendum plan gets too far down the, um, tracks.

“I would like to see them come back with several scenarios,” she said. “I would like to see that discussion held first before tying everything into a sales tax. The logical sequence of questions that should be asked is what is (the tax) for, and how long is it for?”
Sharon's statement's are on point, of course, especially given Commissioner Ken Hagan's recent comments promoting a sales tax hike before the plans are developed
“I’ve consistently advocated over the past two years that we’ve had these PLG meetings that we have a measured and methodical approach,” Hagan told the group. “But I’ve got to tell you, I feel it’s time to bring this in for a landing.”
Which of course, Sharon addressed earlier this week.

Speaking of Ken Hagan, he's already back in the news today. The Trib reported he's considering skirting around the spirt, if not the letter of the law, to run for his old county commission seat, perhaps as soon as 2016.
Term limits, popular among Florida voters, have shown limited success in breaking the cycle of career politicians.
Nowhere is that clearer than in Hillsborough County, where one county commissioner is giving some thought to a first-of-its-kind move that could lengthen his total time in office to 20 years.
Commissioner Ken Hagan, a Republican, said he hasn’t ruled out leaving his countywide District 5 seat midterm to run next year in his old north-county District 2. The move hinges on whether District 2 incumbent Victor Crist quits to run for circuit court clerk, a move Crist said he is considering.

By switching back to his home-district seat, Hagan could avoid being forced out of office by term limits in 2018 and start a new clock — one that would allow him to stay on the commission until as late as 2024.

Hagan said the move is a long shot, but the prospect exposes a loophole in the county’s term limit law that the authors of the county charter never envisioned.
Perhaps the county charter never envisioned such attempts to thwart the constituents will, but this is rather callous to think he can get away with it. Which he might, given the war chest he's amassed of over $300,000 from his last campaign, when he had no opposition.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan
Perhaps he's focused on unfinished business over the 12 years (as of 2016) he will have been on the BOCC. He still wants to bring in the Rays into Hillsborough... and he may be wanting to control any big wad of money that would come in from his proposed sales tax transportation referendum in 2016.

He's not committed, so we... and everyone else... need to stay tuned.

Which ties back to transportation yet again.  As it must be that time of the month for the Trib editorial board to promote increasing transportation taxes yet again.
As Commissioner Ken Hagan told the panel overseeing the development of a transportation plan, “... it’s time to bring this in for a landing.”
If citizens want any meaningful improvements to a system that includes more than 12,000 lane miles, 700 bridges and 600 signalized intersections, it seems to us a 1-cent sales tax increase, which would raise $6 billion over 30 years, will be necessary.

The county has more than $3 billion in immediate transportation needs — about $750 million in maintenance needs alone. By way of comparison, the county has spent $1.3 billion on transportation in the last 20 years. It can’t deal with its backlog of problems, much less meet future needs, with existing funding sources.
Yes, but we still have no plan. The GoHillsborough folks are still working on it.
There have been 26 public sessions throughout the county in which more than 1,400 residents have participated. About 12,000 citizens participated in two telephone town halls. That is far more people than generally get involved in community discussions.
That's an average of about 54 people at each of the 26 public sessions throughout the county.  That's not a very high bar for participation in our opinion, especially, as we've documented on several occasions, we are spending nearly $300,000 for the PR and outreach phases in the GoHillsborough plan.

We agree with the Trib we have transportation issues. We also agree the outreach is at least better than 2010. However, we already have more than a good idea about our problems and what we can do to get started NOW.

Why wait 2 more years to improve traffic signal timings?

Why wait 2 more years to add to HARTs TDP?

Why wait 2 more years to begin to think about improving Hillsborough's neglected F-rated roads, with over a 1.5 million trips per day?

Why wait 2 more years for a risky sales tax hike and put all your eggs in one basket, rather than take a look at the Hillsborough County budget and make some choices based on the high priorities of transportation... now? If only to get started on some quick wins?

Perhaps the Trib is coming around.
We still believe rail should be part of the community’s future, but citizens have shown their wariness. Better to start with a less ambitious plan and build support.
Or, as Joe Henderson concluded
But while they’re doing that, the clock is running.

It will be about 20 months before a referendum can be held.

Even if it passes, new buses, routes and roadwork won’t appear the next day.

If it doesn’t pass?

I hope Hagan and others have a Plan B in case their powers of persuasion fail to sway enough votes.
Their cause is just. The need is great. And no matter what, it’s going to cost a lot of money.

I think I just lost everyone on that final point, didn’t I?
Joe, your point is well taken. But why wait 2 years when there are quick wins we can get started on now?

Political Correctness and the St. Pete Pier Selection Committee

Opinion By: E. Eugene Webb, PhD
Coauthor of: So You Want to Blog

There is an old axiom in psychology research that says when faced with deciding between two options that both have negative outcomes, the decision maker will either make no decision or seek a way out of the situation.

It seems the St. Pete Pier Selection Committee has taken such an approach. Rather than stand their ground and recommend Alma or go with the will of the public and select Destination the Committee after hours of wasted time picked the middle ground and ranked Pier Park as number one in their final rankings.

I am not so sure the pier design was as critical in the final decision process as was not angering the intrepid chairman of the committee and the Mayor, or facing the obvious wrath of the public.

Assuming it can be permitted and constructed within the budget, I don't think it Pier Park meets the real objective. There has been a lot of talk about Pier Park appealing to the millennials as a place to play, but not much talk about the Pier Park as a tourist draw.

Even at the end the old Pier was drawing over a million visitors a year. So the question becomes if I am a tourist staying out on the beach will I drive or take a bus to downtown St. Pete to go to a park? Probably not.

I am not sure the committee was looking at all of the right issues at the end of the process.

For me, I think it was the wrong ranking for a lot of wrong reasons.

Council has a few more options than the Kriseman administration would like to admit. I know there is a real desire to get this one off the plate, but Council Chair Gerdes is a smart guy and he knows the rules. A rush forward here could be a big mistake.

Maybe its time to "receive and file" the Committee's report a let the pot simmer just a bit.

I for one am not thanking the Pier Selection Committee for their service. I think they wasted a lot of time, suffered from poor leadership and in the end did not have the courage to stand for their convictions or the public's.

That's what happens when you establish a committee of citizens' lead by a member of the administration who has an agenda to push.

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

More Vinik poaching?

The downtown proponents seem to be having a hard time making the case for their vision of what downtown Tampa should be. They've not shown much success in recruiting outside businesses to relocate downtown. Most that are moving in plan to move into Westshore or elsewhere in the county.

They've already poached the USF Medical school to relocate substantial operations at higher costs to downtown as an anchor tenant of Vinikville, rather than grow in place at USF. As we've discussed before (here and here), this is at best a net zero economic benefit for Hillsborough County to relocate from one part of the county to another.  I recently talked to a very senior Tampa medical leader, and he and most medical professionals continue to see this move as big boondoggle.

Vinik tried to recruit Syniverse to relocate is HQ from New Tampa to Vinikville.  But Syniverse refused, citing quality of life concerns from its highly paid staff.  Sources told us employees reacted quite negatively, started a petition drive, and management quickly backed off.

Now Vinik is going after MOSI?
The billion-dollar neighborhood Jeff Vinik is building downtown may well end up having a notable new addition: MOSI.
Hillsborough County officials confirm they are in advanced talks with Vinik about how to move the now-struggling Museum of Science and Industry from its present site on Fowler Avenue to somewhere in the 40-plus-acre area Vinik is redeveloping on the waterfront downtown.

If successful, the plan would add yet another major attraction to a downtown area that’s already flourishing with new hotel and residential development.
Do Vinik and the downtown proponents not have a real business plan besides poaching existing businesses and facilities to relocate from one part of the county to another? There is no clear win-win here. Any benefit for downtown is offset by the losses from where they came. At best, this is a zero sum game for the county.

We are wasting our time and monies for nothing, other than to sooth the egos of the downtown proponents.
“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity obviously,” County Administrator Michael Merrill said in an interview. “Obviously there are a lot of details to be worked out ... . But I think the opportunity to be part of the transformation of what’s happening downtown would seem to be the opportunity of a lifetime.”
They don't get it.  Merrill has fiduciary responsibility for the entire county, not just downtown. It's not Hillsborough County's job to continue to subsidize and pick winners and losers across the county.

MOSI has issues -- outdated facilities, wasted space, red ink, annual subsidies of $585,915 from the county, etc. But there is no reason to assume that moving to downtown will magically fix what ails MOSI, nor that the problems cannot be fixed in the current location.

It's not as if the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa has been an overwhelming success over the years. While it's recently doing better, it always receives annual operating subsidies from the city of Tampa, currently nearly $500,000. The city still pays $6.7 million annually on the $84 million construction debt, payments that will continue until 2027. The county chips in another $307,135 per year.

Has anyone asked the questions around moving yet another tax exempt organization to downtown Tampa and the impact on the tax revenues?  Taxable property values downtown are increasing, but how does relocating MOSI downtown from its perfectly suitable current location benefit the county?

Vinik has received a ton of favorable and uncritical press. Many of our local political leaders seem to blindly support whatever he wants.  But his vision is still just a vision.  Beyond buying some downtown land and adjoining properties such as the Marriott, his major success to date is poaching the USF Medical School. We do give him credit for improving the Lightning and Amalie Arena.

Now he's trying to replicate that poaching strategy again.

Recruiting a corporate HQ is high on Viniks priorities.

I suggest Vinik work harder to recruit corporate candidates for downtown Tampa outside of Hillsborough County.  That way, everyone in the county benefits, not just him.

Lithia Body Farm

Hillsborough County is in constant pursuit of new businesses to grow our local economy. From a warehouse to advanced medical research in downtown Tampa with CAMLS, there is no business we are not interested in.

Now we may be able to boast about a new body farm in southeast Hillsborough, in the community of Lithia.

Yes, a body farm is what it sounds like. Well maybe not quite. Rather than a farm were bodies grow, it is a farm where bodies are placed to decompose to support research in forensic science -- to better understand the decomposition process in the elements and therefore improve the forensics for identification of remains and cause of death, leading to better case closure rates. Certainly a worthy goal.

The project has been in the works for about a year, as a collaboration between USF and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department.  Sheriff David Gee has agreed to donate a few acres from their training grounds in Lithia for the body farm, or as its known the trade, the Facility for Outdoor Experimental Research and Training, or FORT.

USF admittedly forgot a step or two in the process, namely the public outreach.  Hence the meeting they hosted on April 23 at Pine Crest Elementary in Lithia.

Given the nearly 200 attendees at the meeting, this was a major oversight.  The thought of a body farm, in some cases, literally in their back yard, without any dialogue with the nearby residents, was not well received.  This project was not well know until the last couple of weeks, when most residents found out from the local news.

County Commissioner Stacy White, who represents the area, was very concerned as well, as he nor anyone else to our knowledge on the County Commission was contacted about the body farm plans. The county owns the land, and the County Commission will have to rezone it if the project is approved.

I don't know about you, but I think its quite reasonable to want to know more about body farm plans in your neighborhood.

USF attempted to recover by hosting the public meeting. We decided to attend to find out what this was all about and to video camera.

Public comments on the USF body farm.

The meeting was moderated by Eric Eisenberg, dean of USF’s College of Arts and Sciences. He had planned to organize the meeting by opening with some comments from a couple of experts and proponents of the project, Erin Kimmerle, associate professor of anthropology at USF, and Daniel Wescott, director of the Texas State University body farm in San Marcos, Texas. After some opening presentation, the audience was free to follow up with some one on one questions with the experts.

Experts speaking about the body farm.

The audience did not take kindly to that suggestion, as they wanted to be heard.  Eisenberg quickly adjusted, and allowed for more of a public comment program, followed up with the one on one questioning.

They got an earful. There were a handful of speakers that supported the body farm and the research goals. However, most speakers were against the project for various reasons. Few seemed to believe the proponents that there would not be an issue with smell.  Several residents expressed concerned about the lack of outreach and communications.  Others recommended other locations, further away from residential neighborhoods.  Concern about scavengers such as coyotes were raised on multiple occasions.  Yet more were frustrated that the southeast county had become a dumping ground over the last couple of decades for other undesirable facilities such as dumps, the Bill Young reservoir, the Sheriff's training facility all of which are often was noisy. Another speaker raised issues with laws, as in the Knoxville, TN body farm, there were no laws on the books regarding timeframes before bodies could be placed, handling veterans remains, and proper disposition of remains after they've full decomposed. Not to mention the impact on property values.

USF and the Sheriff bear the full responsibility here.  They blew it, whatever the merits of the body farm. They had to know it would be very controversial. Why did they wait a year?  That's either incompetence or they were trying to keep it under the radar, complete the deal, before the residents could react.

Would you want this in your neighborhood?

Apparently, USF listened, and they just announced they will seek a new location. 
The university pulled the plug on plans for the research facility in Lithia after unhappy residents on Thursday filled Pinecrest Elementary School’s cafeteria with questions on what the program would do to their water quality and property values. Neighbors also worried about scavengers and - most importantly - the smell around their homes.
Much of this could have been avoided had USF and the Sheriff been transparent over the last year. Regardless, it's good to know the process worked, and they listened.

This time.

UPDATED: Added Experts presentation video.

GoHillsborough Fails in "Robust Outreach" So Hagan "Jumps the Shark" For Another Sales Tax Referendum

At Wednesday's Transportation Policy Leadership Group meeting, Commissioner Ken Hagan stated he is ready to pursue NOW putting a sales tax increase referendum on the 2016 Presidential election year ballot. According to today's Tribune article:
County Commissioner Ken Hagan told other members of the county’s Transportation Policy Leadership Group that he wants the group to make a final recommendation on projects and financing in June. The county commission could then begin taking steps for a referendum to be held in November 2016, he said. 
Hagan said he foresees the county commission taking a final vote in September or October to put a sales tax increase on the 2016 ballot. That will give business groups more than a year to plan and carry out a campaign to promote passage of the sales tax. No public money can be spent to promote a referendum.
Hagan's referendum comment at Wednesday's meeting was at the end of the meeting and took about only a couple minutes of the meeting with Commissioner Les Miller, the only other county commissioner who stated they agreed with Hagan. The bulk of the meeting was focused on the concern by the PLG members about the low participation at the public engagement meetings - remember it's costing taxpayers a million bucks. The Tampa Bay Times more accurately reported on what was discussed:
Despite having about 50 people at each meeting, on average, some members of the group wondered whether enough was being done to draw in all demographics and engage the community.
Since Commissioner Hagan cannot yet pursue his dream of a new baseball stadium in Hillsborough County, perhaps he wants attention for something else.

So did Commissioner Hagan "Jump the Shark"?

The public engagement meetings have not been completed. There's been no plans presented or discussed yet. There's been no due diligence or any discussion regarding all the funding options or what "needs" must be paid for versus the "wants" in our current county budget. There's been no official priorities set for the county budget. Should that $15 million soccer complex by nixed to help fund roads? Should the county stop funding lower priority items to fund transportation? Our county revenues are heading up so should those increased revenues go to fund roads? None of those discussions have taken place but Hagan is ready to march forward to put a sales tax referendum on the 2016 Presidential year election ballot. 

Should we be surprised? The scope of work handed to Parsons Brinckerhoff via no-bid from the county last September was titled "Hillsborough County Transportation Reference Support". Was that being prescient or simply always the plan?

Which business groups are lining up to support a referendum they know nothing about? Or do they know something the rest of us haven't been told? Is it the Tampa Bay Partnership and the Chambers of Commerce? Haven't they struck out at least 4 times supporting sales tax referendums in the Tampa Bay area? Chappell-Roberts, the ad agency closely associated with the Tampa Bay Partnership, owns the GoHillsborough website name. Politically well connected PR consultant Beth Leytham is getting paid almost $300K of our tax dollars to do PR work for GoHillsborough. We assume they both have access to all the GoHillsborough data, information and email addresses gathered at taxpayer expense. What an easy way for them to jump over to the private sector and help launch that business campaign Hagan references. They'll be able to make more money in support of a referendum they directly helped get on the ballot, at taxpayer expense. 

The GoHillsborough Campaign is in its last phase of community meetings and will conclude with a tele-townhall on May 21. We can only speculate why the participation rate has been low but that makes the cost of this effort even higher. However, here are some observations about this campaign.

I've attended a number of the public engagement meetings. One of the most discouraging things I noticed is that most of the county commissioners themselves weren't participating in these meetings. Commissioner Hagan has not been to one GoHillsborough meeting - but he already wants a referendum. 

The entire Policy Leadership Group effort, since it started in July 2013, never provided the ability for the general public to speak directly to the elected officials. The PLG meetings were held like workshops, no public comments could be made. When the previous public engagement effort was done from August 2013 through December 2013 that actually allowed public comment, the commissioners were specifically told to stay away.  And while we paid for that effort too, there was never any report or summary presented or anything public presented back to the PLG about those meetings. 

The format of the Parsons Brinckerhoff GoHillsborough campaign doesn't allow for public comments, except in writing on the comment forms. This entire PLG effort appears to have been organized around ensuring there's no direct communication between the elected officials, their constituents and the general public on this issue. Do you consider that odd? 

Ironically, when Parsons Brinckerhoff made their first report to the PLG last month after the first phase of meetings, George Walton of PB stated one of the feedbacks they received  was that the public wanted to speak to their elected officials. Unless the county commissioners actually showed up at any of the meetings, the public did not have any opportunity to engage or speak to the county commissioners. Walton invited the commissioners at the March PLG meeting to show up at the tele-townhalls. I've listened to both tele-townhalls and no county commissioner participated in them except for a recorded message from Commissioner Murman at the first one. We'd like to think that all the county commissioners would want to engage with the general public on this issue.

Regarding the issue of public participation, I am not aware of any goals or expectations set up front by the county regarding public participation. All we heard at PLG meetings was the need for "robust public outreach" but no one defined what that is. With the amount of tax dollars we're paying Parsons and PR consultant Beth Leytham, the county should have discussed upfront with Parsons and Leytham some estimate of the number of people they expected to reach and wanted to reach to participate in the public engagement effort. How do they actually measure success? They can't because no measuring stick was defined. 

As we noted, public participation was the big topic at Wednesday's PLG meeting. Bob Clifford of PB, reported that the community engagement was going "very well". Clifford's definition of "going well" is there's been 1400 participants over 26 meetings (an average of about 54 people per meeting), 1000 comments submitted, 2 tele-townhalls with over 12K attendees, 40 speaking engagements and over 2K Likes on the GoHillsborough Facebook page. The Tribune called this "a vigorous public outreach campaign". Do you?

Is that really considered a success and going well, especially for how much this effort is costing taxpayers? There seemed to be genuine concern from a number of PLG members at yesterday's meeting about whether this effort is reaching enough people. County Administrator Merrill stated that we're doing the "best we could with what we had" and that they would've needed a couple of million taxpayer dollars to do a full blown advertising campaign. Huh? Same old same old answer - I can do more just give me more money.... The intent of GoHillsborough wasn't to be an advertising campaign right? Or was it?

Commissioner Murman asked Clifford if there's been enough attendees participate that can justify the proposals that result or is there some formula regarding attendance that will justify the outcome? Clifford could only answer that they are getting consistent information. County Administrator Merrill stated it's the "quality" of the information not the quantity. What quality standard are they measuring against? Nobody knows. Since there were no requirements defined upfront, GoHillsborough can just make it up as they go along.

One of the biggest flaws of the GoHillsborough information gathering effort is it is NOT a data driven effort. It is an OPINION driven effort (and of course everyone who participates has one). The "options" buckets provided to give an opinion is very flawed. While there were numerous specific road option buckets from resurfacing to asset preservation to road widening to intersection improvements to ATMS (timing our lights); there was no such differentiating buckets for transit. Transit only included a big broad bucket for new/expanded transit routes, more frequencies and weekend service. 

What does new/expanded transit routes mean? Is it simply expanding our existing direct or express routes or expanding the MetroRapid BRT's? Or is it some form of new transit - managed bus toll lanes, dedicated lane, gold standard BRT or some other variation of BRT, streetcar, light rail, commuter rail, ferry service, monorail or something else? There is no way to accurately extrapolate from a big broad bucket for new/expanded transit routes to what kind of specific transit people actually meant selecting that option. It's as if GoHillsborough didn't want to give the public the ability to choose. Why not? Don't transit supporters, who keep advocating for more transportation "choices", want to be able to choose the specific mode of transit they prefer? 

That leads to another flaw - the use of the term "fixed guideways" on the maps shown at the meetings. According to the National Transit Database, the term "fixed guideways" is defined as:
Fixed Guideway (FG)A public transportation facility using and occupying: •   A separate right-of-way (ROW) or rail for the exclusive use of public transportation
To the general public "fixed guideways" implies fixed rail lines. There are fixed guideway transit routes reflected on the maps. However, nowhere in the meetings I attended was there any information about the AEComm transit assessment done last May. AEComm reported that Hillsborough County does not have the ridership to qualify for federal funds for high cost fixed guideways transit solutions such as rail or dedicated lane, gold standard BRT. They also stated that investments in transit should be done cautiously and prudently. In other words - invest in transit incrementally not boldly. That assessment was never publicly presented to the PLG. However, at the August PLG meeting it was stated that everyone should read it. The public can't read that assessment if they don't know it exists and don't have access to it. Taxpayers paid for that assessment. Why wasn't that assessment made available or at least a link provided to the assessment through the GoHillsborough campaign so the public could read it? Wasn't part of the GoHillsborough effort to educate the public? 

The current phase is starting to include some costs and some good information is provided regarding how much it costs per mile for road improvements or different types of transit. It is an eye opener to see how expensive transportation improvements actually are. However, additional cost-benefit information should be provided. The cost information that is missing is the cost per trip. We hope that Parsons provides cost per trip level of information when they provide their various recommended scenarios to the PLG. The cost per trip for a highly utilized asset, one that benefits many, is much lower than the cost per trip for an under utilized asset that benefits far fewer. That analysis should be included in how and where our tax dollars are spent.

Back to Thursday's Tribune article, they also reported
“I’ve consistently advocated over the past two years that we’ve had these PLG meetings that we have a measured and methodical approach,” Hagan told the group. “But I’ve got to tell you, I feel it’s time to bring this in for a landing.”
Advocating to march forward for another large pot of your tax dollars before that "methodical approach" has even been completed, before any plans have been presented, before any full discussion on what's to be funded has been done, before serious cost-benefit analysis has been done or before prioritizing our existing budget is not fair to the taxpayers. But it is the easy way out - don't make any of the tough, fiscal decisions of prioritizing our budget and looking at all funding options, just ask for a big pot more.

Perhaps one reason for low participation in the GoHillsborough campaign is that the million dollar taxpayer funded Parsons Brinckerhoff/Beth Leytham/Chappell-Roberts crony insiders "methodical approach" is simply cover for something that was already decided - the county wants another big pot of your money even before they know what to do with it. 

Does Commissioner Hagan "jumping the shark" simply confirm that? 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Pier design selection - How does the process work?

Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Coauthor of: So You Want Blog .

Here is the Florida State Statute that the City is operating under regarding the Pier Selection process.

Title XIX Chapter 287.055

Section (4) Competitive Selection (a, b)
(a)   For each proposed project, the agency shall evaluate current statements of qualifications and performance data on file with the agency, together with those that may be submitted by other firms regarding the proposed project, and shall conduct discussions with, and may require public presentations by, no fewer than three firms regarding their qualifications, approach to the project, and ability to furnish the required services.
(b) The agency shall select in order of preference no fewer than three firms deemed to be the most highly qualified to perform the required services. In determining whether a firm is qualified, the agency shall consider such factors as the ability of professional personnel; whether a firm is a certified minority business enterprise; past performance; willingness to meet time and budget requirements; location; recent, current, and projected workloads of the firms; and the volume of work previously awarded to each firm by the agency, with the object of effecting an equitable distribution of contracts among qualified firms, provided such distribution does not violate the principle of selection of the most highly qualified firms. The agency may request, accept, and consider proposals for the compensation to be paid under the contract only during competitive negotiations under subsection (5).

The first question that comes to mind is, can the City Council or the Administration delegate away the City Council's responsibility as defined in the State Statute? I do not see in the Statute anywhere the "Agency" is allowed to delegate their responsibility.

Second, did the City Council actually, by formal vote, delegate the final ranking of the top three Pier designs to the Selection Committee? Or is the Selection Committee's final output simply a report for

Saturday, April 18, 2015

St. Pete City Attorney to retire in January 2016

The St. Petersburg Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times are reporting that John Wolfe, St. Pete City Attorney, will retire in January 2016.

Chief Assistant Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch is Wolfe's recommendation for the City top legal position.

John has been with the City Legal Department since 1975 and became City Attorney in 2000.

Besides being an outstanding attorney, John has been a good friend and advisor to many on the City staff including me.

Jackie Kovilaritch, whom I have also had the opportunity to work with, is an excellent recommendation to lead the City’s Legal team. The City Legal Department will be in good hands.

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

The St. Pete Pier Selection Committee is in a tough spot

Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Coauthor of:
So You Want Blog .

The way I see it the five members of the St. Pete Pier Selection Committee, Kai Warren, Gary Mitchum, Melanie Lenz, James Jackson Jr. and Michael G. Meidel are in a tough spot.

Part of their dilemma is of their own making. Had they just ranked their three selections, regardless of the ranking, the spotlight would now be on City Council. Instead, as they did in the meeting where they could eliminate proposers, where they whiffed on the job and let way too many pass through to the next phase; they could not come to a decision at ranking time.

Now they are faced with a Mayor who wants to "build the damn Pier," a Chairman who figuratively jumped off the exiting Pier with his anti pyramid rant and the firestorm they created by at least hinting they are leaning toward ranking ALMA first the least popular design among the public.

There are a host of problems.

Some if not all of these Committee members may have to deal with the Chairman on future City projects or requests. As one who personally knows the Chairman, Mike Connors, has a long memory. Some Committee members may be looking past the Pier to the future.

The Mayor has, so far, stood behind the Connors' comments and he may be sending a message to the Committee or he may not, but it is clear the Mayor would not be disappointed to see the inverted Pyramid go. So do you buck the Mayor? Same problem as above.

Although the volume has died down a bit, a significant portion of those focused on the Pier are ready to pounce if the Committee's decision seems way off base to them.

The Committee, which seemed to be a bit hamstrung by the selection process, may be receiving some ease with comments from the Public and to some small degree the City Legal department. It will be interesting to watch the Chairman if the Committee begins to take a more liberal interpretation of the selection/ranking process, and what if any questions the Committee may have for the Legal department.

All in all a tough spot for five people who I believe genuinely wanted to be part of the Pier selection process.

This time around they need to have a short discussion; the less said the better, rank three and adjourn the meeting. A long winded rehash of the designs and any "new" information presented by the proposers or staff is a waste of time. It will just be fodder for what is likely to follow.

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

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The St. Pete Pier Process a way to the end

Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Coauthor of: So You Want Blog

Mayor Rick Kriseman's crass statement "build the damn Pier" is a testament to how little he and his deeply inexperienced senior staff fail to understand the office of a strong Mayor. Faced with the very process he created crumbling before his eyes the Mayor is frustrated and his staff is clueless.

This is not the time for barroom rhetoric; it is the time for insightful leadership. It's time to calm the waters not stir the pot. It's time to be a leader.

We will never know for sure whether Kriseman's handpicked Selection Committee Chairman Mike Connors screwed up with his rant against the current pier or was simply following orders like the good solider he is.

What is obvious is the Mayor's failure to step in and do some damage control regarding the Connors' rant and reassure the Selection Committee that they have his full support has left the people serving on the Selection Committee in a very difficult spot.

There has been a lot of talk about how the Committee can only evaluate on the merits of the proposers.

The objective of this formal selection process is to get a project built. One of the merits must be how the customer views the quality, suitability and functionality of the proposed design.

One Survey and two polls provide the answer.

The thing to keep in mind is the customer for this project is not the Mayor, not the Selection Committee, not Mike Connors, not the Mayor's Dream Team, not City Council; it is you the citizen and taxpayer. The Selection Committee must accord your opinion the merit it deserves.

There seems to be general agreement that all of the remaining designs can be constructed. The bigger question is which one can actually be approved and actually built?

The Selection Committee has a responsibility to evaluate all of the merits including the public's opinion, which is a functional merit, and that merit is simply acceptability.

It is unreasonable for the Selection Committee to rank a design team first when it is highly unlikely the project with that team will actually be approved due to lack of public and/or political support.

The five people on the Selection Committee have the opportunity to make a historic decision that will allow City Council to move St. Pete forward or create a firestorm which will distract the Kriseman administration, the City Council and the community for months if not years to come.

The Selection Committee can do the City of St. Petersburg a great service by simply following the rules and looking at all of the merits.

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

Saturday, April 11, 2015

There may be more options for City Council on Pier decision

Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Coauthor of:
So You Want Blog .

Steve Nichols Channel 13 has raised an interesting question in his Fox News 13 piece: What Happens if council can't agree on a Pier design? 
Steve explores the issues raised by William Ballard in his Letter to City Council which is reproduced in its entirety below.


To:  The Honorable Charlie Gerdes, Chair, and Members of City Council of
        St. Petersburg, Florida                       

From: William C. Ballard, a resident and registered voter of the City

Date: April 9, 2015

Subject:   Options for City Council in the event the pier design selection committee report   to Council accords the number one ranking to a design concept which was not  favored by the City’s voters (as determined by the City’s own non-scientific  survey and confirmed by St. Pete Polls scientific survey)

The writer is a licensed attorney in the state of Florida, but he is writing only in his capacity as a citizen urging a course of action upon his city’s governing body.  No reader should regard the writer’s statements or opinions as legal advice directed at him or her.  For advice on the legality of the courses of action discussed in this memorandum, consult your own attorney.

Under Article III of our municipal charter, all legislative powers are vested in City Council.  The Mayor is the chief administrative official.  City administration can recommend, only Council can legislate.  Based on the conduct, on March 20th, of the City administration’s representative, who chairs the pier design selection committee, it appears obvious that City administration is determined that the inverted pyramid will not remain on our waterfront and that the selection committee is being steered to achieve that result.  The committee chair’s dismissal of all pier businesses other than those operated by the Gonzmarts as “unsuccessful” despite many of them having sustained themselves,

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Lunch at the Rowdies Den

I was in downtown St. Pete on Tuesday about lunchtime so I dropped into the new Rowdies Den, a Rowdies/soccer themed sports bar. The Rowdies Den is located at the corner of 1st Ave South and Second Street. That's the former Midtown Sundries location.

If you are expecting a typical Bill Edwards do over, you're in for a surprise. It looks like they closed the deal, got the keys, walked in, dusted every thing off, painted the vertical walls green, put up some Rowdies memorabilia and hung out the "open" sign.

Everything else is pretty much vintage Midtown.

There is a really neat soccer ball mural on the wall in the main dining room.

The menu is typical bar fare; prices are pretty much in line with downtown St. Pete. 

I had a Bills Burger($9). It came with homemade chips. The burger was big and good, done just like I ordered it, but the chips were a bit over cooked.

Biggest issue was the service. There were a only few people having lunch and it shouldn't take 20-25 minutes plus to get a burger and chips on a weekday when most people are on a workday 1 hour or so lunch. The guys down the bar from me, who already there when I walked in and had ordered, finally got their orders. They wolfed down some of it and had to leave.

Midtown was never noted for its speedy service at lunch so maybe it's the kitchen layout.

Given what I would expect to be really big game night crowds (ala Fergs), the Edward's team better take a close look at the kitchen and the kitchen help. If they picked up the old team, it may be time for a little recruiting.

The Den has only been open for a few days' maybe things will pick up. 

Some things that would help and not cost much: change out that really ugly hostess station and put in an actual ticket window, maybe a replica from Al Lang and actually sell tickets.

It could be open every day, would add a real "game" feel to the place and would probably put a few butts in seats.

Given the way things are going, if Bill and Stu are on speaking terms, they might even be able to sell some Rays game day tickets too.

It would be kind of neat to stop by for pregame, buy your tickets and head over to the stadium.

If they are going to keep the big room game area, which I have always thought was a huge waste of space, at least get a couple of soccer themed games.

Finally some of the old Midtown furniture could stand to be replaced to give the place a fresher look and more millennial appeal.

Edwards also picked up the parking garage above and behind the Den. It is well signed and will be open to provide additional parking for Rowdies games.

The menu is cute, the food pretty good the prices are reasonable, but service, as in all sports bars, is going to be the key. I doubt the Den can make it on game night business alone, and week day lunch and happy hour will be critical.

If things don't improve the Den could be lonely place when the Rowdies aren't playing. 

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