Thursday, December 29, 2016

Dump Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long's Push for a Regional Council of Cronies

"They" are at it again. And it's all to get more of your tax dollars.
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long
Because Hillsborough and Pinellas have overwhelmingly defeated sales tax hikes, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long and some powers to be are pushing regionalism in another attempt to merge HART and PSTA as reported by the Times back in October.
The move comes on the heels of the federal government's insistence on one regional set of transportation priorities similar to those serving metro areas such as Denver, Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The government wants one regional plan that would cover 20 years of expected growth in overlapping metro areas. Local leaders would have two years to devise a plan once the federal rules are finalized.
We agree there are too many entities and agencies who have their fingers in the transportation pie but the answer is not to consolidate them into some regional super agency. Bigger in government is never better. Bigger agencies result in a more costly, less accountable entity. 

Bigger regional government agencies puts the decision makers an arms length from those impacted, especially the taxpayers. Regional entities enables greater influence by special interests and reduces local influence and local control.

The push for merging HART and PSTA is always coming from Pinellas County. 

Why? Follow the money. 

PSTA has been mismanaged for years and is a fiscally mismanaged agency and a mess. Instead of fixing its problems, PSTA wants a bailout and some powers to be are willing to be their accomplices for the bailout.

Beware Hillsborough County taxpayers. We do not want to be part of PSTA's mess or paying to fix their mess. PSTA needs a big housecleaning and a new governing Board appointed with a majority of citizens not elected officials.

HART and PSTA already can and do collaborate. When it makes fiscal sense, they can play in the same sandbox to achieve a mutually beneficial result. 

With the Obama Administration push to regionalize MPO's, some powers to be are trying to ride those coattails with another HART-PSTA merger push. 

However, our own Florida Department of Transportation formally sent their comment August 17th to the Feds (Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration) requesting the Obama Admin MPO mandatory merger rule be suspended. Our state MPO Advisory Council aka MPOAC also commented in opposition to the Obama Admin MPO merger rule. The MPOAC has a representative from each of the 27 MPO's in the state of Florida.

Why did the Hillsborough County Commission vote on August 17, the very same day FDOT sent their letter opposing the MPO merger rule, to send a letter to the Feds supporting the Obama Admin MPO mandatory merger rule. (We have asked for a copy of the letter Commissioner Miller sent to the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration.)
Hillsborough BOCC vote on 8/17/2016 to send letter to Feds
supporting Obama Admin MPO mandatory merger rule
(click to enalarge)
And more odd is Commissioner Miller sits on the Governing Board of the MPOAC.  

Why did our commissioners support the Obama regional MPO merger rule? How could Miller and our county commissioners miss the FDOT and MPOAC letters?

In addition, this MPO merger rule was being foisted on us right before an election as the Obama Administration tries to push as much rule-making and regulations through before Obama leaves office.

And now things are about to change. There will be a brand new Trump Administration and Republican Congress who may have very different thoughts about all the rules and regulations thrust on us by the Obama Admin. The push for regionalism may just get stopped in its tracks.

None of that stopped HART from drafting a proposed inter-local agreement with HART as a result of Long's regional proposal.  But kudos to HART Board member Karen Jaroch. who according to this Saintpetersblog post, pointed out her concerns about the poorly written, vague proposed inter-local agreement with PSTA. Putting Hillsborough County taxpayers at risk is certainly not the answer to solving any problem. 

PSTA, who wants a bailout, is ready to jump on board. This Saintpetersblog post reported on December 7:
Members of the governing board of Pinellas’ bus transportation authority voted unanimously Wednesday to develop an agreement to coordinate with the Hillsborough transit authority. 
The agreement, which would be forwarded to the State Legislature, is a step to creating a regional council of governments that’s been proposed by Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long.
This was also reported:
Long said the proposal is a “framework” for merging several governmental agencies into one regional organization that can provide regional solutions to transit, land and economic development, affordable housing and other region-wide issues. Such a group, Long said, could provide “better, more nimble” solutions to problems.
This is eerily similar to what the Obama Admin did in 2009 when they created the HUD-DOT-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities:
On June 16, 2009, EPA joined with HUD and DOT to help improve access to affordable housing, more transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide.
Has bigger government ever been better or more nimble?

Pinellas County Commissioner Long started this regionalism push but is she playing the proxy role for Senator Jack Latvala? Latvala already forced taxpayers to TWICE pay for studies about merging HART and PSTA. Merging was rejected after both studies.

The key driver for pushing regionalism is money.

Long admitted she believes regional power is the way to procure more state and federal funding. As the December SaintPetersblog post reported (emphasis mine):
Long would fold PSTA, HART, and other transportation providers such as the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, ferryboat operations and others under the regional council of government. Certain functions, or entire organizations, could be consolidated within the council of governments concept. 
The regional council of governments membership would include mayors, county commissioners, council members, business/private sector leaders and advisory staff members from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
What Commissioner Long has proposed is a regional council of cronies who's goal is to pursue as much taxpayer money as possible for costly transit/train solutions. 

We know who the members would be - the same electeds who want to unnecessarily raise our taxes, the crony business leader special interests (and we know and they know exactly who they are) and the entrenched unelected bureaucrats who want to grow their bureaucracy and their power.

And since the Times has supported every failed attempt to raise our taxes to fund boondoggles, it's no surprise they weigh in on December 20th with this:  Editorial: Encouraging Tampa Bay transit talks. Let's breakdown down what the Times said (emphasis mine):
After several failed starts, Tampa Bay may be finally starting to get its act together on mass transit. The transit agencies on both sides of the bay are looking at more ways to cooperate — a step toward improving regional bus service, saving time and taxpayer money and laying a foundation for new regional transit. County leaders in Pinellas and Hillsborough are also considering how to sharpen the region's focus and make the area more competitive for state and federal transit moneyThere is plenty of work to do and details to iron out, but the work behind the scenes is encouraging.
The quiet discussions are particularly reassuring in the wake of three failed transit initiatives in the bay area in recent years. They also are in stark contrast to the controversy around Tampa Bay Express, the proposed overhaul of the interstate system that calls for toll lanes and a massive highway rebuild over parts of neighborhoods near downtown Tampa.
The movement sets the table for local leaders to be prepared when the state completes its regional premium transit study in 2018. That study should offer big fixes for regional mobility, and by having a more responsive government in place the region will be better positioned to move quickly on big solutions. 
Long and other leaders across the bay, including HART chief executive Katharine Eagan, are bringing order, direction and a sense of urgency to the region's transit efforts. This approach has the opportunity to improve bus service, ease road congestion, lay a path for regional rail, save tax money and make for smarter growth, easing the costly impacts of sprawl. To voters looking for a better strategy before agreeing to tax themselves more for transit, these are positive developments. 
There are more particulars to deal with, and Tampa Bay is still a long way from a robust regional transportation authority and one common plan for mass transit that includes light rail.
Again PSTA and HART already collaborates and if there are more places where they can collaborate, that is fine, but no consolidation is needed to collaborate. And no regional council of cronies is needed either. Who thinks a regional council of cronies is "more responsive government"?

Considering trust is such a huge issue in Tampa Bay, it is appalling that the Times likes "quiet discussions" and that all the work for Long's scheme was being done "behind the scenes" outside of Sunshine with little transparency. Why? Because they are part of the council of cronies.

TBX was not schemed behind the scenes in "quiet discussions". Expanding the interstate has been in FDOT's plan for decades, documentation was published for years and numerous opportunities for public input was provided. FDOT already owns most of the right of way for TBX. We understand most of the remaining right of way near downtown needed for TBX are tenant-occupied property owned by investors not owner-occupied. 

The Times does not even use the term transportation because their agenda is focused solely on getting more state and federal money for transit…….when ridership at both PSTA and HART has been declining for several years now….and vehicle miles travelled is increasing. 

Has the Times reported about the declining transit ridership of both PSTA and HART? Nope! But SaintPetersblog and Tampa Bay Guardian have.

The Times admits the regional council of cronies is to pursue higher taxes and more state and federal grant money for costly trains.

How absurd to think that a regional council of cronies is a strategy to convince taxpayers to tax themselves more for trains they will never ride.

But the Tampa Bay power brokers know the runway for trying to fund any costly rail solutions is quickly shrinking.

At the Hillsborough County local delegation meeting held December 16th, State Senator Tom Lee asked Katherine Eagan, HART's CEO who spoke at the meeting, that very question about whether emerging and evolving technology is making pursuing costly fixed guidways/rail solutions irrelevant. 

Eagan responded by honestly stating "We're so far behind, we're ahead…"  

We appreciate her honesty. It is good that Tampa Bay taxpayers are not stuck paying billions and millions into perpetuity for costly solutions that are becoming irrelevant and few will use. 

The push for costly light rail and trains is so out of touch with reality. 

The train is already off the track and we're not looking back. 

Innovation and technology are driving the future of transportation. That is what we are looking forward to and what we should embrace.

We'd all be better off getting rid of (not consolidating) some of the bureaucracies and we can start by eliminating TBARTA.

No regional council of cronies schemed behind the scenes is needed to fix our transportation issue. 

Long's proposal should be dumped ASAP.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Janet Long - A Regional Council of Governments to Manage Bay Area Public Transit

Long is using a mandate from the federal government to propose a regional transportation governing board that would have taxing authority.

St. Petersburg, Fl
Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Author: In Search of Robin

Janet Long, Chairperson of the Pinellas County Commission, has been struggling with the dysfunctional nature of public transit governance for some time.

Here is some background from local-area print and social media:

Long has been frustrated with the political players in public transit in the bay area such as: the Metropolitan Planning Organizations in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties; the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Pinellas Suncoast Regional Transit Authority; the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.

However, Long's real frustration has been with the public's ability to control the public transportation process by denying property and sales tax referendums that support ideas like Pinellas GreenLight and Go Hillsborough.

I have personally seen Ms. Long's ire raised at those who opposed these poorly designed special interest driven initiatives at PSTA Board meetings.

Long's latest attempt to go around the taxpayers is supported by the federal government's insistence on one regional set of transportation priorities to secure federal funding.

The federal government wants one regional plan that would cover 20 years of expected growth in overlapping metro areas such as the bay area. Local leaders would have two years to devise a plan once the federal rules are finalized.

Long is seizing on this mandate from the federal government to propose a regional transportation governing authority or commission that would have taxing authority.

Read that again: would have taxing authority

Should Long's plan come to fruition the public could lose the ability to control the purse strings through referendum, and you can look for light rail and every other inefficient form of transportation promoted by the big public transportation players to show up with all of us footing the bill.

Putting together a political shift of this magnitude will take a while but local City and 
 County officials weary of dealing with the transportation problem may be more willing to turn control over to this super commission than you might think.

Everyone who fought Pinellas GreenLight, Go Hillsborough and the other taxing referendums for public transportation need to go on high alert.

Waiting until Long and her political partners have this on the agenda in the State legislature will be way too late. 

The Federal mandate is real, and it needs to be addressed, but doing it in the backrooms of county and local governments is a big mistake. The public needs to be involved in every jurisdiction, and every elected official needs to be held accountable for his or her decisions in this process.

Unless you want a new and potentially quite large line item for "Transportation" showing up on your bill from the property appraiser sometime  in the next two years you better keep an eye on Pinellas County Commission Chairperson Janet Long and her "Regional Council of Governments" idea.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Merrill's Contract Extended to 2020 Two Years Before It Was Set to Expire - But Who Knew?

While everyone focused on the election, the County Commissioners were busy taking some actions that probably flew under the radar of most of us.

The October 19th BOCC meeting included an agenda item to complete the annual performance evaluations for County Administrator Mike Merrill and County Attorney Chip Fletcher. That is normal procedure.

However……who knew the commissioners would also be addressing a motion to extend County Administrator Mike Merrill's contract to 2020? 
County Administrator Mike Merrill
The action was led by then Chair Les Miller. These actions do not occur without prior orchestration behind the green curtain. We can infer who orchestrated it.

Let's back up to November 13, 2014. That BOCC meeting also was addressing Merrill's annual performance evaluation. At that time, Merrill's contract was set to expire at the end of 2015. According to the video/transcript of that meeting on the county's HTV website, a motion was passed that day to extend his contract for three years through the end of 2018. 

Commissioner Miller initially motioned to extend Merrill's contract for two yeas through 2017 but the motion was amended by Commissioner Murman to extend for three years through 2018 which was passed unanimously.

This action in 2014 was fully reported that day by the Times (emphasis mine):
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill earned rave reviews from county commissioners again Thursday, reinforcing his stature as one of the most powerful non elected public officials in Tampa Bay. 
Commissioners asked Merrill, 61, to stay on the job until 2018 and re-evaluated his $217,360 salary, implying he could be in for a significant raise. Merrill's contract was not set to expire until December 2015, but commissioners didn't want to wait. 
What was going on in 2014? 

County Administrator Mike Merrill was leading the transportation initiative for a sales tax hike and in November had just handed Parsons Brinckerhoff a million dollar no bid contract to start the Go Hillsborough campaign. 

Read the transcript or watch the video of that November meeting. The commissioners heaped accolades on Merrill that day including this bizarre statement by then BOCC Chair Commissioner Sharpe: "you [Merrill] just have a remarkable way of leading this county, you have a disarming personality."

"Disarming" is defined as removing feelings of distrust through charm. That statement and all those accolades of 2014 seem a bit stomach churning now after the failed, costly Go Hillsborough debacle Merrill led that created more distrust.

Back to the October 19, 2016 BOCC meeting. When the agenda item for Merrill's performance evaluation came up, Chair Miller handed off the gavel and made a motion to extend Merrill's contract, that was set to expire at the end of 2018, to June 30, 2020 - conveniently when Merrill's drop program expires.

Not one commissioner questioned why they should extend Merrill's contract more than two years before it was set to expire. Not one commissioner questioned why they should take such action right before the election of a new Board. Was that right? 

But what a deal for Merrill!

Few people in Hillsborough probably know Merrill's contract was extended October 19th. We searched online but could not find any media reporting about it except for a liveblog post made by Times reporter Caitlin Johnson during the meeting.
Times reporter blogs about October 19, 2016 BOCC organizational meeting
However, Johnson never included anything about the Board's action to extend Merrill's contract in her actual Times article, nor did Steve Contorno in his Times article. 

The Times wrote two articles about the October 19 BOCC meeting and the only thing reported by both was about angry transit activists showing up for public comment.   

The Times made such a splash about Merrill's contract extension in November 2014 when he was leading the Go Hillsborough campaign for a sales tax hike - that the Times supported. 

And last month the Times enthusiastically reported about the evaluation and salary increase of Mark Woodard, the County Administrator for Pinellas County. 

Why didn't the Times consider Merrill's contract extension in October newsworthy? Why did the Times ignore real news from that meeting? Didn't the public deserve to know Merrill's contract was extended two years before it was to expire and that the action was taken right before an election that would create a new Board?

When elected officials take unnecessary important actions right before an election that would create a new Board and the media ignores the real news but creates news narratives to fit their specific agenda….

That is why Americans distrust of the media and government is so "YUGE".

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Local Busybody Leytham Wants A Sales Tax Hike Boondoggle on 2018 Ballot

What was front and center during this election? Cronyism, corruption, rejection of political insiders and a huge lack of trust in our government and the media. Hmmmm,,,,Sound familiar close to home?  Like the crony, corrupted Go Hillsborough campaign? 

While the American electorate clearly stated they were sick and tired of the crony, corrupt political status quo, the Tampa Bay Times appears tone deaf. They recently published this article Backers of Hillsborough's failed transportation referendum see missed opportunity on Election Day
Backers of the referendum now lament what they see as a missed opportunity to capitalize on an electorate they believe would have viewed the referendum favorably.
Before it failed, proponents said internal polls showed support as high as 65 percent. And it had backing from business groups like the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. 
"When I saw Hillsborough County vote for Hillary Clinton, when I saw Hillsborough County elect a new Democratic state attorney, when I saw those types of votes, I truly believed that if it was on the ballot we would've passed it," County Commissioner Les Miller said.
Well…..the Times did have to backtrack a bit on their narrative
It's entirely possible Hillsborough's proposal, dubbed Go Hillsborough, would not have survived a negative campaign and grassroots opposition from anti-tax and anti-rail factions, just as they helped defeat a 2010 referendum and a similar 2014 ballot initiative in Pinellas County. It faced headwinds, too, from some traditionally liberal groups who felt the proposal lacked a substantive transit investment.
Of course, the Times refused to name the grassroots opposition who led efforts to defeat the 2010 and 2014 sales tax hike boondoggles - NoTaxForTracks. The Times refused to speak with those who have been consistently publicly fighting for fiscal responsibility and opposed putting the sales tax hike on the 2016 ballot.

The Times tries to create a false narrative that equates the schizophrenic voting in Hillsborough County as a missed opportunity that local voters would vote for a sales tax hike…


Who pushed this narrative with the Times? The backers of the proposed sales tax hike referendum? Those backers included deep pocketed special interests, the Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Commissioners Les Miller and Ken Hagan, Mayor Buckhorn, the Times editorial board and the cozy confidante of them all Beth Leytham.
As demonstrated by Tuesday's election, Hillsborough is inching from purple to blue in ways that should embolden leaders to push for it sooner rather than later, said Beth Leytham, the public relations consultant who worked on Go Hillsborough. 
"You can't go back, but I do believe it would've passed," Leytham said, "And what we just saw gives you a really good reason to look at 2018 instead of 2020."
Can't make this stuff up. The very person who led the failed, crony and corrupted Go Hillsborough campaign thinks a sales tax hike would have passed this election. There is no evidence to support such hypothetical as even deep Blue Broward County rejected a tax hike. 

Let's break this down.

The Times continues to ignore that trust, especially regarding our county budget and where the county spends our existing revenues, continues to be a big issue in Hillsborough County. 

Instead of pushing false narratives from a politically well connected PR person, the Times should be interrogating our county budget. The Times continues to refuse to ask our county commissioners tough questions about our budget or hold them accountable. They would better serve their readers if they stopped regurgitating talking points from an unelected bureaucrat, County Administrator Mike Merrill.

The Times once again goes to the losers to start creating a new narrative while intentionally avoiding the winners who can shatter that narrative. Remember Leytham was told during the Go Hillsborough campaign to mute NoTaxForTracks….(The reality today is "they" can't.)

The public is well aware of the politically well connected Leytham's very cozy relationship with the Times, Commissioner Hagan and Mayor Buckhorn, all who support a sales tax hike. Leytham serves as an information traffic cop between the media and numerous political elites and special interests. 

So hold onto your wallets because Leytham, our highly paid local busybody Gladys Kravitz, wants to put another sales tax hike boondoggle on the 2018 ballot. 
Nosy busybody Gladys Kravitz
Since busybody Leytham has been on the losing side of every sales tax hike initiative in Tampa Bay, why does her opinion matter?

Perhaps busybody Leytham wants to jump start a PR campaign for 2018 now so the Times, who wants a sales tax hike, obliges with this article.

Maybe busybody Leytham, who was paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars leading the failed crony Go Hillsborough campaign, is looking for another lucrative PR contract another campaign could land her.

But….Busybody Leytham is the epitome of the crony political insider this election clearly rejected. 

And the Times appears to not get it. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Inaugural Voyage of the Tampa Bay Ferry

The ferry simply picks you up at a dock and drops you off on the other dock across the bay. 

St. Petersburg, Fl
Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD

The Cross Bay Ferry not to be confused with the Tampa Bay Ferry and Water Taxi that operates out of John's Pass on Treasure Island, made its inaugural voyage across Tampa bay Tuesday with no regular members of the public just the political elite and their high-roller friends.

The Cross Bay Ferry is a joint effort with Pinellas County, Hillsborough County, The City of Tampa and the City of St. Petersburg all chipping in to fund the start up.

It is a great idea to look at this type of alternate transportation. 

A pilot project of this nature can define many issues. Principal among them is the last mile issue, which always comes up in point to point public transit. That question simply is how do I get to and back from my actual destination?

Cab, bus, UBER, Lyft, walk, bicycle? 

The ferry simply picks you up at a dock and drops you off on the other dock across the bay. 

Now what?

Hopefully, this pilot project will give some insight into how that problem is solved.

The general thinking at the moment is initially the ferry will be a round trip tourist attraction that could possibly morph into a commuter option.

The round trip price is $20 per head and by the time, you add parking at your departure site and ground transportation at your arrival site the whole trip could get a bit expensive for daily commuters.

It is an interesting idea, probably a waste of taxpayer money, but the thought of Rick Kriseman doing a Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic) moment in the bow of the Ferry, while directing the captain to dodge the flotsam and jetsam his City dumped into the bay almost makes it a worthwhile investment.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Opponents of Largo Zip Line Want Objections Addressed

We posted here previously about the proposed zip line in Largo that residents nearby opposed. The next step was the September 6th 2nd pubic hearing.

What happened?

Residents who lived nearby and who were impacted the most showed up again on September 6th to voice their opposition and request the commission reject the "tree adventure" proposal.

To their dismay, the Largo city commission voted 5-2 to pass Ordinance 2016-82 authorizing the city to lease city property at Highlands Recreation Complex for a tree adventure course (aka zip line) to vendor Treeumph.  A copy of the ordinance can be found here.

Zip line approved by Largo city commission at
Highlands Recreation Center
The video of the September 6th city county meeting is here. At 18:35 of the video Recreation Center Director Joan Byrne made her introductory remarks stating, somewhat defensively, about what steps the city had taken over the last couple of months on the issues.

The big question that seems to still loom large is how did this proposed project get so far along, to the point where the city was being asked to sign a contract with Treeumph, before the neighboring residents were actively engaged?

Public comment on the ordinance began at 31.11 of the video and most who spoke were opposed.

The reasons stated by those who spoke in opposition were many, including noise, traffic, parking issues, liability issues, reduction of the quality of life to those most impacted, were all the appropriate studies done, is the "tree adventure" actually an amusement park, questions about the contract and numerous other reasons. Again, a big concern regarded the process used by the city to propose the project and continue moving it along. The opposition felt the process was not transparent, many did not know a "tree adventure" included a zip line so close to their private property and that those most impacted were not appropriately notified and engaged early in the process.

There were several who spoke in support of the zip line and thought it would be good for property values in the area, be good for business, be a positive revenue generator for the city and be an asset to the city.

We understand there are no restrictions on where the revenue from this project can be spent or any requirements that a portion of the revenue be spent on the Highlands Recreation complex where the "tree adventure" zip line would be.

After the public hearing, commissioners Holmes and Carroll voiced their concerns about the project. Commissioner Carroll appeared concerned over the process by essentially asking how would this have been handled differently if this was being requested by a private developer. The final vote was 5-2, with Holmes and Carroll voting no.

However, that vote did not stop the determined opposition.

They continued to research the issue, interrogate the vendor contract, interrogate the process and procedures and sent a formal Letter of Objection to Ordinance 2016-82 dated October 4, 2016 to the Largo city commission stating numerous specific objections.

The zip line opponents then attended the October 6 city commission meeting to ask the commission during public comment to reconsider the zip line ordinance.

The Eye was there. One spokesperson for the opposition group publicly read the formal opposition letter they had sent to the commissioners. A copy of that letter (click to enlarge) is below or can be found here.

Letter of Objection to Largo zip line project 

Section 1 of Ordinance 2016-82 states the term of the lease is 5 years. Largo city commission cannot approve a lease longer than 5 years without voter approval. However, the objection letter states that the city lease with Treeumph presented to the commissioners is actually a 10 year lease with a schedule of termination payments amortized over 10 years.

It is interesting that in 2014 eight Largo Charter amendments were proposed by the Largo Charter Review Committee. The Largo city commission voted in July 2014 to put all eight amendments as referendums on the 2014 general election ballot.

Largo amendment #4 asked to change the current provision requiring a referendum for city leases greater than five years to requiring a referendum for city leases greater than 10 years (see below).
Largo referendum on 2014 ballot 
That referendum was defeated in 2014 54-46 according to election results from the Pinellas County SOE.
Largo question #4 defeated 
Since the referendum was defeated, there must be a concern from Largo voters that they do want some control over these decisions.

According to the zip line opponents, no permits have been issued for the project and the project has not started. They contend the lease is actually a 10 year lease that requires voter approval.

At the October 6 Largo city commission, we caught up with Largo resident Nancy Lamagna, a spokesperson for the zip line opponents who read the Letter of Objection at the meeting. Nancy provided some additional insight regarding the opponents concerns and some next steps they would like to see occur.

A key issue could be whether the Treeumph lease is a 10 year lease that requires voter approval.

Will the city of Largo address the specific objections raised in the Letter of Objection sent by the opponents and the objections that continue to be raised by those most impacted by the zip line project?

Lamagna hopes they will.

Because the Largo zip line issue apparently is not going away.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Budget Shell Game In the Twilight Zone at County Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did it occur?

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

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

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

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

Where did this reprioritized debt come from?

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

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

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


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

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

Hmmm….Reprioritizing debt is considered an enhancement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The irony of all this is amazing. 

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

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

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

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

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

That is not what we got. 

What we got is a budget shell game.

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

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

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

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

But has County Center turned into the Twilight Zone?

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Let's recap what happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That request vanished into thin air too.

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

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

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

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