Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Time For Budget Control Not Sales Tax Hike

The county has told the public for years the county has no money for roads. The county has spent over 3 years focusing on transportation. The commissioners felt the transportation issue was so critical they created the Transportation and Economic Development initiative and the Transportation Policy Leadership Group in March 2013.

The county handed crony consultants $1.35 million for a phony Go Hillsborough campaign to sell another huge sale tax hike. The county fed the media and public that transportation was the #1 issue in the county. 
Display at August 18, 2015 Go Hillsborough meeting
The county's actions does not match their own rhetoric.

In an article titled While struggling to pay for roads and buses, Hillsborough commissioners funneled millions to their own projects, the Tampa Bay Times reported Saturday:
Since 2013, commissioners have put aside at least $115 million to build new parks and recreation centers, launch incentives for historic preservation and the film industry and provide assistance to local museums and charities.
Our local roads, the county's largest asset, has the biggest funding gap and the commissioners know that. However, the commissioners continued funding lower priority wants over funding our local roads and transportation needs.

Our county is rapidly growing again with new construction getting added to the tax rolls, our housing values going up again and more people working with our unemployment rate now at 4.2 percent. However, the county held our local road funding hostage refusing to fund the county's largest asset. The county refused to re-divert our growing property tax revenues that historically always funded our roads back to funding our roads and transportation needs. 

The county had over $100 million of new revenues for FY2016, including between $40 and $50 million of new recurring revenue and the $23 million one-time BP oil spill settlement money, but no money for roads.

As the Times reported:
But as county revenues rebounded, transportation spending remained relatively flat. Meanwhile, commissioner spending jumped from $9 million in 2012 to $38.5 million in 2013 (emphasis mine).
Instead of funding the county's highest priorities first, the county preferred to spend on "wants" not "needs". No one else can manage their budget in this manner and neither should the county. 

Reality is the county has not been honest brokers about our budget. 

Some commissioners want to defend their spending as the Times reported:
But Hagan defended the most expensive park on the list: the Brandon sports complex. He said the park, a public-private partnership with Tampa Electric Co., will draw national youth tournaments and should eventually generate revenue for the county. 
"There is some merit to that logic" of cutting back on commissioner priorities, Hagan said. "But you need to balance transportation needs with all of our needs and services."
Since when did funding new expensive parks become a need? Especially when the county refuses to fund and maintain a primary responsibility of local government, our local roads, that 98% of us use everyday. 

The TBT list of spending projects is just the tip of the iceberg. The Times does not begin to mention all the money the county has spent on studies, consultants, nebulous economic development projects, subsidizing special interests and handing millions of our tax dollars to millionaires and billionaires.

The commissioners are elected to make tough decisions. They should be providing disciplined oversight of our growing county budget to ensure the county is funding it's highest priorities first. The commissioners have oversight responsibility not the unelected bureaucrats.

When the commissioners stop pursuing an unnecessary sales tax hike and start focusing on our existing budget to fund our roads and transportation needs, then we will know that transportation is truly the county's #1 issue.

We need budget control now before the county ever asks taxpayers for a sales tax hike!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Don't Pay Twice! Stop the Sales Tax Hike Madness June 9th!

Did you think the sales tax hike was sent packing at the public hearing on April 27th?

Surprise (or not)! The county commission scheduled a public hearing for June 9th, 6pm at County Center for another sales tax hike public hearing.

However, after the last two weeks of commission meetings, who knows what the public is actually supposed to weigh in on at the public hearing. The commissioners first brought back a 1/2% 15 year sales tax almost immediately after they voted NO 4-3 to reject a 20 and 30 year sales tax hike at the April 27, 2016 public hearing.

Last week 5 and 10 year sales tax hikes were brought up and also a 1/4 % sales tax hike were brought up. Then at Wednesday's BOCC meeting, Commissioner Miller brought the 20 and 30 year sales tax hike the commissioners previously rejected back on the table. Ridiculous! Makes the commission look foolish and desperate.

When asked after the commission workshop Wednesday, County Attorney Chip Fletcher said he was noticing the public hearing generically for a sales tax hike up to 1/2% and no term is included in the notice.

Voila! The public can weigh in on any percent of a sales tax hike up to 1/2 percent and for any term.

The problem is no one knows what a 5, 10, 15 year sales tax funds or what a 1/4% sales tax funds.

When asked after the commission workshop Wednesday what transportation plan do all these sales tax hike iterations fund, County Administrator Mike Merrill simply said the plan is the plan.

How can that be? At last weeks BOCC meeting Merrill stated the streetcar and the Brandon and South County taj mahal BRT's would be funded in the 15 year sales tax hike. At Wednesday's workshop meeting Merrill stated they would not be in the 15 year sales tax hike.

So what's in and what's out? No one knows but the commissioners are expecting the public to weigh in on something.

Now it is 2 weeks before another sales tax hike public hearing already scheduled and all these iterations of a sales tax hike are up for grabs. Why weren't they discussed during the Policy Leadership Group meetings?  Wasn't Parsons Brinckerhoff supposed to vet all the funding options with the public?  We (taxpayers) paid the Parsons/Leytham team $1.35 million to do public engagement that included an entire phase on funding options.

That was simply for show because the Parsons/Leytham team came back with the only solution they were directed to come back with - another 30 year sales tax hike boondoggle. No true consultant ever comes back to their client with only one take it or leave it solution. Real consultants always provide several alternatives for their clients to consider.

Using taxpayer money for a campaign to increase taxes against the taxpayer is called electioneering. If that is not illegal, it is unethical and not being honest brokers with the public.

So here we are almost to June and now the commissioners are wanting to discuss other funding options than a 30 year sales tax hike boondoggle. Will there finally be an honest discussion about using the growth of our existing budget first to fund our roads and transportation needs? We hope so.

The reality is there is no transportation plan. The county just has a laundry list of projects.

In the meantime, this second public hearing looks more like a desperation attempt by the sales tax hike and spend collaborators.

This commission must start funding our highest priorities first within our existing growing budget! As we posted here, the county has money. 

Taxpayers should not be asked to raise their sales tax for money the county already has. We do not want to pay twice. That would simply create a county slush fund for spending on who knows what.
Taxpayers should not be asked to raise their taxes for
money the county already has
Show up on June 9th, 6pm, at the public hearing at County Center.

Stop the sales tax hike madness once and for all.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Bay area transportation – The real problem

Put a roads only initiative on the ballot and it stands a good chance of passing.

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

They just don't get it. The people of Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties are not interested in light rail. 

The developers are; the real-estate agents are; TBARTA is the MPOs are but the public just does not buy it.

The reasons are simple. Light rail is costly, light rail tears up neighborhoods. Light rail never delivers the results it promises and most importantly light rail is a technology whose time has passed.

The latest message begging for money for light rail comes from a caterwauling Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn who said. "It's about more than just this referendum. It has a huge impact on any potential mass transit; rail in particular, throughout our entire region."

Read more from Catilin Johnston Tampa Bay Times: Hillsborough transportation stalemate leaves rest of Tampa Bay in limbo.

Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director Whit Blanton said, "We seem to spend a lot of effort and a lot of time but we don't seem to gain any real traction,"

The real issue for the politicians is the people who actually pay the taxes are smart enough to know that an investment in light rail is throwing money down a rat hole.

There is no "traction" Mr. Blanton because your concept is inefficient and out dated.

If the politicians and the unelected leaders of TBARTA and the MPOs want to see the real problem all, they need to do is take a walk down the hall to the smallest room in their house, go through the door, turn on the light and look in the mirror. The problem is staring them in the face.

Put a road only initiative on the ballot and it stands a good chance of passing.

The public is not ready to fund transportation based (light rail) redevelopment so a bunch of developers can get rich, politicians can pad their political war chests and the public can pick up the tab for a rail system that is ineffective.

One only needs to look at all the transportation alternatives under development by some of the biggest transportation and technology companies in this country to know that building traditional light rail would be a huge mistake.

"My hands are tied," Buckhorn said. "It is a painful reminder that elections matter. If the legislature won't give me the ability to change the law (and authorize a city referendum), then the only people who can change the outcome are the voters who elect these commissioners."

And this is the guy who wants to be Governor.

It is painful to politicians when the public gets it right and there is nothing the poor elected folks can do to get their way. Sort of like a kid, jumping up and down is his crib and screaming.

Gloom and doom if we don't give the power players and developers a big pot of tax money to build their train.

The message has not worked so far, and it should not work in the future.

E-mail Doc at mail to: dr.gwebb@yahoo.com 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.


Monday, May 23, 2016

High-profile local transit advocacy group dissolves after filing no federal tax returns for 3 years

Cross posted with permission from the Tampa Bay Guardian

In an official filing with the State of Florida, the Hillsborough-based transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay, Inc. (CTB) voluntarily dissolved itself on April 26th. This came 11 days after a Guardian reporter wrote Hillsborough county commissioners with evidence that CTB never filed any federally required tax returns.

Announced Hillsborough County Commission candidate Brian Willis (pictured below) was CTB’s president at the deadlines for 3 out of the 4 tax returns that had to be filed, but never were filed. Willis is a real estate attorney at the Tampa law firm Shumaker, Loop and Kendrick. Willis has offered no comment as to why the returns required by federal law were not filed.
Brian Willis, candidate for
County Commission District 6
It was CTB who in January 2014 came up with the name “Go Hillsborough”, which is the name that Hillsborough County chose for its now troubled transportation plan. On April 27th, commissioners declined by 4-3 vote place it on the ballot this November, but may still place it on the ballot at a public hearing on June 9th. Go Hillsborough, if placed on the ballot and approved by voters in November, would mean a hike in the sales tax.

The Tampa Bay Guardian first asked to see CTB’s tax returns on January 19th, 2016. CTB’s Executive Director Kevin Thurman wrote back the same day and said “I have received your request and will provide you with all documents required by law within one week”. Thurman never did.

Three weeks later, after prodding, Thurman (pictured below middle) said that CTB had filed all required tax returns, and claimed to have e-mailed copies of them to the Guardian two weeks earlier. Tax exempt organizations must make their tax returns available for inspection and copying by the public as a condition of their tax exempt status.
Local transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay
created the brand name Go Hillsborough
Annoyed that the reporter was questioning whether returns had even been filed, Thurman insisted on “re-sending” the returns via certified mail rather than e-mail, with a return receipt. His letter never came.

CTB was formed with much fanfare in late 2012 by Thurman, current Hillsborough County Commission candidate Brian Willis, Brian Seel (son of Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel) and Brandie Miklus, an urban planner for Jacobs Engineering.

Jacobs Engineering produced the multimillion dollar Alternative Analysis for Pinellas County,  the basis for the 2014 Greenlight Pinellas tax hike referendum, which was trounced by voters with 62% voting “NO”. Jacobs is a potential bidder on multi-million dollar Go Hillsborough contracts

Miklus worked the welcome table at early Go Hillsborough “community engagement” meetings held by the county (see picture below). This role allowed Miklus to gather contact info of all those who attended. But for whom? The County? Connect Tampa Bay? Her employer?
Brandie Miklus working sign in table
at Go Hillsborough meeting
After her role at these meetings being called into question in an article in EyeOnTampaBay, Miklus was not seen at any more meetings.

Questions have dogged CTB since their founding about who funds them. CTB has never opened its books, but Thurman claimed on February 11th that they have “collected few donations” and that they “haven’t collected a donation in two years.”

Willis faces Hillsborough Democratic Party chair Pat Kemp, former Hillsborough County Commissioner Tim Scott and former Plant City Mayor John Dicks in a Democratic primary on August 30th. Willis recently claimed in a fundraising e-mail that we was being attacked by the Tea Party supported, but offered no evidence other than an anonymous blog post from one year ago.

The Guardian has confirmed through multiple avenues with the IRS, including the below letter from the IRS, that CTB in fact never filed the required federal tax returns.
IRS letter regarding Connect Tampa Bay's
Federal 990 tax returns
In its filing with the State of Florida, CTB said they voted to dissolve on March 1st, yet only filed the document with the state 56 days later. Their filing came just 11 days after the above letter from the IRS was made public. Their state filing also said they had “no members entitled to vote on the dissolution”, yet the board voted 3-0 to dissolve.

Thurman, speaking for CTB, was frequently quoted in the now defunct Tampa Tribune. Thurman has been quoted in the Tampa Bay Times six times this year alone. In the Times latest story quoting Thurman just last week, more than 10 weeks after CTB was dissolved, Times reporter Steve Contorno described Thurman as the “executive director of the pro-transit Connect Tampa Bay”.

The Guardian provided the state filing to Contorno via e-mail on the day his article was published online, but the Times has yet to issue a correction.

This is a developing story and we will publish updates as they become available.

Cross posted with permission from the Tampa Bay Guardian

No Sales Tax Hike Needed! Revenue Growth of Existing Budget Can Fund Roads & Transportation Needs

The sales tax hike and spender collaborators down at County Center are desperate and are trying to charge ahead again for another unnecessary sales tax hike. At Wednesday's BOCC meeting, the commissioners made it official as they voted 6-1 to hold another sales tax hike public hearing on June 9th at 6pm. We posted here they had voted at a workshop meeting the week before to take a 15 year sales tax hike. Perhaps they wanted to ensure the vote was legal and on the up and up so they put it on the agenda for a vote again at a regular BOCC meeting.

The Eye was there.

This time they plan to hold the meeting at County Center, apparently not expecting a big crowd. After enduring over three years of this transportation initiative turned three ring circus, it's a good bet many people are simply disgusted with the entire flawed, crony and deceptive process.

A number of citizens attended the meeting and made a public comment in opposition of the sales tax hike proposal. Two citizens who spoke analyzed the current budget and projected revenue growth and stated the county's existing budget growth will fund our roads and transportation needs - no sales tax hike is needed. Former county commissioner Ed Turanchik presented a forward looking revenue model that he and Steve Polzin, a transportation expert at USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research who was formerly a HART Board member for years, developed. The model is based on the county's existing budget of unrestricted general funds. The revenue model Turanchik handed to the commissioners can be found here.

Below is Turanchik's revenue summary chart using a 5% and a 6% growth rate.
Projected 10 year Revenues
Citizen Jim Davison also analyzed the projected revenue growth of our existing budget under numerous growth scenarios.  Davison's analysis can be found hereBy Limiting the growth in the ad valorem taxes available to budget, the surplus between the cap and actual revenues is what is available for transportation.

County Administrator Mike Merrill presented to the commissioners at a February Budget Workshop he estimated County Revenue growth for FY2017 at 7.88%.
FY2017 Recurring New Revenue Growing 7.88%
According to the Florida Association of Counties, property tax values increased 7.77% from 2014 to 2015 and increased 7.3% from 2013 to 2014. Our revenues have been on an upswing for a number of years. When the recession hit in 2008, the county diverted all property tax revenues that have historically always funded our roads and transportation needs to balancing the budget. As our economy has improved and our revenues started to grown again, the county never re-diverted or directed any of our growing property tax revenues back to our roads and transportation needs.

As we have stated since last year, it is absurd for the county commissioners to ask taxpayers to raises their taxes for money the county already has.

We have been told for years there is no money for roads. That is simply not true. The public was told there was no money for our roads and transportation needs over and over and over throughout the entire Go Hillsborough debacle. That was simply not true. 

No business, individual or family runs their own budget by funding everything else except their highest priorities first. Where is the business community? Where is the media? Why aren't they holding our electeds accountable? Because they too simply want another unnecessary sales tax hike?

Commissioner Stacy White hit the nail on the head when he stated Wednesday there has been no organized group of people consistently showing up at BOCC meetings asking for their taxes to be raised. He is absolutely correct. We've been there. The Eye's been attending BOCC meetings and budget hearings throughout this transportation initiative and the only constituents consistently showing up to speak on the matter are those who oppose the sales tax hike who were offering alternatives and other recommendations.

County commissioners who three and a half years later suddenly ask for citizen input on alternative funding options indicate they have not been listening, either do not understand or refuse to understand the estimated growth of the county's existing budget, want to continue spending on lower priority items or their own pork projects, were provided filtered information from the crony Go Hillsborough debacle, refuse to seriously consider any funding option but a sales tax hike or refuse to use their own political capital to fund our roads and transportation. 

The easy way out is to throw another sales tax hike on the ballot and then the commissioners do not have to be held responsible for anything. They can blame you, the voter, when it fails. Is that what we expect from our elected officials who are paid $100K a year to be policymakers and provide significant oversight to our budget?

The reality is there is no appetite in Hillsborough County for a sales tax hike and the commissioners know it. Any sales tax hike proposed will continue to have a dark cloud swirling around it from the crony phony Go Hillsborough debacle. It will fail and then we all lose.

The pursuit for an unnecessary sales tax hike has become not only politicized but has a taint of vengeance by some who collaborate to marginalize anyone who does not tow their sales tax hike and spend agenda. It is not an attractive behavior to watch or observe.

It is no longer about an engineered, performance and metric driven transportation plan to relieve congestion, increase mobility and maintain our roads because Merrill and some commissioners have drowned out everything else.

It is now only about an unnecessary sales tax hike - any sales tax hike…

Friday, May 20, 2016

Hillsborough County 15 year sales tax a bad idea

Hillsborough County's record of accomplishment at managing and planning big projects and the associated funding are sketchy at best.

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

Amid a chorus of negatives, the backers of the Hillsborough County sales tax for transportation have once again managed to get the idea of a sales tax referendum on the County Commission agenda.

In a desperation move to get some tax money flowing for those who depend on it for their livelihood the Hillsborough County Commission will consider a half-cent sales tax for 15 years. One commissioner has even asked County staff to prepare information on five and ten-year concepts.

This idea is so bad and so stupid it is difficult to know where to start.

Get some detail from Tampa Bay Times Staff writer Steve Contorno: Voting for transportation referendum is voting for a tax hike, Hillsborough commissioner warns

To begin with, Mayor Buckhorn was against the 15-year option at the last session when the tax was voted down. His main reason is with the period of the tax less than 30 years it makes using the tax revenue for bonding (borrowing more money) all but impossible.

But let's be a bit more practical.

Setting up a short-duration tax that flows into an undefined series of potential projects is a consultant's absolute dream. The likes of Parsons Brinkerhoff, Beth Laythem and host of other local and national law firms, consultants and planners must be salivating at the very thought of this thing getting to the ballot.

Hillsborough County's record of accomplishment at managing and planning big projects and the associated funding are sketchy at best.

For example, from Eye On Tampa Bay by Sharon Calvert: Go Hillsborough's Private Campaign Collusion Behind the Green Curtain

County Commissioners desperate to hang something positive on their political resumes regarding transportation would be well advised to run from this like they would run from a burning building.

Nothing could be worse for the fate of public transportation, than a poorly planned half-baked tax initiative that will become a poster child for every form of poor planning and graft and corruption one could imagine.

There is no way to sell a boondoggle like this to the voters. All the politicians are saying are we can't say NO to the special interests who want their fingers in a new transportation tax.

Should the Hillsborough County Commission decide to lateral the ball and place this referendum on the Ballot every voter in Hillsborough County should go to the poles and vote NO.

E-mail Doc at mail to: dr.gwebb@yahoo.com 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, May 15, 2016

Governing in the Shadows at County Center

As we previously posted here, the Hillsborough County commission and county administrator Mike Merrill intentionally schedules BOCC workshop meetings intended for discussion only to vote and take actions on the big and controversial issue of transportation - no public comment allowed. 

Meetings noticed as workshops do not allow any public comment because according to the BOCC's own policies workshops, as we previously described, are intended for in depth discussions, information gathering and provide an opportunity for commissioners to get their questions answered - all in the Sunshine. If there is a decision to take action at the very least according to their own policies, the workshop meeting is supposed to be opened up for public comment.
If the Board plans to take official action on a proposition at the workshop meeting, then members of the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard and public comment will be taken. 
Not so with this county commission. They violate their own policies and apparently don't care. This is bad governance occurring right before our eyes.

Wednesday's transportation workshop meeting was intentionally scheduled and noticed as a workshop so actions and votes could be taken on the critical and controversial transportation issue without allowing any public comment on those planned actions. It enabled the tax and spenders to collaborate their actions. It enabled Commissioner Hagan to make motions taking all other funding options for transportation off the table except another huge sales tax hike referendum - all actions taken with no public comment allowed

It is absurd for the county commissioners to take every other funding option off the table except for throwing another huge sales tax hike referendum on the ballot that will most likely fail. That is horrible governance. It is absurd that this commission refuses to even consider any Plan B. Why? Because it is apparent some prefer taking the easy way out and do not want to be held responsible and accountable for anything. Any commissioner who votes to put any sales tax hike on the November ballot supports the tax - period.

The county's new recurring revenues for FY2017 are expected to be over $53 million. The county has the $23 million BP oil spill settlement money that has no restrictions on how the money is spent and they are sitting on those funds while our roads literally crumble. Due to their inaction, the county is creating a costlier maintenance problem to fix than just repaving and filling potholes. Everyone else must fund their priorities first except this county commission? To take such drastic action as removing all other funding options in a meeting that prohibits public comment and does not allow the public to weigh in at all makes their absurdity even worse.  

In addition, at the workshop meeting intended for discussion only, this commission takes a critical and controversial vote to take a proposed 15 year sales tax hike referendum to a public hearing. It passed 5-2 with Murman and White courageously voting no. Commissioners Crist and Higginbotham flipped from their previous no votes to yes. Do they support the 15 year sales tax hike? 

The county does not even have a transportation plan but commissioners vote to take some proposed 15 year sales tax hike referendum to public hearing. Again, this county commission works backwards which is simply bad governance. Instead of creating an engineered, data driven transportation plan first that clearly provides the public with the actual benefits to be attained, this county commission proposes another sales tax hike first - then maybe we get to find out what it will fund. 

The county can only plan in 5-10 year increments so why a proposed 15 year tax hike for a 10 year plan? How much revenue will actually be generated by a 15 year sales tax hike? The county continues to deceptively low ball the estimated yearly revenues by insisting on using a static revenue model ignoring the rapid growth in our county. Who believes that the revenue generated in year one will be exactly the same as the revenue generated in year 15? Where's the rest of the money going? Back to general funds for a new baseball stadium……or for more pork projects…

Watch the archived video or read the transcript of the workshop meeting at the HTV website by selected Archived meetings, BOCC workshop and the date of the meeting 5/11/2016. 

Sue Carlton of the Tampa Bay Times, (also the wife of John Hill, head of the editorial board for the Tampa Bay Times) reported yesterday:
So the show looked to be over with that big no vote last month. But we do like our political theater around here. 
At a meeting this week, Commissioner Ken Hagan went through some not-particularly-doable alternative options to pay for transit improvements. One by one, those "options" fell away and you sensed something afoot. Anti-tax Commissioner Sandy Murman saw it coming but, pardon the pun, could not stop the train bearing down. Suddenly, they were back to the idea of a referendum whose death they had already witnessed — this time, for a 15-year half-cent tax potentially more politically palatable than the previous 30- and 20-year options. 
It is interesting to note that two previously no-voting commissioners —Victor Crist, who flirted with the idea of progress before his swing vote killed it, and Al Higginbotham, who once indicated he'd support it and later didn't — both voted to let the new 15-year version go to at least a public hearing.
Here's a theory on why political minds might just be swayed this time. This same commission recently socked developers with increased mobility fees for growth and construction, and those fees could go way higher if there's no new sales tax for transportation. Developers have been known to have some influence with politicians, too.
As Carlton reported, now the Developers who pad the campaign coffers of many of the county commissioners must be on a rampage. They want that sales tax hike because their mobility fees get cut in half if the county gets a new boatload of your tax dollars.

The county commissioners could have addressed developer impact fees years ago and did not. The county commissioners could have addressed our current budget spending over the last three to four budget cycles as county revenues continue going up an up and funded our roads and they did not. The county commissioners could have re-diverted property tax revenue that historically always funded our roads back to funding our roads, instead of spending on pork projects, subsidizing special (often wealthy) interests and growing Mike Merrill's bloated bureaucracy, and they did not. The county commissioners could have used powers they already have to start addressing our road and transportation needs first and they did not. 

Instead the commissioners allowed themselves to get forced into a corner by the sales tax hike and spend collaborators Commissioner Ken Hagan and County Administrator Mike Merrill, an unelected bureaucrat. Hagan intentionally forced actions and votes on the critical and controversial issue of transportation funding at a workshop meeting that prohibits public comment. The sales tax hike and spenders collaborative actions were then enabled by County Attorney Chip Fletcher who never even mentioned the Board's own policies regarding workshop meetings and allowing public comment before Board actions and votes. 

The entire transportation issue over the last 3 years has been political theater. Between the PTC ride sharing debacle and the transportation and economic development effort creating the costly crony, phony Go Hillsborough debacle, our local transportation issue has been turned into a three ring circus. 

There is lots of blame and shame to go around for enabling and allowing such bad governance down at County Center. However, we can highly speculate who orchestrated it in the shadows and behind the green curtain. 
The Wizard of Oz at County Center orchestrates and colludes
in the shadows and behind the green curtain 
Apparently some county commissioners are so out of touch with the electorate today, they refuse to recognize their constituents across the political spectrum are fed up with bad governance, especially governance in the shadows. 

The county commission's transportation initiative originally created to build public trust has flat out back fired.

And taking critical votes at workshop meetings prohibiting public comment just adds to the distrust. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

County Commission Candidate Fund Raises on False Accusations

The Tampa Bay Business Journal recently published an article written by TBBJ reporter Janelle Irwin titled: Anti-tax Tea Party aggressors target pro-transit candidate Brian Willis, campaign says. Irwin writes:
Brian Willis’s campaign is under attack – or so he’s describing to supporters. Billing himself the Hillsborough County Commission District 6 race’s only “serious transit supporter” fighting for increased transportation options on both sides of the Bay, Willis claims he’s fielding attacks from members of the Tea Party. 
“The attacks have been aggressive, but that just means they are afraid,” Willis wrote in an email to supporters asking for contributions to thwart the attacks.
This is plain and simple tabloid journalism with a provocative title. Throw out false claims and try to create guilt by association. This appears to be a PR stunt that Willis and his campaign orchestrated for his campaign fundraising.

In the original TBBJ post, Irwin admitted that Willis provides no evidence of such alleged attacks, those silly little details. 

The Eye spoke to Irwin this morning who said TBBJ is expanding their coverage to include politics and she was hired to do political reporting. She said Willis's claims were newsworthy. Irwin wanted to know if I could prove that Willis's claims were baseless. That is not my responsibility that is hers as a journalist to investigate accusations before publishing such article. 

After speaking to Irwin this morning, Irwin updated the article with this information:
Willis didn't specifically mention what the alleged attacks were or who they came from. He later explained the reference was to a WordPress website titled "Brian Willis Hates You." The site chronicles various pro-transit statements made by Willis and makes the argument that Willis's statements illustrate he hates people who own cars. 
"The reason we phrased our email the way we did was that we didn't want to repeat the lies," Willis explained of his vague reference to the Tea Party in his campaign email. 
The website doesn't list any authors or site facilitators and does not specifically reference any Tea Party allegiance.
Sharon Calvert, a Tampa Tea Party activist, said she has nothing to do with any alleged interaction with Willis, but wouldn't say whether she could speak for the entire Tea Party. 
"We couldn't care less about Brian Willis," Calvert said. "He's making claims that he can’t back up and he’s using the media for a fundraising stunt."
The website Willis refers to is some anonymous blogpost that we found out about only AFTER we pushed back with TBBJ on Willis's baseless claims accusing the Tea Party of attacking him. Only after Irwin published this article and received push back did she go back to Willis and Willis provided her a link to this anonymous blogpost. Again, it is up to the journalist to investigate the claims before publishing such an article not ask those falsely accused to provide evidence the claims are false. 

Willis was a Founder of Connect Tampa Bay, our local transit advocacy group, who were big supporters of the Greenlight Pinellas boondoggle. He served on Connect Tampa Bay's Board until he resigned when he filed to run for office. 

The Eye posted here back in October 2014 about Brian Willis holding a press conference representing Connect Tampa Bay. As we reported, Willis and his accomplices were reduced to whining to the media to publicly name call their opposition, NoTaxForTracks Pinellas. 
 Greenlight Pinellas 2014 Press Conference:
Brian Willis is in the middle  
Brian Willis continues his false accusation tactics now as a county commission candidate. 

I did speak to Alexis Muellner today, editor of Tampa Bay Business Journal, and he informed me that Irwin had updated the story (as referenced above) and understood my concerns and issues. Irwin should have investigated Willis's claims further and contacted those Willis was accusing first before ever publishing such article. 

As I told Muellner, the real newsworthy story is that county commission candidate Brian Willis is making claims in a fundraising letter he cannot back up and he attempts to use guilt by association to raise money for his campaign.

Willis is a candidate for the District 6 countywide seat being vacated by Kevin Beckner. Regardless of anyone's ideology or party affiliation, is this the type of person who should represent the entire county on the Hillsborough County Commission?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

TMA Presentation: How to Pursue Tax Hike Referendums, Whitewash "Rail" and Confront Critics

Tampa Bay has a dozen or so entities that deal with the transportation issue. We mentioned the Transportation Management Area (TMA) in a previous post. The Transportation Management Area (TMA) Leadership group is not well known and is one of those groups that flies under the radar. 

TMA's are federally designated for urban areas greater than 200K and associated with how federal money is allocated. Information about the Tampa Bay TMA and its map can be found here. All of Pinellas is in the TMA and urbanized parts of Hillsborough and Pasco.

The TMA Leadership Group consists of electeds (county commissioners and city council reps) who are members of the MPO's of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco. The TMA has no authoritative policy making powers, like each MPO has, and the electeds are the only voting members of this "advisory" group. However, others who attend and sit at the table with those electeds include the Executive Directors of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco MPO's, Ronnie Duncan, Chair of TBARTA, Ray Chiarmonte, Executive Director of TBARTA, representatives from FDOT, Katherine Eagan, CEO of HART, Brad Miller, CEO of PSTA and numerous staffers.

The TMA meetings are normally held in the PSTA Board meeting room in Pinellas County and they are publicly noticed meetings. The public can attend and watch but there is no public comment.

At the TMA Leadership Group meeting held April 8, the agenda included an item titled "Transit Referendums around the country" presented by a Jason Jordan, Government Affairs Director, American Planning Association. We were told it was the Pinellas MPO who specifically requested Jordan come and present to the TMA.

April 8 TMA agenda
A copy of Jordan's presentation can be found here.

Jordan's presentation was under the logo Center For Transportation Excellence (CFTE) which we will address later. It was more than just about transit referendums around the country. It was to provoke discussion amongst the electeds and taxpayer funded entities for how to successfully push through a local sales tax hike transit referendum.

The charts below are from Jordan's presentation. Obviously, Floridians have not been supportive of transit sales tax referendums. It was Miami-Dade who passed the last local transit sales tax hike referendum in 2002. That sales tax hike failed to build out what was promised and today almost 40% of that tax hike goes to Miami-Dade Transit's operating expenses.

Florida Transit Elections

TMA Presentation
Since Jordan's presentation was to electeds and taxpayer funded entities, we assume the "we" in the chart above is those who participated in this meeting who are all paid for by taxpayers. Apparently winning is how to get more taxpayer money - both locally and from the federal government. It's all about money and how to get more of it.

Messaging, polling, voter targeting, coalition building, campaign coordination, ground game - that is all campaign related activities. In the last couple decades electeds, taxpayer funded entities and special interests figured out how to collude and coordinate their resources to stack the deck and pursue sales tax hike referendums - used to then leverage for more money - federal funds. This pursuit of federal monies has created the perverse behavior to pursue the most expensive transit projects to get the most federal dollars. We see that very behavior in Tampa Bay. 

Jordan's CFTE presentation also included these charts titled "Lessons from Losses"

Apparently, Hillsborough County did not learn from any of the recent losses in the Tampa Bay area since 2010. What is striking is the elements Go Hillsborough failed at, especially  that Go Hillsborough has such broad opposition not support.

The last point - "don't go if you can't win" should be taken very seriously. Perhaps it was as Go Hillsborough was rightfully voted down 4-3 by our county commissioners.

Jordan's presentation provoked discussion amongst the TMA group, some of which we understand included:

  • Hold referendums during on cycle elections when it's likely more transit supporters will vote 
  • "They" recovered from previous failed attempts in numerous places to finally win. 
  • Discussed talking points to use, engaging with athletic teams (think Bucs, Rays, Lightning), and even what is legal regarding advocacy by electeds or government officials 
  • Breakdown the benefits by the demographics of the county 
  • How to confront detractors [those who oppose the tax] 
  • How to coordinate with grassroots like college students 
  • How to get voters to the polls for a referendum in November (it's not on the ballot yet but perhaps this "Insider" group knows the "Inside" scoop about tonight's public hearing on the proposed sales tax hike) 
  • Have lobbyists focus on state legislators to allow cities to have their own referendums 
  • Whitewash the term "rail" from all documents, information and plans to divert attention from the toxic term
Interesting that a Tribune article published before the Go Hillsborough public hearing reported:  "Hagan said that by design, the ballot question does not mention light rail — a mode of transportation that opponents focused on and that was highly unpopular among suburban voters." 

Who is Jason Jordan? A quick Google search finds that Jordan is a transit advocate/lobbyist with Advocacy Associates. He spent 6 years as the government affairs director with the advocacy organization American Planning Association.

The Advocacy Associates website shows CFTE is one of their clients. The CFTE website shows Jason Jordan as their Executive Director. Google search also confirms Jordan and CFTE's close association with the largest public transit lobbying organization in DC, American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Appears to be a very cozy group of organizations all connected. We assume they are all well connected financially.

The CFTE website states:
Opponents using erroneous arguments and fomenting fear are eroding the great strides made over the past decade.
CFTE helps by providing the following
  • Distributing information that proves the effectiveness of public transportation 
  • Engaging the opposition wherever and whenever they appear 
  • Coaching community leaders in techniques for engaging the opposition in their own communities.
CFTE specifically targets providing materials to respond to critics of transit referendums.

CFTE's website includes a campaign toolkit that includes a guide for successful transit initiatives. Who is on CFTE's Advisory Board? Parsons Brinckerhoff and the Federal lobbyist for HART.
Members of the CFTE Advisory Board who support the work of CFTE include:
  • Jeff Boothe, New Starts Working Group (also HART's Federal lobbyist)
  • Anne Canby, Surface Transportation Policy Project
  • Art Guzzetti, American Public Transportation Association
  • Kevin McCarty, Surface Transportation Policy Project
  • William Millar, American Public Transportation Association
  • Janette Sadik-Khan, Parsons Brinckerhoff
  • Rose Sheridan, APTA
Their website states CFTE is a non-partisan policy research center. However, Page 30 of CFTE's guide for successful transit initiatives includes a section on Opposition Research. They basically consider those who oppose the referendum as the "enemy". 
CFTE Opposition Research

There are numerous valid reasons and concerns for opposing referendums: concerns with fiscal due diligence, prudent and wise spending of current tax dollars, good governance, good policymaking, concerns with cronyism and funding of boondoggles. Should an organization with such an attitude be presenting to the TMA, a group of electeds, policy makers and taxpayer funded entities at a taxpayer funded facility? We're left wondering if those attending this meeting view anyone opposing such referendums as the enemy?

CFTE's guide provides the template for the advocacy campaign and all the activities we saw in 2010 and 2014 are in there. On page 61 CFTE encourages messaging like below that Phoenix used called "Finish the Freeways" to divert away from the rail portion.
In an effort to divert attention away from the light rail component of their proposal, the Yes on 400 campaign in Phoenix, Arizona, used a campaign slogan geared towards the freeway component of the plan,…….
Sound familiar? It's a marketing and PR strategy.

Page 81 of the CFTE guide devotes an entire section to responding to critics (the enemy?) CFTE does not like Libertarian or Conservative leaning think tanks, taxpayer associations acting as taxpayer watchdogs and even certain individuals. They don't like CATO or Heritage. Ever wonder why no conservative organizations are ever brought in to present alternative ideas and solutions to our electives and policy makers? Perhaps because they cannot get passed the entrenched bureaucratic gatekeepers who prefer pursuing higher taxes and a bigger bureaucracy.

Some questions need to be answered. Why was Jordan invited to present? Did taxpayers (MPO) pay to bring him to present at this meeting?  Is it a proper use of taxpayer resources? Was this using taxpayer resources to collude amongst electeds and taxpayer funded entities for how to pursue tax hike referendums?

Was this presentation a proper role of federally funded MPO's? 

Contact your Congressional Representative, send them a copy of the presentation, inform them what was presented and discussed at the April TMA meeting and ask them.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Scheming For A Two-Headed Sales Tax Hike Referendum

It's been one week since the county commission voted NO to putting another sales tax hike boondoggle on the ballot. The local media, however, insists on continuing to insert themselves into our transportation by creating news stories, confirming once again that "they" are part of the problem.

Yesterday's Tampa Bay Times (who just bought the Tampa Tribune) reported Hillsborough, Pinellas leaders wonder if twin transportation tax hikes will work
Maybe it's time to try something together, Pinellas County administrator Mark Woodard said Tuesday. 
In a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Woodard said he's already had conversations about it with his counterpart in Hillsborough, county administrator Mike Merrill (emphasis mine). 
The idea is the two county governments would ask their respective voters in the same election year to approve a half cent sales tax increase that would finance a transportation plan that improves services and infrastructure locally and also spans Tampa Bay, finally linking Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. 
That kind of campaign, Woodard said, could finally lead to a breakthrough.
Woodard is the husband of former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. He got the job permanently in August 2014. It was Iorio who wanted high cost rail projects and used the last year of her mayoral bully pulpit in 2010 pushing hard for the failed rail referendum in Hillsborough County.

Merrill and Woodard are unelected bureaucrats accountable to no voter. They are not policy makers. The electeds cannot delegate their policy making authority to bureaucrats and the electeds cannot empower the county administrator to cross the bounds of his authority. In the Hillsborough County Charter, Section 5.04 Political Activity by County Administrator states:
The county administrator shall not hold any political office nor take part in any political activity other than voting. 
Merrill has been stepping way outside and over the bounds of his authority the last two years. Like former Mayor Pam Iorio, Merrill's been running around the county pushing another huge sales tax hike referendum as if he is an unelected county mayor. Referendums are elections and elections are political activity.  

The electeds must reign in the unelected bureaucrats scheming for a two-headed sales tax hike in Hillsborough and Pinellas. Stop focusing on sales tax hikes for boondoggles. In Hillsborough start funding our roads and transportation needs NOW within our growing revenues in our ballooning budget. Start acting like everyone else must - fund our highest priorities first within our existing budget.
Get our budget under control-fund highest priorities first
The electeds must remember that Hillsborough's CIT tax and the Penny for Pinellas tax are coming up for reauthorization. Those taxes must be taken into consideration and the reality that today's electorate is not happy with the status quo.

The Times also reported in their article that Brad Miller, CEO of PSTA and Katherine Eagan, CEO of HART were open to merging their transit agencies. Bigger government agencies do not equate to better, more cost-effective or efficient agencies. Two state funded studies requested by merger supporter Senator Latvala about a PSTA-HART merger confirmed that. Bigger government agencies further distanced from the taxpayer often increases the influence of special interests while reducing the influence of the local taxpayer. 

SaintPetersblog also weighed in yesterday with this post Pinellas commissioner says he’s frustrated with Hillsborough for voting no on Go Hillsborough
“I’m a little frustrated with our friends in Hillsborough,” Commissioner John Morroni said. “Not to give the people a chance to vote on it was really bad in my opinion.”
Where was Morroni in 2010?  The people of Hillsborough did vote in 2010 and overwhelmingly said NO like Pinellas did in 2014. Morroni voted to put the Greenlight Pinellas boondoggle on the 2014 ballot that went down in flames. Why does he think Hillsborough County commissioners should trust his judgment? 

Our electeds must respect the will of the voters and stop throwing sales tax hike referendums at us over and over and over. The old sales tax referendum template of try try try again is broken. 

More from the SaintPetersblog post:
Commissioner Janet Long said there are multiple government agencies across the Tampa Bay area working independently of each other to provide transportation solutions. She estimated that there are more than 100 officials and citizens serving on various committees or in various agencies. Those need to be consolidated, she said. 
Commissioner Karen Seel pointed to the formation in 2014 of the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area. It was formed by the metropolitan planning organizations of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco. The TMA recognizes the fact that the transportation systems of three-county area are closely linked.
The history of transportation in Tampa Bay appears to be when someone(s) does not like what a current agency, commission or committee is doing or they cannot get their agenda through, they simply create a new agency. Of course none ever go away and now we have this convoluted mishmash of unnecessary overlapping organizations. That's how we got the TMA Leadership Group in 2014 - why not just add another group to the other 12 organizations that already deal with transportation in Tampa Bay.

All these organizations become taxpayer funded venues for all kinds of dog and pony shows and much of it flies under the radar of the public.

The TMA is the MPO's of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco. Could the TMA be tied to the idea of the two-headed sales tax hike referendums in Pinellas and Hillsborough?

Their April meeting included a presentation from a transit advocacy organization on transit referendums. Hmmm…