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".