Pensacola

City cannot be broke, it still has checks

November 11, 2013

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What has happened to the URAC report? People see the bollards closing vehicle traffic on Palafox for events, but those took 10 months to install and a sizeable contribution from the Escambia County Commission.

In February 2012, Mayor Ashton Hayward formed the Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee to create an action plan to guide the redevelopment of downtown Pensacola. He promised that it would not sit on a shelf like so many other studies.

He announced, “The city has planned and studied the redevelopment of our downtown and waterfront for long enough. There are several redevelopment plans just sitting on the shelf collecting the dust. I’m asking this advisory committee to help me formulate an action plan.”

When the report was finished in November 2012, a series of presentations and forums were held. The mayor spoke before PYP and the Greater Pensacola Chamber Board of Directors. URAC chair Brian Hooper made presentations to Pensacola City Council, Downtown Improvement Board, Escambia Commission and several civic clubs.

When I asked Mayor Hayward at his Nov. 5 “Mornings with the Mayor” about the status of the report on the month of its first anniversary, he denied the URAC report was gathering dust on a shelf…although he admitted jokingly that it might be in the trunk of his car.

The mayor said, “Rick, it does come down to dollars. The URAC committee–Brian Hooper did a great job chairing that. We have to make sure that we can pull off those goals–if it’s one at time, two at time. With the money we get, we can put into realization some of the things out of the URAC committee, but it definitely comes down to dollars.”

He insisted that the city is “absolutely” not broke.

However, if the city is in such great financial shape why did it nickel-and-dime the veterans parade and not have its engineers help with the MOT? Why can’t it fund some of the simplest URAC recommendations? Why couldn’t it pay for the bollards without county help? Why the pressure for Wahoos to renegotiate their use agreement?

People aren’t so confident about the city’s finances as the mayor.

  • CJ Lewis November 12, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Is the City’s unfunded pension liability $125 million or is it more? When David Penzone briefed the Council a few years back, he said the City was using unrealistic (inflated) rates of return to mask the real shortfall. I think I heard him use the number “$260 million” – a lot more than $125 million or the $116 million number told to the Escambia County Consolidation Study Commission in 2009.

    Most people wrongly think there is no connection between the Community Maritime Park and them. Not true. The tax dollars to repay the two bonds used to build the project’s Public Improvements to include the Stadium are each year diverted from the City and County General Fund. The financial situation is made worse and is going to get worse because Hayward has pressed the Council to use the money from the private parcel sub-leases (Studer, Beck, etc.) to subsidize the CMPA, e.g. most of the Studer’s lease payment will benefit the CMPA not the City.

    As for the URAC, don’t count your breath. The effort was undertaken in violation of the City Charter with Hayward thumbing his nose at the City Council in its role as the CRA. The City Council/CRA had no input into what the URAC studied, who was appointed, what information they were given (or not given), etc. People familiar with the inner-workings of the URAC said it was a mess, the members pretty clueless from start to finish unable to grasp the legal relationships between a general-purpose local government (City of Pensacola) and its two special purpose local governments (CRA and DIB), both dependent special districts of the City. I was told that Hooper invited Collier Merrill to give a 30-minute presentation about the DIB because his brother is on the board, etc.

    Reportedly, and we don’t really know who wrote the Final Report, I have been told that the Final Report does not reflect the input from all of the members. Whoever wrote the Final Report is unfamiliar with the law. On page 19, Hayward now claims that he owns the DIB and that he will decide what is best for the DIB District property owners, “So the Mayor’s goals and desires for the DIB District may conflict with the residents’ and business owner’s interests for their own District.” If the DIB Board is to be no more than lackeys of the Mayor then it’s time for the DIB to be abolished.

    What is Hayward’s interest in the DIB? Much as Willie Sutton reportedly said he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is,” Hayward sees the DIB as his private piggy bank. On page 72 of the URAC Final Report, Hayward writes or has Hooper write for him, “Given the complete lack of government funding at every level, this money constitutes one of the only revenue streams earmarked to improve downtown.”

    Two sentences later, Hayward and/or Hooper help explain as their Recommendation the recent firings at the DIB, “Encourage the DIB Board to voluntarily downside the DIB staff to one coordinating clerical position (Ron Butlin?), a primary liaison organizationally housed within the Mayor’s office. The DIB Board’s primary responsibility would then be to make recommendations to the Mayor for the disbursement of DIB revenues.”

    As per the DIB Act that no one to include Council members has ever read, all funds of the DIB are held by the City in a separate account. Similarly, almost no one knows that it is the City Council – not the Mayor – who approves the DIB’s annual budget, the City Council the Governing Body of the City, the City the Local Governing Authority of the DIB. The City Council even has to approve the DIB’s rules of procedures and written bylaws. Further, the City Council can remove DIB Board members from office, a power denied to the Mayor, etc.

    In sum, the DIB Board stands in the shoes of the City Council in its role as the Governing Body of the City; the DIB is not under the shoe of the administrative Mayor or the City Manager he replaced. If electors had wanted the Mayor to be in charge of the DIB, the Charter would have directed the City Council to request the Florida Legislature amend the Special Act (DIB Act) taking them out of the picture to include giving the Mayor operational control over the DIB and approval to review, amend and approve the DIB budget. To date, that has not happened because elector approval of the Charter did not change anything with respect to the DIB or the CRA or any other local governmental entity, as described in Section 10.05 of the Charter few have read.

    We all understand why Hayward has not read the Charter or DIB Act. He is not a “reader.” During the PNJ’s mayoral candidate forum, at First Baptist Church, the candidates were asked to name the book they were then reading. Hayward answered – “Wall Street Journal” – explaining that he does not read books, adding that his wife An is the book reader in the family. No one seemed surprised except by his uncharacteristic honesty. Hooper’s lack of familiarity with the law to include Charter and DIB Act is less easy to explain.

    In the end, the URAC Final Report will never amount to much because it was written to stroke Hayward’s ego not guide the priorities of the fiscally constrained CRA (City Council members) responsible for redeveloping the supposedly slum and blighted (a legal fiction) two-square mile “Urban Core Community Redevelopment Area,” south of Cervantes Street between “A” Street and 17th Avenue. Not once in the URAC Final Report did Hayward & Hooper get its proper name right. What the URAC Final Report most lacked was vetting and independent review by a panel of experts possessing an intimate knowledge of the City government, knowledge not possessed by Hayward, his ghostwriter Hooper or any other friends of the Mayor appointed to the URAC.

  • C. C. Elebash November 11, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    The City may not be “broke”, but it definitely is in bad financial straits: 1) the economy is weak; 2) the City has about $125 million in unfunded pension and other promised retirement benefits 3); the CRA is “broke” or close to it; and 4) CMPA money problems are well known.

    Funding for downtown projects, including those on the URAC list, will be limited for years to come. Pensacola’s investment in the maritime/baseball complex has put major downtown improvements “on hold”. The City is paying out $2.5 million per year for interest and principal on the $85 million park bonds. In addition, the City owes ECUA $19 million for cleaning up the old sewer plant property.

  • jeeperman November 11, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Maybe the city is not broke.
    It is just “monetarily challenged”.