Jeremy's Notebook

Council Catches the Bus

February 26, 2013

councilAs the Pensacola City Council discussed the fate of the recently passed 4-cent gas tax last night, Mike Lowery said he was “probably the most nervous person in this room.”

“I can tell you, I”m shaking,” said Lowery, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1395, “because I’m nervous how this vote will turn out.”

Last fall, the Escambia County Commission passed the gas tax with the intent of using the revenue to fully fund the Escambia County Area Transit system. Officials with the city of Pensacola, however, have indicated they want to use the portion of the tax collected within city limits to fund economic development efforts at the Pensacola International Airport.

During yesterday’s Committee of the Whole—where council ultimately voted to dedicate the funds to ECAT—mass transit supporters made a vocal appearance. They urged the council to support mass transit, questioned using public funds to lure a private technology company in the hopes of creating jobs and, in short, were in attendance to “tell the mayor to go shove it.”

“You’re not serving me, you’re not serving these people,” one lady said, referencing the public gallery. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a high-tech job.”

Council President P.C. Wu asked the council to hold off on any action concerning the gas tax revenue until Mayor Ashton Hayward presented a proposal for the funds.

“In other words, there’s nothing there for you to talk for or against,” Wu said.

City Administrator Bill Reynolds told the council that the administration is currently in talks with the county. He said an agreement on the gas tax issue should come soon—“we feel that we’re very close in resolving it.”

In a conversation with Interim County Administrator George Touart, Wu said he was told the city  administration was looking to use $250,000 annually—of an estimated $700,000 to $800,000 the tax will generate in the city—to help fund efforts with the so-called ‘Project Stallion’ at the airport.

“Which he said—quote, unquote—they could live with,” Wu relayed, asking the council to wait. “Without a proposal on the table from the administration, it doesn’t make sense for me to move on this.”

Reynolds said that when a tentative agreement had been hammered out, he would bring it before the council—“you’ll have an opportunity to review the facts at that point.”

Council members, however, questioned the administration’s efforts. They also questioned who ultimately determined where the gas-tax revenues would go.

“The city council basically holds the pursestrings,” said Councilwoman Sherri Myers. “We decide where that 4-cent gas tax will go.”

Councilman Charles Bare said that ‘Project Stallion,’ basically an attempt to lure Singapore-based ST Aerospace to the airport, wasn’t a sure-thing—“there’s a lot of competition”—and suggested the city turn to the Economic Development Fund for any needed incentive-money. He also said he had spoken to Escambia County Commission Chairman Gene Valentino about the gas-tax and asked council to dedicate the funds to mass transit.

“He has all but begged for us to do this,” Bare said.

Other council members raised concerns over how the city administration has handled the gas-tax issue. Councilman Larry B. Johnson said he had needed to venture into the community “to try to piece together what’s going on,” and called the lack of information coming from the administration “a little frustrating.” Councilman Brian Spencer alluded to the resulting “gap in understanding.”

Councilwoman Megan Pratt recalled a recent visit to Boston. She said she enjoyed the area’s mass transit system and visited with local companies—“they’re the high-tech companies we would love to have”—where she was told a vibrant public transportation system was a key factor for businesses looking to relocate.

“I thought, ‘wow, wouldn’t that be great if we could have a public transit system that people wanted to relocate their companies for,’” Pratt said.ecat

Reynolds told the council that the allocation of the city’s gas tax would be determined by an interlocal agreement with the county. He pressed for the council to hold off on voting on the matter until a proposal was before them.

“If this body wants to take a vote on a subject without knowing all the facts—that’s exactly what’s happening,” Reynolds said.

Councilman Charles Wingate asked how the city had anticipated funding ‘Project Stallion’ prior to the county levying the gas tax.

“If the gas tax hadn’t come up,” he asked, “we would have funded the airport, right?”

Sensing the council’s leanings—“I’m old enough to count”—President Wu expressed his commitment to maintaining mass transit service at its current level, then made his final pitch for patience before calling for a vote. Council dedicated the anticipated gas-tax revenue to ECAT by an 8-1 vote.

“Boy, it’s lonely,” Wu said as an aside following the vote.

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  • Dale Parker February 26, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    Am I wrong about this, but isn’t the City obligated to use the Gas Tax funds for Transportation. So therefore, these funds cannot be used for an Economic Development Initiative.

    Unless of course, Mayor Zoolander is blurring the lines and saying … “Hey it’s at the airport so it is transportation” for him it is just a matter of Symantecs.

  • Funny February 26, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    So Valentino says “jump” and Bare and Myers say “how high?”. Any company considering to relocate here would be crazy due to the way the politicians run their traps during the recruitment process. Valentino fancies himself as the recruitment guru yet he publicly outs the Mayor during the Stallion negotiations?

  • CJ Lewis February 26, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Yesterday, the City Council made brilliantly clear that it very strongly supports mass transit as an important pillar of both economic and community development. ECAT riders, and businesses who need ECAT riders as employees, patients or shoppers, should thank Councilwoman Sherri Myers and Councilman Charles Bare for their strong leadership on this issue. Bare’s especially persistent efforts yesterday were made even more noteworthy for Mayor Ashton Hayward’s lack of presence and leadership, if not outright obstructionism, compounded by Council President P.C. Wu’s confusion over the respective roles of the Legislative (City Council) and Executive (Mayor) Branches of City government. Bare did a solid job explaining to the rest of the Council, public and an AWOL Hayward that the City Council determines the policies of the municipal government and sets its priorities that are to be implemented by the city’s chief administrative official, formerly City Manager Al Coby, presently Hayward and ideally someone new in November 2014 with a more “cooperative spirit.”

    It is too bad that no minutes are taken for Committee of the Whole meetings let alone preparation of a verbatim transcript prepared by a certified court reporter. At 4:29 pm, one citizen bluntly told the absent Mayor – presumably hiding in his heavily fortified seventh floor office – to put it where the sun does not shine. At 4:30 pm, Barbara Mayall took to task one or more City Council members who had left the room to do something they believed to be important than listening to the public speak. Liz Watkins had the quote of the day, speaking about why the Mayor needed to come out of hiding and participate in meetings of his own Mayor-Council government: “I just want better government. It’s nothing personal.” Watkins added, “The Mayor and the Council are not communicating.” It is not for any lack of effort on the part of the City Council. The next time Reynolds unlawfully sits in the Mayor’s seat or demands to participate in the deliberations of the City Council as if he is the Mayor, one or more City Council members need to demand the Council President have Reynolds removed from Council or Committee Chambers. If Wu refuses, have Police Chief Chip Simmons remove Wu too.

    Wu’s new helpmate Council Executive Lila Cox, most recently and still employed by “Lila S. Cox Consulting,” obviously eager to get a $20,000 pay raise up to $82,500 after just four months on the job had the most nonsensical quote of the day, “His authority is clear in the Charter.” Really? Is Cox of Pensacola Beach secretly a Charter scholar too? Has anyone fact-checked her resume? Cox too eagerly and too unthinkingly backed up Hayward’s ridiculous claim that only a Mayor can hire and fire a City Council’s Staff to include her. As an aspiring employee of the Mayor, I can see why Cox is so supportive of Hayward’s self-proclaimed prerogative.

    However, there is not a shred of evidence in the Charter, let alone in the record of the Charter Review Commission, that the Mayor has the authority to hire and fire anyone not subject to his or her supervision. Hayward can no more hire and fire the City Council Staff than he can hire and Staffs of the city’s two dependent special districts subordinate to the City Council as their Local Governing Authority: the Pensacola Community Redevelopment Agency and the Pensacola Downtown Improvement Board. The only way Cox’s nonsensical legal assertion would be true was if the City Council were an administrative department of the City subject to the supervision of the Mayor, as would then be the City Council Staff. Is the City Council supervised by the Mayor? I hope not.

    The Charter is deliberately silent imposing no limitation at all on the City Council with respect to a City Council Staff. The Pensacola City Council can have as big or as little of a City Council Staff as it wants or none at all. City Attorney Messer awkwardly claims that Hayward has the same powers as the Mayor in Tampa. The Tampa City Council hires and fires its own staff. The Charter Review Commission openly said the Charter was designed to be “consistent with consolidation.” The Consolidated City of Jacksonville’s City Council hires and fires its own staff. The Florida Legislature hires and fires its own staff too. Based on yesterday’s 7-2 vote to formally yield constitutional power to Hayward, probably an unlawful act contrary to the intent of the voters, a majority of the City Council seem overly eager to bend to the stronger will of Hayward. Only Bare and Myers were in strong dissent steadfastly supporting and defending the Charter to the end. The permanent damage to the Charter will be done on Thursday.

  • Leroy Carter February 26, 2013 at 11:32 am

    If the mayor and Reynolds had communicated with council members this mess could have been averted. The mayor and his staff sit on the 7th floor acting all high and mighty, they are not royalty. Keep council informed.