Where’s the beef?

May 19, 2009

That’s the question that I and others had after Commissioner Gene Valentino’s prerecorded presentation and the follow-up Q&A on Tuesday, May 19. The only change in the presentation from the one handed out last week was BPM deleted St. Lucia from one of the slides.

When I interviewed Valentino last Thursday, I was told he wanted to hold off on giving any detailed answers until the joint meeting. Several times on this blog, his supporters cried, “Foul,” because I was criticizing the Valentino plan (which he told us today was more a “suggestion”) before he had a chance to present all the details.

Folks, he presented no more details at the joint meeting. Instead the commissioners and the council members were told that they would have to wait until their Committee of the Whole meetings to get more information. Everything today was presented at “10,000-foot level.”….the same level as the interview last week.

As far as the DVD presentation went, Commissioner Valentino did fine. He did get a little testy during the question and answer, especially when Council member Diane Mack quizzed him.

Mack made eight points:
-She asked Valentino to be more specific in how he believes the Chamber hasn’t done a good job of economic development. She asked him to move beyond generalities and go point-by-point. (Valentino said he would give them to Mack later)
-She questioned the $1.50 per household, per month being raised through franchise fees to support PEDA. Mack pointed out that her calculations come up with only $3 million, not the $6 million that Valentino’s slide showed. (Valentino told her that his numbers came from Amy Lovoy, the county budget director).
-She challenged the board composition, believing that Pensacola City Council should have the same number of representatives as the County Commission, primarily because the Pensacola is the brand and has invested in the major assets – Airport, Port, CMP, etc. (The Valentino “suggestion” calls for the board to be based on population – giving County 5, City 2, Century 1).
-She asked the county commissioners not be allowed to make personal appointments to the PEDA board and instead have a slate of several nominees from which to choose. (This really answers my concern over the BOCC appointments being too political).
-She asked if any negotiated sales of public land would come back to the City (answer yes).
-Valentino said PEDA would have some power over city and county staff. Mack was concerned over staff having to answer to two masters and pointed out the need for very specific guidelines.
-She wanted to see the private sector involved because the realtors and developers are the first to benefit.
-Then she said that she wanted whatever plan is selected to go to referendum for a vote.

Valentino raised his voice and asked Mack not to prejudge his plan before she heard all the facts (does this argument sound familiar?).

Jewel Cannada-Wynn and Larry Johnson seemed the most supportive of the Valentino plan. JCW asked (and told Valentino that he could send her his answers in writing later) – Who is the (PEDA) executive director responsible to?; Is this plan one that is simply leveraging the minority community to get support?; How can we solve the problems with the permitting process?

Sam Hall started talking about Economic Development in Orlando, then abruptly changed course and said that we don’t want to be like Orlando. He voiced concern that he never has been told who were the prospects the Chamber had discussed the Port of Pensacola with….even though he still won’t know under the PEDA proposal.

Wilson Robertson was concerned about Sunshine and negotiations with prospects. Kevin White was concerned about the political appointments and why Valentino had not shared his ideas with the Chamber earlier. Megan Pratt was concerned about using Franchise fees, seeing them as regressive taxation.

Valentino was questioned about who had advised him on his plan. The commissioner was very vague, saying that some were doctors and they had asked to remain anonymous. He said several people had “kicked the tires.”

The public, council and commissioners thanked Valentino for bringing forth his ideas. The early speakers from the public were very supportive. Two talked about worrying whether their children would have jobs in this community.

Diane Mack was criticized by one county resident for taking such a hard line on representation, but she also was praised by Derek Cosson, city resident, for taking that stand.

Probably the most impressive speaker was Fred Donovan – who had chaired the Committee of 100 (the original economic development group for the county) three times, has served on Enterprise Florida and the PEDC. His firm, Baskerville-Donovan, had pulled out of the Chamber’s economic development efforts because it felt the process had gotten too political. “There was too much government.”

He reluctantly served on the Chamber Economic Development Study group, but became a big believer once he saw that all the members were sincere about changing how we do economic development.

Donovan pointed out the businesses want to talk to businesses when they are looking to relocate or build a plant. He said that they want to see how the local government treats its businesses, how well the public and private work together.

Donovan believes the Chamber proposal–which pulls Economic Development out from under the Chamber and puts it under the Greater Pensacola Partnership—will work.

The private sector will eventually fund the administration of the GPP and the public dollars will only go to fund incentives —-the awarding of the incentives will be done by the PEDC or some other public board appointed by the BOCC and the City Council.

Donovan said the public dollars got involved in the economic development over time and it will take a little while to wean the GPP off public funds, but believes it can be done.

Gregg Beck, real estate broker and a long time critic of the Chamber, also spoke out in favor of the Chamber plan and asked the elected officials to give the plan a chance.

Commissioner Grover Robinson was maybe the most vocal opponent to the Valentino plan. “We (meaning Escambia County) do not do business well. We should focus on the product, not the selling.” Grover suggested that the county and city should focus on doing away with impediments to economic development (a point that Gregg Beck also made).

Maybe the biggest blow to the Valentino plan came from Gulf Power who said that the company will not support a one-percent increase in franchise fees. Such an increase is a regressive tax that hurts the poor and those on basic service. Gulf Power would support some fee collected on future franchise revenues created by growth. It is amazing that Valentino had not taken the time to discuss his franchise fee idea with Gulf Power before making the presentation.

Nothing big happened today. The DVD was run. Commissioner Valentino gave few details. However, he did get to hear the thoughts, concerns and questions of his fellow commissioners and the Pensacola City Council. BPM got its supporters to speak. The Chamber did so, too. So as far as discussions go, this wasn’t a bad meeting.

Based on responses and questions, I’m not sure that Commissioner Valentino has any support from the other four commissioners. On the Pensacola City Council, Larry Johnson, Jewel Cannada-Wynn and Sam Hall appear to be most likely supporters.

However, the details to be provided in the Committee of the Whole meetings may persuade others to support Valentino. I expect the Pensacola City Council to wait on the BOCC to make up its mind before the council takes up this issue. Without a clear indication that Commissioner Valentino has the support of at least two other commissioners, it seems to be foolish for the city council to spend too much time on this.

The discussion did leave me with several questions and more research to do. The timetable for the county and city to reach an agreement is uncertain.

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