It is what I have been writing

A friend called me yesterday to rib me about the Florida TaxWatch report. He laughed that TaxWatch is getting paid $100K for I have been writing for years. So I pulled out some old columns from 2005 and he’s right.

This month, three prominent community leaders—Quint Studer, Jack Fetterman and John Cavanaugh—addressed the Pensacola City Council and offered their proposal for a multi-purpose stadium, maritime museum and marine research center on the city’s Trillium property. The group, the so-called “Trillium Trio,” has generated much excitement and discussion over what such a far-reaching plan could do for downtown.

But there is one key ingredient missing from these two groups—elected officials. Why are these great ideas and programs coming from the private sector and not from county commissioners and city council members? Why aren’t these politicians helping lead?

Instead, they seem to be content to merely preside as potentates and let others do the heavy work. Surely, it’s not because they aren’t being paid enough. The Escambia County Commissioners make nearly three times the average income of voters. How is it that busy men and women who have full-time jobs and demanding careers are out hustling the full-time commissioners?

The Pensacola City Council is a slightly different story. Many of them have other jobs, but they still need to explain why they haven’t come up with any new ideas for the Trillium property in the two years since the voters soundly rejected the city’s festival park/auditorium boondoggle. Marty Donovan is definitely the independent thinker of the lot, but his focus has been primarily Bayou Texar.

Maybe NBC’s “Fear Factor” should come here and have Pensacola City Council members act as its contestants. The winning challenge could be for each council member to come with an original idea. Anyone caught looking to the city staff for answers would be DQ-ed.

Community leaders continue to find elected officials irrelevant. No one apparently expects these high-paid politicos to provide vision. This is sad and definitely a factor in holding this region behind.

At some point, we must quit electing caretakers and panjandrums and risk voting for real leaders, who can guide and direct local bureaucracies. Unfortunately, we are saddled with this bunch for at least another two years.

BLUE-LIGHT SPECIAL? The Pensacola City Council needs to rescind its April 14 vote to begin repairing its city hall. The 6.2-acre site and the seven-story building, which overlooks Pensacola Bay, should go up for sale.

At the very least, seek buyers and see what opportunities exist out there. What difference does a six-week delay make in the hurricane restoration process? If the $4.8 million in repairs began today, it still would take 15-plus months before employees can move back into city hall.

I understand council members’ concerns about employee morale, but many of us are dealing with cramped offices and makeshift workplaces since September 16.

Why does the Pensacola City Council and its staff act so reactionary? Why are they afraid to even explore a possible golden opportunity?

One reason is the worry about where to build a new city hall, if the old one is sold. One site to consider is the property at the end of Main Street and Barrancas Avenue. The old Pensacola Appliances offices and warehouse are for sale. This corner lot abuts land the city already owns—the American Cresote Works Superfund site.

Just think what building city hall on Pensacola’s western edge would do to revitalize that area. Barrancas Avenue, West Garden and Government streets would likely see a tremendous rebirth. Plus, employees could move into the Pensacola Appliance building within weeks.

Black residents, who are worried a new city hall would be built miles away from downtown in the Cordova Mall-area, would actually have city government offices even closer and more accessible.

It’s time, city fathers become more open minded and embrace possible opportunities for a stronger, more vital Pensacola. Exploring the sale of city hall would be a nice baby step.

JOIN THE BANDWAGON This is an open letter to Pensacola City Councilman Marty Donovan, Charlie Fairchild and all opponents to the Community Maritime Park.

It’s time to put down your swords and admit you may be wrong. No one, well, maybe a very small minority, agrees with your position on the proposed development of the Trillium property.

You must work towards consensus in Pensacola and stop vilifying those who disagree with you. No matter how strong one believes in a position, there comes a point when one must step aside and admit there’s no support on a council or in the community for your viewpoint.

To constantly bring up the same negative arguments is destructive, not constructive. Pensacola needs a unifying victory, right now. The city, especially downtown, needs redevelopment and revitalization. A large majority in this community believes the Community Maritime Park can be a big catalyst.

Three years ago, this weekly paper took a strong stand against the original proposal for the same 27.5-acre, prime, waterfront site across from City Hall. The $41-million project called for a new municipal auditorium and festival park.

We opposed it because it possessed little economic growth potential. When we showed the plans to urban planners outside this area, they pointed out the many deficiencies: lack of job development, no commercial or retail space and no addition to the tax base. Also, we found little grassroots support for the project outside of the city staff and their inner-circle. There were few meaningful public forums to scrutinize the plan.

Today, the newest plan includes a multi-use stadium, maritime museum, University of West Florida marine research center, commercial and retail spaces, and public access to the waterfront. This plan takes care of our objections to Trilliumzilla. This is a true mixed-use development.

The visionaries, Quint Studer, Jack Fetterman and John Cavanaugh, enlisted one of this nation’s premier urban planners, Ray Gindroz, to help formulate the proposal. They staged numerous public forums to get input from a wide variety of age groups. Although few plans are perfect, this one comes close.

Marty and Charlie, it’s time to move on. Work positively for the Community Maritime Park and come to the table with open minds. Don’t get hurt, if this paper and others don’t agree with all your points.

This is a good time for building consensus and finding common ground to proceed. Instead of constantly looking for what’s wrong, look for what’s good and help to improve on it.

GINDROZ BELIEVES Renowned urban planner Ray Gindroz visited Pensacola last week to unveil his latest ideas for downtown to get more citizen input. Guess what? He believes we need more housing and entertainment.

Duh! Didn’t the Independent News just write about that in its Ballsy Plan 2 issue on May 19? And we didn’t get a check from the Pensacola City Council for our efforts again—like Gindroz.

The IN plan calls for attainable downtown housing in the $80,000 to $175,000 range that the first-time buyer or younger folks and families can buy. The city could set aside some of its vast public property holdings downtown and solicit bids to build more affordable townhomes, condos, apartments or houses and developers could probably find worthwhile areas for such development along the Garden Street corridor.

This weekly even suggested the city build a parking garage for its employees and those working in the Chappie James building so that housing could be built on the parking prairies on Intendencia and Reus streets, not to mention all the green space around the government buildings.

In Ballsy Plan 1, which the IN unveiled May 21, 2004, and the sequel, we saw a downtown entertainment district as a critical piece to the future survival of downtown. It was called the Seville Entertainment District with Seville Quarter being a natural hub.

Again, we asked for parking garages to be constructed behind Seville Tower and across from the Pensacola News Journal’s bunker. Our vision has the whole block bordered by Government, Jefferson, Intendencia and Tarragona streets filled with night clubs. Music fans, clubbers and restaurant connoisseurs could park their cars and stroll from nightspot to nightspot just like Memphis’ Beale Street.

Hey, Ray, what about cutting us a share of that huge consulting fee. We’ve already done some groundwork for you. If it helps, we can even fax copies of our napkin sketches.

SPENDING SECRETS I want to let you in on a little secret about government spending. Government bureaucracies can always find money to spend for the items that they want. I’ve called this “Outzen’s Law of Government Spending” in the past.

For example, let’s take Escambia County Administrator George Touart’s recent $13,000-plus raise and Pensacola city manager Tom Bonfield’s similar 10 percent pay hike.

For months, we have heard how badly Hurricane Ivan has hurt the financial pictures of Escambia County and Pensacola. The 2005-2006 budgets would be lean ones. Employees should not expect any more than an annual 3 percent cost-of-living increase, we were told.

Bonfield and Touart may fully deserve their raises, but they are getting them because their boards wanted it, not because their raises are more important than other needs.

The same thing happens on the federal level. As the recovery costs for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita mount, some Congressmen are balking at whether the federal government should help rebuild these coastal areas. Yet these same politicians haven’t blinked at approving $200 billion in appropriations for the Iraq war over the past two years.

So, don’t ever let a government hack tell you they don’t have the funds. They can find the money for huge pay raises and whatnot, if they want to. They always have.

STRONG MAYOR If the Pensacola City Council decides it must hold a referendum, let’s make it on whether the city should have a strong mayor.

Currently, Mayor John Fogg’s job is primarily ceremonial. He represents the city at official functions, chairs the council meetings and makes committee assignments. Tom Bonfield, the hired city manager, actually runs the city.

Pensacola is a town that is governed by a 10-member committee. Anyone who has served on such a large committee or board knows how difficult it is to get such an unwieldy group to accomplish anything—unless it has a strong leader that is empowered to set the agenda for the group and execute its plans.

This city needs to have a strong, full-time mayor that is truly Pensacola’s CEO. The strong mayor could push this coastal town out of the doldrums that allow the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer and an endless stream of studies that never achieve anything. The strong mayor would be the one person the voters could hold responsible for city government. If they don’t like what’s happening, then they can elect someone else.

The Pensacola City Council would still pass laws and approve the city budget, so they would provide the necessary checks and balances to insure the mayor doesn’t become a tyrant.

The cost for a mail-in referendum is estimated to be $40,000. If Marty Donovan, Charles Fairchild and their supporters are able to get the 5,000 signatures to force a referendum on the Community Maritime Park, then add the strong mayor idea, too. It would cost us more, by not doing so.

DOES SIZE MATTER? There’s new political therapy floating around town. It’s “Pensacola is too small for a strong mayor.” This gem first surfaced a few weeks ago when Pensacola City Manager Tom Bonfield was interviewed by the Gannett-owned daily newspaper.

Bonfield hypothesized that a strong mayor might work well in a large city, but Pensacola, with its less than 55,000 residents, was too small for such a change in government. Since that article was published, I’ve heard the argument repeated several times.

Let’s first ignore the fact that Bonfield has a vested interested in keeping the current weak mayor system. A local government that has an elected mayor, who is empowered to run the city, doesn’t also have a high-paid city manager.

Let’s ask the question: Does a city like Pensacola with only 54,897 people need a ten-member city council? Sarasota has 53,259 people and a five-member city commission. Bradenton has a mayor and five city council members and only 52,498 residents. It looks like having five more council members in Pensacola, because we have 1,500 to 2,400 more people, is excessive.

Let’s ask the question: Does a city like Pensacola with only 54,897 people need a city manager that makes $140,400 and two assistant city managers averaging $112,000 each? The city manager has two executive assistants whose average annual salaries are $49,450 each. The two assistant city managers each have an executive assistant that make $37,600. The executive assistants have a clerk that makes $27,500. Every man, woman and child in Pensacola is paying $10.29 for the city manager, his assistant managers and their assistants.

Let’s ask the question: Does a city like Pensacola with only 54,897 people need to have a city government that employs 992 people? This means we have almost two employees for every 100 residents.

It’s time to squelch the “Pensacola is too small for a strong mayor” argument. Pensacola is plenty big enough to have a mayor who can lead this city and answer to the citizens every election. If we did have a strong mayor, then maybe Pensacola would become a city of more than 54,897 people.

BIGGER THAN REPORTED Last week, I wrote in my column about the size of Pensacola’s government, which has nearly two employees for every 100 citizens and is spending $561,500 for the city manager, his assistants and their assistants.

However, I overlooked the benefits the city manager and his assistants also receive which total $293,700. This means the city manager and his help are actually are costing $855,200 or $15.58 per citizen.

Moreover, the City of Pensacola has a full legal staff that consists of the city attorney, three assistant attorneys and two legal assistants. Its total budget is $846,100 or $15.41 per man, woman and child.

I’m sure these attorneys and assistant city managers keep busy, but should a city of 54,897 people spend more than $1.7 million on its upper management and attorneys?

That $1.7 million could repair streets and sidewalks, buy books and computers for the public library, fix the drainage on Ninth Avenue, support schools and even cut the grass at the Trillium property.

If we truly want change in Pensacola, it may be time we examine our system of government and ask the question: “Is it helping us grow and improve or is it holding us back?”

CHICKEN IN EVERY POT The City of Pensacola budget is fascinating reading, especially when you consider how small it is – 54,897 as per U.S. Census Bureau’s 2003 estimate. The total personnel costs for the city in 2005-06 fiscal year is $61.8 million.

If the Pensacola City Council were to require all city personnel to live within the city limits, the median household income would increase over $2,500 and move the city within striking distance of the state average.

Heck, maybe the City government should hire every adult living in the city. Everybody would have health insurance, retirement benefits, free parking, plenty of paid holidays and above average pay.

But, of course, that was tried before. It was called communism and it didn’t fair too well.