NEWS BUZZ

Florida Is Cheap and Proud, Alvin Brown Is Tony Soprano, and We’re All Getting Unicorns!

The week that was in Northeast Florida

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We’re Screwed

So, um, Florida sucks. We’re not saying that just to be mean, though we do like to be mean. We’re saying it because we’ve got data. It’s empirical – and across the board: schools, roads, infrastructure, education, jobs. Suck, suck, suck, suck, suck.

Such are the findings of a new study from the LeRoy Collins Institute. Authored by University of Florida economists David Denslow and James Dewey, it’s a follow-up to a 2005 report, Tougher Choices: Shaping Florida’s Future, which found that Florida was too reliant on the housing boom (remember that?) for its economic fortunes and too disinterested in building for the future.

“This report … finds little progress since 2005,” Denslow and Dewey write.

Ugh.

“In a lot of ways, the state of Florida is really near the bottom of the barrel,” Dewey tells us.

Ugh again.

Let’s dig in to some of the … well, highlights doesn’t seem like the right word: We have an economy dependent on retirees and tourists, and consequently too many low-wage service jobs. Not coincidentally, per-student spending and teacher salaries are both behind not only the nation, but also the South. We spend less on higher education than every other state in the country, and our young people are less likely to be college-educated than their peers in other states. Our middle class has totally collapsed. We have precious few high-skill, high-wage jobs. Medicaid is already the state’s largest expenditure, and, even though we’re less generous with care than most states, it’s going to keeping suffocating the budget because we have lots of shit jobs and poor people. The gas tax, the thing we rely on to pay for roads to be built and repaired, isn’t indexed for inflation, so we can’t keep up with infrastructure, even though congestion is godawful in all of the state’s urban areas.

Depressed yet?

“No longer can Florida be a state that is cheap and proud of it,” the report says. “That seems unfortunate, if not silly, in a competitive, global economy that feeds on high-skilled jobs.”

In other words, we’re screwed. Or, in academic-speak: “The news is grim.”

Need some cheering up? Georgia is now letting its yahoos have Confederate flag license plates. At least we’re not them.

Good Money after Bad

Because bad ideas never really die, Jacksonville City Councilman Richard Clark has introduced legislation to spend $60,000 to update a seven-year-old feasibility study on a new convention center, setting wheels in motion that will, if successful, lead to taxpayers shelling out upward of $300 million for a fancy new edifice.

Back in 2007, you’ll recall, the city’s study identified several options for expanding or replacing the Prime Osborn Convention Center, which opened in 1986. The biggest knocks against the Prime Osborn are its distance from Downtown and the lack of major hotels nearby. So the feasibility study recommended either expanding the convention center, building a new one in two phases next to the Hyatt Regency Riverfront Hotel, or building a new center across the river from EverBank Field on JEA-owned land.

Mayor Alvin Brown, meanwhile, campaigned on bringing a “world-class” convention center Downtown, and has said he wants any new facility to be part of a Downtown development master plan.

Which, if you want a more robust Downtown, and we do, sounds lovely. Until you consider the reality of the situation: The convention industry is dying. Newer and bigger and better buildings won’t save it.

Between 2000 and 2010, according to The Wall Street Journal, convention centers nationwide lost 40 million attendees per year, even as the amount of convention space nearly doubled in the last two decades. These expansions are – as Jacksonville’s will no doubt be – financed by loads of debt that cities take on with the promise of convention riches just beyond the horizon. But with cities everywhere pumping more and more money into these things, making them grander and grander, while competing for a smaller pool of conventioneers, you end up with a death spiral of diminishing returns.

In fiscal year 2013, attendance at the Prime Osborn was 20,000 people below its 2006 level — 195,909 to 215,670. This is a marginal improvement from 2011 and 2012, when the convention center drew about 190,000 attendees.  

An Offer You Can’t Refuse

Speaking of Hizzoner, did you know Mayor Brown is the Tony Soprano of Jax politics? At least according to Peter Bower, the CEO of Riverplace Capital Management and Brown’s interim appointment to the JEA board of directors. Bower wants a full four-year term. And, he says, Brown is willing to give it to him – for a price.

Brown, you know because you read this publication with a religious fervor found only in Kentucky snake-handlers, wants the JEA to make his proposed pension fix work by conjuring up $40 million a year [Cover Story, “Jacksonville’s Pension Crisis: An Explainer,” Ron Word, Feb. 12]. According to Bower, Brown’s chief financial officer, Ronnie Belton, asked him before a JEA meeting last week to vote in favor of the mayor’s proposal … or else. Nice job you have there. Be a shame if something happened to it.

Bower refused, then declined Belton’s alleged request to resign, then whined to the Times-Union about Brown’s “strong-arming.”

Belton disputes Bower’s version of events. But no matter. The chairman of the Duval County Republican Party is demanding a state investigation, which of course is only about good governance and not at all about election-season point-scoring.

In any event, while it looked like Brown was going to hold up Bower’s reappointment, now the mayor says he supports keeping him in that post.

Magnanimity, thy name is Alvin Brown.

Free Unicorns!

Except, that is, when it comes to polls he doesn’t like. 

Earlier this week, the University of North Florida released a wide-ranging new poll of Duval residents. Some of the findings were less than surprising: You want better schools and are worried about crime. (Stop being so damned paranoid, people. Crime rates are at historic lows.) You’d also overwhelmingly like the city to pass that human rights ordinance (duh) and are apathetic about Downtown (really?). 

You’re also cheap: 56 percent of you don’t want higher taxes to shore up the city’s pension, and 73 percent (!) of you oppose the mayor’s plan to raid the JEA. You’d rather make city workers work longer and pay more toward their own retirements. 

Brown’s office, which has been fighting back a tide of media scorn since the JEA idea left his lips, isn’t having it. A few hours after that poll’s release, Brown flack David DeCamp blasted out a response deriding the Times-Union’s misstated headline and coverage online.” (He used to work there. Awkward.) 

DeCamp’s beef is that the poll told respondents that JEA’s “increased contribution might lead to higher electric rates,” which is pretty much what JEA officials say, as they don’t have $40 million a year lying around in the petty cash drawer.

“Mayor Brown does not support a rate increase,” DeCamp wrote in his missive. Instead, he says, the city can help JEA “find savings and revenue opportunities,” including shaving off a half-billion dollars from the utility’s pension costs.

See how that works? All benefits, no costs. Money for nothing, chicks for free. Everyone wins! And had the UNF poll framed the question that way, more people would support it. 

You would also support free unicorns. And so would we.

– Jeffrey C. Billman and Ron Word

Tags: pension, tony soprano, alvin brown, unicorns, florida, florida sucks, convention center
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