What is your motivation in running for this office?
I want to help lead our city in a different direction, one that promotes a level of prosperity not seen before in St. Petersburg, a Prosperity that comes from free markets, responsible government and empowered individuals in a moral society.
I feel that it is my duty to step forward to provide a new kind of leadership in St. Petersburg city government. The city council needs a leader who understands the city budget, economics, business, the values of free markets and the needs and expectations of individual taxpayers and citizens. That leader must have the ability, courage and will to stand up to keep taxes and spending low even in the face of cries for more spending and more taxes. The current city council is far too beholden to various political factions and do not do their primary job of serving the actual citizens of St. Petersburg. My goal is to make St. Petersburg citizens take back control of their government so it can be “their city” again, which is why my campaign theme is “It’s Your City”. On our current trajectory, our government will be facing bankruptcy within a decade and will cut services and raise taxes on the way there. A new direction is needed to keep us from following this path that has characterized similar size cities around the nation.
I hope to lead by rededicating our government to living by the principles that made our country great. I dedicated a monument these principles called “Founders Corner” in Northeast St. Pete (4th St. N and 62nd Ave N). Those principles are: Natural Rights and Individual Liberty, Limited Government and Consent of the Governed, Property Rights and Free Markets, and Equal Justice and Rule of Law. If we embrace these principles and ensure more freedom and more economic power in the hands of individuals and businesses, those people will bring our city to a level of greatness never before seen. These economically empowered people will also help lift themselves and others out of poverty and begin to heal the wounds of decades of social problems in St. Petersburg.
What are your goals, if elected?
My goals are the goals of the community and individual citizens: freedom, peace, prosperity and a moral society. I will lead to ensure that we accomplish five things: 1) A low cost of living, 2) Prosperity and job growth, 3) an Accountable government we can afford, 4) freedom for our citizens and 5) a community of neighbors.
My goal is to create conditions so that our economy will grow and return people to a moral orientation to each other. To accomplish the former, we should create a city environment of low taxes and minimal regulations that will grow and attract more business and development. With that environment we can attract manufacturing, grow medical tourism, and grow clean, natural gas-based energy. I will work to have the City of St. Petersburg create policies that ensures a sound basis for prosperity for all through responsible spending, less taxation, less regulation and more freedom. The city has been taking too much money out of the hands of private citizens and the economy through taxes, fees, fines and utility bills for over a decade. The city has been too aggressive in regulating private commerce through actions such as banning all food trucks, banning reasonable electronic sign usage, unnecessarily difficult codes compliance and development requirements and more. The city has denied freedom to citizens through actions such as red light cameras that have increased traffic accidents, interference with free speech through attempted bans on sign spinners and more. These actions have played a major part in creating our poor economic performance.
Finally, we must encourage a “community of neighbors” where people help each other directly and do not constantly rely on government programs that often underperform and cause unintended consequences. My innovative “Good neighbor reward program” will reward individuals that volunteer their time or contribute financially to help others. These people would be rewarded through reward points they can trade in for tax breaks, forgiveness of fines and tickets, and free city perks (Ray’s tickets, free golf rounds and more). Only by building a moral society where we help each other as neighbors will we overcome decades of social problems that never seem to change. That will not be done by government, but through the vast private resource of churches, neighbors, community groups and businesses.
What role can the business community play to assist you in achieving your goals?
Again, my goals are the goals of the community and individual citizens: freedom, peace, prosperity and a moral society. The business community can help those goals be accomplished by standing up to insist that they function in a minimally taxed, minimally regulated environment. They can grow their businesses so that jobs and prosperity proliferate. They can return some of their profits to the community through private charitable acts and donations that help us rebuild a moral society where neighbors treat each other with respect and help each other overcome the challenges of life.
More tangibly, the business community can stand with me as I run for office. They can support my candidacy with courage as the predictable attacks come to prevent my election. They can insist that issues are discussed in public discourse and not meaningless matters that are designed to trigger emotionally-based opposition. When the unions and politicians use scare tactics to attack my positions to responsibly reform pension plans, or seek to destroy me because they don’t want such reform, I would ask the business community to stand with me and explain to the citizens how a new direction is needed for our city government.
I would appreciate financial assistance to my campaign from the business community. I could use volunteers to canvass the city door to door. I could use locations to place large and small campaign signs and a general dissemination of my campaign message to the citizens. I will be facing a $100,000 campaign from an extreme politicians who seeks domination by Unions, government and endless tax hikes in St. Petersburg. I will need help to overcome that so the citizens can get the message to find a new kind of candidate they haven’t seen in St. Petersburg for many years: a candidate who will serve them first and put them in charge of our government.
St. Pete Chamber’s Top Policy Issues:
1. The debate over the Lens has been divisive. St. Petersburg’s Pier will never be the same. Tell us how you will work to unite the citizens of St. Petersburg. What is your plan for restoring our pride in our waterfront?
I will work to offer a solution that the citizens can support that can also build a great pier and actually pay money to the city, rather than taking subsidies from the city. I will work to issue a request for proposal to private developers to assume a long term lease of the Pier to build a new pier that meets the general architectural, access and commercial specifications of the city government. I will first work to mobilize the voters to allow such a long term lease in an election in 2014, perhaps a special election. The citizens are ready for a new approach on leasing this waterfront asset in a responsible way. This lease model or private financing model has been done before in the city, most recently with the HMA lease of the Bayfront Medical Center Property. It has been done for the Mahaffey and Baywalk and even the Stadium!
We can protect our waterfront and produce a great pier that pays our city and that provides true economic growth in St. Petersburg. This model worked well at the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan where $127 million of exclusively private money was spent to remodel a public pier on a long term lease. I would ask the business community and other partners to step up with a campaign to promote such a solution for St. Petersburg. Continuing to finance such projects through TIF funding will produce mediocre results and further strain the resources of the city. The city’s portion of TIF funds for the downtown redevelopment area should be returned to the general fund to provide more resources for tax relief and meeting other obligations such as funding underfunded retirement benefits.
2. Economic development and job creation is the primary goal of the Chamber. Please tell us about your economic development goals for the City (and your district). If you are elected, what strategies will you implement to accomplish your goals? How will your strategies be funded? How would you use the Chamber to help accomplish your goals?
I don’t believe that St. Petersburg is living up to its economic or social potential. My goal is for extensive economic growth that spreads prosperity to more citizens through jobs and commerce. St. Petersburg is going to have to change direction to ensure this occurs. They will need to embrace the concept that a minimally taxed and minimally regulated free market is the source of prosperity. That means the city will need to stop raising all forms of taxes, utility bills, fees, fines and actually begin cutting all of these. The city will have to have leaders on their council that will not only cut taxes, but stand up for businesses. They will need great courage to withstand the constant desire of a variety of special interest groups to pass regulations that serve narrow and questionable agendas that actually hurt businesses. There is no other candidate in this District four council race that has the parliamentary and political skills, knowledge, experience, principles and courage to accomplish that task beside me.
There will need to be a level playing field for business which means that the city will need to be very careful about subsidization of one business over another. The Chamber and the business community should prefer a city government that creates a low tax and regulation environment in which all can thrive, rather than a government with a large economic development budget to distribute to businesses that have passed the right political tests. In the end, even those businesses selected in that fashion will be turned on by a government that endlessly needs more money and is populated by politicians thristing primarily for their next election. Many business ideas funded by the city have produced disappointing results. While they have been effective in redistributing taxpayer funds, they often have not produced the economic boom or jobs expected.
That said, there is a role for attracting large and new businesses to the City. We should work together as a community to grow the medical economy, including medical tourism. We should work to attract manufacturing which could provide good jobs to those with lower skills. We should consider growing our natural gas electrical generating capacity with a new plant fueled by abundant natural gas from the Gulf. There will be roles for tax breaks and regulatory relief to attract such businesses, but the same breaks should apply to all whenever possible.
I would ask the Chamber to work with the business community to insist on a friendlier tax and regulatory environment in the City at the government level with me as their effective ally on the Council. I would ask the Chamber to help promote and defend the value and principles of a true market based economy in the city. The Chamber could also assist with networking outside of the city to help attract more business to St. Petersburg.
3. The proposed, comprehensive, multi-modal transportation plan will connect St. Petersburg, the Gateway area, and Clearwater. Will you support an additional penny of sales tax to fund the transit plan? Why/Why not? Does your position change if the increased sales tax is linked with a reduction in property taxes?
This is appears to be the only issue where I disagree with the Chamber on our current direction. I hope to convince our Chamber that the goal of building light rail and expanding the PSTA as currently envisioned is not the best direction for St. Petersburg or the region. In this regard, I am on the same page as Senator Jeff Brandes who has similarly made his views known and is still an effective and strong ally of the Chamber.
I do not support the 14% sales tax hike to support the envisioned transit plan. It will draw an additional $100 million out of the economy, if the property tax revenue for the PSTA is removed (which I would insist on if passed). My position does not change if the property tax reduction occurs. It will be a harm to our economy and to businesses to create the highest county sales tax in Florida. Even with the additional sales tax revenue, only 50% of the funding required for rail is raised. The rest will have to come from an ever stressed federal government in a changing political climate over the next 10-20 years. Hardly a sure bet. Furthermore, there will be substantial damages to the vast majority of businesses that are not close to or served by the rail system or bus routes. They will be asked to continue to pay taxes and collect taxes that will be diverted to “transit-oriented development” that will benefit their competitors. Meanwhile, their business will suffer as zoning laws are changed to prevent them from expanding in their current locations or building outside the approved development zones associated with the rail corridor. Even a supporter of the Rail, UC Berkley Professor Cervero, admitted in a Federal Transit Administration report that “Urban rail transit investments rarely ‘create’ new growth, but more typically redistribute growth that would have taken place without the investment.”
The rail will not produce the results that have been promised. In charlotte not even the second of five promised lines have been completed and already there is a call for another sales tax hike and more revenue from other sources. Congestion has been shown to increase as lanes are cannibalized for tracks and road money cannibalized for mass transit. The promised Real estate development did not occur in Portland in the anticipated areas even in the middle of a construction boom there in the 90’s. The environmental argument cannot be supported as the amount of energy to build and operate such system are equivalent to the total consumed by cars. Also, a phenomenon known as “Rail apartheid” has occurred in multiple cities as bus service in poor neighborhoods are cannibalized to pay for rail – hurting those residents. In addition, the subsidized cost per mile per traveler is actually far lower for cars on roads than it is riders on rail or busses. In my frequent trips to Chicago, as I am parked on the interstate from the airports to downtown with half full trains whizzing by, it is clear that people are still not motivated to get out of their cars.
We need to work on more modern approaches to transportation, not a 19th century rail solution. We should build toll and high occupancy vehicle lanes. We should look as smaller bus and van models for transit on customizable lines and schedules. We should look at competition from private mass transit busses, shuttles, vans and ferry’s. We can do better and I will work to stop the current light rail and PSTA proposal because I am convinced it is a bad approach for the region and our citizens that will backfire and harm the economy and business.
4. Do you support an amended agreement between the Tampa Bay Rays and the City which will allow the team to consider a stadium site outside the city, but within the Tampa Bay region? How would you propose to amend the agreement to protect the rights of the City?
I am certain that the Rays are in a position now to exit the city of St. Petersburg with little loss to themselves and with the citizens left holding a large and unwanted stadium. This is an example of a long term business deal the city made that did not produce in the way it was promised and has cost the taxpayers a great deal of money without great benefit to the economy as a whole. As with Rail, the Cato and the Brookings Institute both agree that taxpayer funding of stadiums merely redistributes wealth within a community and rarely produces new economic activity.
Based on this, I do believe the Rays and the city should amend their contract to allow the Rays to look but ONLY in ways that completely protect the citizens of St. Petersburg to the greatest extent possible. The contract should be amended to remove all subsidizes from the Rays including free direction of traffic by our Police department which adds 30,000 over time hours per year to the budget and creates a spike for purposes of Pension vesting that further exacerbates our pension problems. If we can remove all subsidies, then such a move is reasonable, but again only if the Rays are required to honor all financial obligations to the city. If they leave, they should be required to pay for the stadium the city built for them with the expectation that they would stay to the greatest extent possible.
5. If the Rays move into a new stadium, whether within city limits or somewhere else, it appears likely that the Tropicana Field site will be available for other uses. What do you envision as a future use of the current stadium site? If (re)elected, what steps would you take to bring your vision to reality?
Ideally the entire site should be developed by a private developer in ways that create long term prosperity in the city. I would like to see manufacturing, energy production or a similar economically productive enterprise at that location. Certainly more residential and mixed commercial development would be useful, but I would rather see a grander scale of development that helps convert us from a bedroom community to a premier city. Such development in the productivity sector would create much needed and long term local jobs, perhaps for lower-skilled workers in our city. I would work to lower taxes and regulations and ensure that impediments to such development are removed. I would look at finding a way to repeal the franchise fee in that zone if a large, energy intensive plant or operation could be placed there as an incentive to bring them in. The lack of franchise fees in county areas outside of city limits has helped development in this fashion and should be a lesson for St. Petersburg. We have got to put aside petty agendas that are directed toward “green initiatives” and “historic preservation” and the like if we are going to break out of our economic stagnation and make our city and our country great again.
6. Do you believe that every citizen, every neighborhood has shared in the City’s prosperity during the past decade? Please list and prioritize the reasons why St. Petersburg does or does not enjoy inclusive prosperity?
No, there has not been an equal participation economic prosperity in St. Petersburg. First and foremost taxes, fees, fines and utility bills are too high. We are beginning to see a divided society between those who belong to and benefit from the large government with its large budgets (the “political class”) and the average citizen. The economic growth of our businesses and city is stunted as is the upward mobility of individuals in this environment. The political class enjoys a better standard of living due to this while the average citizens are not enjoying a true “inclusive prosperity”. I will explore this issue more below.
There is also continued and tragic stagnation in midtown that has surprised me as I had hoped we would have seen more progress since my childhood here. The reasons are complex. I believe the government has created a culture of dependency that has perpetuated these problems. The breakdown of the family is also a major contributor to this problem. In addition, our children are not being well served by our government run schools resulting in an African-American Achievement gap for educational performance. There has been no end to government funding and government assistance programs, but the problems grow worse for many. There are of course many success stories in midtown, but they are not as frequent as they should be and nearly always due to individual initiative and hard work, not government assistance. It is time that our community changed course and worked one on one, neighbor-to-neighbor to help each other progress economically, morally and spiritually. I have proposed the “Good Neighbor Reward Program” that will reward citizens who step up to help their neighbors through the use of tax breaks, relief of fines and parking tickets, free tickets to Rays’ games, golf rounds or other city amenities. We need to encourage individual to “adopt” a kid in academic trouble and teach them how to read. We need to see more people stepping up to help support single mothers. When prisoners return to a community, individuals who embrace them and keep them in the community should be recognized. Far too often we see community groups and well meaning groups like “FAST” (Faith and Action for Strength Together) agitating for government programs that have already proven to fail or disappoint. Instead such groups should challenge their individual members to work one on one with their neighbors to build this community. There also needs to be a renewed respect and support of our churches in this community. It is time for our elected officials to embrace and promote our houses of worship as a necessary and profoundly effective basis for a moral society that promotes brotherly love and charity.
7. Pam Dubov, the Pinellas County Property Appraiser, reports that property values have increased 3.74% in St. Petersburg, the first increase in several years. How do you propose to handle the increased revenues? If the City is confronted with a deficit, what steps would you propose to balance the budget?
There should be no increased revenues to the city government based on an increase in property values at this point. The citizens and businesses are suffering under an undue and excessive burden of taxes, fees, fines and utility bills that are chilling the economy and stopping prosperity. There is a current proposal to increase property tax revenues about $3.2 million next year for the city while offering an illusory cut in property tax rates. This is the same model that lead to the property tax crisis from 2006-2008 that so damaged our economy. The city leaders warned that if they could not keep raising revenues in this way that the Police and Fire departments would be severely damaged, parks would be overgrown and roads would be unpassable. That was, of course, untrue as evidenced by the drop in property tax collections from $103 million in 2007 to about $68million in 2012.
The city has already had a deficit for the last two years – a record deficit. The city, for the first time in recent recorded city history has spent $51.9 million more than it has collected in the last two years. This city has grown to record levels of spending, having spent more than ever in its history at $482 million in 2011 compared to $330 million in 2001. Even with these conditions, the city has placed and excess $81 million into reserves beyond its own reserve targets of 16.7-25% depending on the fund.
A key source of the excessive spending is out of control pension and employee benefit plans that are simply unsustainable. This needs to be a target of reform over the next five years. I am the only candidate running with the skill, knowledge and political courage to tackle this problem head on and lead the way to true reform. The goal should be a conversion to a defined contribution model for pension plans as soon as possible. Defined benefit plans are economically unsustainable and the taxpayers cannot afford them. Also, they simply will not deliver as promised for future beneficiaries despite the promises of politicians and Union leaders. Pension trust funds are already underfunded at 78-83.7% and falling; they assume an unrealistic rate of return of 7.75-8% per year. This is compared to the -0.7% return in the last audit of the retirement plans conducted by the City’s consultants. The health benefit plans must also be reformed, as the city has saved no money to meet its $177 million unfunded liability for retired government work health benefits! The retirement benefit issue is a prime example of where the Union and the City must come together to find common ground. They must develop a transition plan out of defined benefit plans. I would point out that active and retired government workers cannot count on the city to meet its retirement obligations. Taxes cannot be raised enough to fully fund obligations without harming the economy in serious ways. At the height of property tax collections in 2007, the retirement plan was still not 100% funded. I would work to pass incentives to allow government workers to choose to be bought out of the defined benefit plan and to choose a defined contribution plan. Incentives could include pay raises, earlier vestments and altered “last-in, first-out” rules, portability of benefits, free financial planning advice and other solutions the Union may present. Failure to reform pension plans will result in government workers not receiving promised benefits because the city will be at high risk of bankruptcy as has occurred in numerous cities across the nation. That is fiscally irresponsible.
In addition, the city needs to go to a true zero based budgeting model. The current “modified” zero based budget model has not worked to bring the city departments under control. The city departments continue to adopt the philosophy that they must spend every penny they get or risk not having an increase in their budget next year. Serious analysis needs to be given to all city spending. The city must focus all its efforts first and foremost on its basic functions of Public safety, Roads, Parks and utilities.
Finally, I have a plan to cut taxes now, begin to fund the pensions and give employees long deserved pay hikes – based solely on merit, not seniority. I would return $10 million from the excess reserve funds to the citizens through property tax cuts and cuts in water and sanitation bills. I would take $2 million from reserves to offer an average $750 pay raise to workers now or up to $10 million in exchange for the serious pension reforms. Finally, I would take $60 million from excess reserves and transfer them to the pension funds and unfunded retirement health benefits. The following years, there will be less of a need to draw on the general fund for health and pension payouts, allowing continued lower taxes and support for pay raises. Further cuts based on true zero based budgeting will also help finance these changes. Finally, it should be our goal to return our city to a spending level of about $330 million present in 2001, adjusted for inflation and population change. As it stands now, the citizens are paying more and more for government and getting less and less. For instance the government costs an average family of four and extra $1,500 per year compared to 2001 and that is with 3,500 fewer residents and 365 fewer government workers.
What I am offering is courageous leadership to create true fiscal responsibility for our government. Focusing the government in this way will help take the chains off our economy and produce a greater and more inclusive prosperity and, according to the Laffer curve, actually create even great tax revenues overall to the government from the resultant broader tax base in a booming economy.