1. How would you make city government more efficient? Name specific areas where you would propose reducing spending and areas where you’d protect or enhance spending.
Our city government can become more efficient by focusing its efforts and financial resources on the basic functions of government: public safety, roads, parks and utilities. It should avoid spending resources and money on other efforts that are based on political agendas or the financial wishes of special interests of well connected corporations. If we focus on basic functions first, we can meet our financial obligations. We need to return to a level of government spending in about 2001 modified for inflation and population ($330 million annually before adjustment). City spending peaked at $482 million in 2011 and was $468 million in 2012 with the first ever run of deficit spending in city history at $51.9 million over two years.
We need to modify the unsustainable pension and health benefits provided to government workers to be more in line with those working in the private sector; they need to be sustainable over the long term. The average payout of salary and benefits to active city workers in St. Petersburg is about $75,000. However the median income in St. Petersburg is about $25,000. It is not acceptable to expect 245,000 city residents to transfer their wealth to about 3,000 government workers in this way, especially if there is no plan for long term fiscal sustainability of the government. That is truly an example of the 99% of the city population supporting the 1% of the population that are employed by our government.
The most important thing the City government should do would be to begin a five year transition out of the defined benefit plans to a defined contribution plan. There is currently a $144 million unfunded liability for plans that are only 78-83% funded for general workers, Police Officers and Firefighters. The city is assuming an unrealistic annual rate of return of 7.75-8%. The last financial audit has the city receive and annual return of 0.7%. Even at the height of property tax collections in 2007, the city still did not fund its pension plans at 100%. These actuarial assumptions are unsound and thus require never ending tax and fee hikes on our citizens that continue to hurt the economy. Meanwhile, the government looks to cut basic services, usually to send money to the unfunded pension and health benefits. The health benefits for retirees has zero dollars saved! There is a $177 million unfunded liability for these benefits. The health insurance costs for city workers continue to go up despite transforming to a self-funded insurance plan. The idea that a city government wellness center for city employees will save money is folly. After this was instituted in Tampa, there was still a shortfall in their budget, over a million dollars of which was due to escalating health insurance costs. The city should offer one amount to each employee for health benefits and let the employee choose how to spend it. They should offer what the city’s taxpayers’ can afford. The should encourage and incentivize the use of health savings account and high deductible health plans which have been shown to control costs, encourage personal wellness and preventative health activities and help all people regardless of income level.
In addition, the city needs to return to a true zero-based budgeting, not the so called “modified” zero-based budgeting in effect now. Every year, each department should justify its budget and activities. The current spending spree in St. Petersburg needs to end. The city has spent record amounts of money in recent years. The highest city spending on record was in 2011 at $482 million and the last two years the city has spent $51.9 million more than it has taken in. This is the first deficit spending by the city in recorded City history. The city is spending an average of $1,500 more for a family of four than it spent in 2001 despite having 3,500 fewer residents and 365 fewer government workers! Without a change in approach to spending and government activities, the citizen and the economy will be subjected to continued tax hikes. Last year property taxes went up $10 million and another $10 million hike in taxes and water fees (combined) is planned for next year. Garbage bill collections is up $19 million over five years. The city has placed excess taxes in reserves with an excess reserve level of $81 million. That money should be returned partially to the taxpayers ($10 million next year), used for pay raises for city employees ($2-$10 million based on their acceptance of pension reform) and use to fill the hole in our unfunded retirement liabilities ($60 million).
The Unions and the City –as the representative of the taxpayer first – need to come together to solve the pension and health benefit problem. They city 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. 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.
If we change direction with city fiscal policy and keep more money in the private sector, we can have an economic boom from the resulting private stimulus unlike anything seen in this region in the last two decades.
2. Pinellas voters are expected to vote in November 2014 on raising the sales tax by 1 cent to pay for better bus service and a light rail system? Do you support the referendum and the proposed route into downtown?
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 $30 million in property tax revenue for the PSTA is removed (which I would insist on if passed). It will harm our consumers business and our economy as a whole if we 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 he was commission to author 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 is 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 buses. 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 by the presence of rail.
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 expect the PSTA to do a better job with the funds it raises and bring in more from fares and ad revenues so they can build a better bus system. Rather than give employees pay raises and benefits that riders of the bus themselves do not enjoy, they should focus spending on better bus service for their customers. We should look at competition from private mass transit buses, shuttles, vans and ferries. 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.
3. Do you support or oppose the ballot question that would cancel the contract for the new Pier, and why? If voters approve the ballot question and the contract is canceled, what should the city do next?
I oppose construction of the Lens and have done so very publicly for over a year. I went to city council in early 2012 to oppose its construction. I am the only candidate to sign the petition to stop the lens and to help collect about 200 signatures on petitions to do so. The other candidates demonstrated their true colors by not signing the petition and not taking a stand until they took their measure of the political dynamics. That is not the kind of leadership this city government needs.
If the voters stop the Lens, 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.
4. What more should the city be doing to address the homeless issue, particularly the homeless in Williams Park? Do you support the city’s commitment as a partner in Pinellas Hope?
The first step is to expect those who are homeless due to substance abuse to take responsibility for themselves. This can be done most effectively by one-on-one action from neighbors. There are great resources for those vagrants who choose to embrace solutions offered at Pinellas Hope. The private and business community must be encouraged to step up to support those programs. They should be given tax breaks if they donate money or time to that facility which could include breaks on property taxes, utility taxes or other rewards such as free tickets to Ray’s games, golf rounds or free tickets or use of the Mahaffey. That is the essence of the “Good Neighbor Reward Program” I am proposing which will encourage help with the homeless as well as kids who need help reading, prisoners who have recidivism problems, single mothers who need some mentoring and others in need. The city should focus any spending on these social issues in these ways – ways that encourage support by the private sector or individual citizens for their neighbors.
However, there are vagrants who refuse to take advantage of the abundant opportunities to reform their life. If they are recidivist offenders through public drunkenness, vandalism, exposure, and loitering laws, they should suffer the full consequences under law, including mandatory, longer term jail time. The revolving door policy of safe harbor is compounding the problem by providing an easy way for these people to get a free night’s stay and three hot meals. It is time for those who refuse to live by our laws to suffer the consequences. The Sheriff should pay the cost of incarcerating recidivists. When it is clear that there will be no “free ride” in St. Pete with the revolving door of Safe Harbor, the recidivist vagrants will move elsewhere as has been shown in multiple other towns and cities.
For those who truly are down on their luck and need a hand, I again will ask the private community to step up as it has done for so many years and help them. We need to support organizations like Faith House, Resurrection House, CASA, Pinellas Hope and others with tax breaks for those who support the effort by direct individual action and financial contribution. It will cost the city the same as giving money directly to these organizations and will start orienting our private community to the needs their brothers and sisters, rather than just letting the government “take care of it”.
Regarding Williams Park, I think the solutions applied there are the same I would apply anywhere. Moving the bus terminals to another location won’t solve the homeless problem without other steps I mentioned.
5. How do you assess the performance of the police department? Is the city generally safe? What would you change with regard to law enforcement?
Our Police department is doing a good job in general and safety is at reasonable levels but could always be better. There are problems with crime in midtown that I think should be addressed with a more active and stronger police presence to drive out drugs, crime and gangs. The people of midtown deserve safety and security and it is time to take on those issues head on with no role for political correctness. That said, I am glad that the Department fired the officer who fired into a moving car. It is sad that the training provided instructing that person not to do that did not “stick” and prevent that. That had the potential of turning into another riot as this incident was nearly identical to the Tyron Lewis episode in 1996.
I would work to change the Ray’s contract to dedicate half of the annual 30,000 hours directing traffic at Ray’s games to on the street police work to root out chronic crime problems in midtown and elsewhere. That should be part of a negotiated deal to end all subsidies with the Rays so they can look elsewhere to build a stadium if they wish.
6. What are the necessary strategies to continue to improve the economic and social health of the Midtown area?
First and foremost should be the establishment of property rights as the basis of prosperity. When people own their property, they are independent and can prosper and pass it on to their family. The past practice of eminent domain to steal property from African-Americans and others must stop. I will work to pass laws to make it completely illegal to seize property by eminent domain without the beneficiary paying true market value for the asset. Some of the land assembled for the stadium was done in this way. In addition the practice of buying properties with tax liens that are later transferred to government subsidized projects should be scrutinized and limited. That is how people were unfairly deprived of their property values when land was assembled for the doomed-from-the-start Sweetbay complex.
We need more money in the hands of people through lower taxes and lower utility bills. We need better long-term jobs that can be taken by those with lower levels of academic achievement. We should work to lower the tax and regulatory environment to attract multiple manufacturing companies to our city to provide those jobs. We should consider attracting a company to build another natural gas electrical plant that can compete with Duke Energy and sell energy cheaper here in St. Pete and on the open market in ways that grow our economy (this will require work by our city lobbyists at the state level).
Socially, we need to expect more people to reach out to their neighbors in ways I described above with the Good Neighbor Reward program. We need to encourage people to get together where common ground exists to help solve racial relationship issues. Interfaith worship and bible study is a great place to start. I am working with a group called St. Pete Together (a new version of the old Community Alliance) to help solve these long standing problems. When people reach out one-on-one to their neighbors, real, long-term change occurs. Let’s reward that behavior with tax breaks, breaks on utility bills, forgiveness of parking tickets, free Rays’ games and tickets for other city amenities.
7. How would you build on the city’s neighborhood revitalization efforts, particularly in an era of limited city resources?
I would focus first on safety through a regular and visible police presence. Drug houses must go and be targeted for elimination. We must make sure streets are kept under repair and speed control (traffic calming applied) where it is requested and/or appropriate. We should encourage neighborhoods to develop community preparedness plans so they can be ready to deal with natural or man-made disasters. I inspired and was later a co-architect (with Darden Rice!) of such a plan in the Allendale neighborhood that received an award from the city. When resources are limited, we should ensure that residents of neighborhoods are able to keep more of their own funds through tax relief so they can be better enabled to revitalize their own neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods (e.g. old Northeast) have ample revenues from business activities and they can set a model for other neighborhoods.
8. What would be your approach to the Rays owners’ interest in a new stadium? Would you vote to allow the Rays to study potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for a limited time in return for some compensation for the city?
The Ray’s can have a new stadium if they pay for it themselves. The days of taxpayer financing of sports stadiums is coming to an end and should no longer occur in St. Petersburg. It is not fair to the citizens to subsidize a wealthy corporation in this way and the data is clear from both Brookings and Cato that such funding does not create economic growth but merely redistributes wealth from the poor and middle class to the well connected and the rich.
Yes, the city should make a deal to remove all subsidies from the Rays in exchange for them being able to look elsewhere. However, part of the deal must be that they maintain all obligations to the taxpayers for paying back any debt on the stadium if they leave before their contract is up. That is non-negotiable.
9. Name three policies pushed by Mayor Bill Foster during his administration that you support and would advocate continuing. Name three others that you would want to change.
I agree with his conversion of the health insurance plan to a self-funded plan, but it must be managed better to realize true savings (through the use of health savings accounts and high deductible health plans).
I agree with his engagement of the religious community and would expand that as much as possible within the law.
I agree with his “modified” zero-based budgeting to a point, but it has not saved money. It needs to be modified to a full, true zero-based budgeting approach.
I disagree with his management of the Pier. It was a fiasco that he could have avoided long ago by pushing for a referendum at City Council or leading them away from the Lens concept altogether.
I disagree with his $10 million tax hike last year and his proposed $10 million combined property tax and water bill hike this coming year.
I disagree with his unwillingness to work in any way at all to modify city worker pension and health benefits to ensure long-term fiscal sustainability, protect government workers and taxpayers.
10. What should be the city council’s role versus the role of the mayor?
The city council should take more of a role in creating and approving the budget in advance. They should refuse to approve any budget with a tax hike and should insist on a plan to reform the unsustainable pension and health benefit plans. The city council needs to participate in the development of a strategic plan to revitalize the city’s economy. The plan should focus on the perennial overspending, the excessive taxation and utility bills, the excess regulation and their impact on the citizens. Such a plan will help the city develop a more inclusive prosperity for all residents and help to begin to address the chronic social problems facing all of us.