Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Paving the way for the new government

The approval of the new charter was a big step in shaping Pensacola's future. The community expressed a collective hope that the future will be bright as well as progressive.

The charter that was ratified provides the general outlines of the government. It is the current council's job to take the next step and create a structure that establishes a government which reflects the wishes expressed through the vote on November 24th.

One of the most progressive elements in this new structure is the separation of powers and the creation of checks and balances, like those that exist in our federal government. This balance is not created to provide conflict but rather to ensure that decisions are given due consideration. The mayor, or the executive branch, provides leadership. The council, or legislative branch, is the deliberative body. In order to achieve the best potential of this structure, both branches must have sufficient strength to provide the necessary checks and balances.

The vision of the voters who eagerly embraced this new charter would be undermined if the new government results in a rubber-stamp council. Indeed, previous councils have been accused of being rubber stamps, and that is part of the impetus that led to this charter change. The citizens have been clear that they do not want that. Nor would a good strong mayor want a council of yea sayers who existed only to ratify his wishes. He would expect his ideas to be strong enough to weather debate and would welcome suggestions and changes that improve on his ideas.

If the City Council is to function effectively, however, the council needs access to reliable information. And this information needs to be independent of the mayor. With a separation of powers, the council should function autonomously.

This autonomy will require the council to employ an independent staff to provide information and efficient running of the legislative branch of the city government.

What would be the role of the council staff?
  • Setting council agendas
  • Researching issues
  • Staffing boards and commissions
We need to be careful to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy. The council staff would assume some duties currently performed by the city administration. Therefore, the staff should be created by reallocation of resources in the existing organization rather than building bureaucracy.

A council staff will provide the organizational structure to support appropriate checks and balances envisioned in this new charter. Under this structure, issues will get a full vetting by those whom the citizens have chosen to represent them.

I have submitted this proposal to the City Council with the intent to engender a spirit of cooperation and respect for both branches of government. As we take the next steps in establishing the organizational structure that will support the new charter, I believe it is important to embrace the goals of a separation of powers and checks and balance.

By working together the council and mayor can ensure that our city continues to function effectively while pushing forward initiatives that improve our community and build a better Pensacola.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

New Downtown Library - Public Meeting and Grant

Library architecture is one of the most common examples of "palaces for the people". Many of us have a vision of what a library looks like. When I was a kid, we mostly used an old strip-mall library that used to be next to a Delchamps at the intersection of 9th and Creighton. As I got into high school and had to do research, I started using the downtown library, the PJC library, and the UWF library. When I moved away, I began using many other libraries. The two most impressive library buildings I have used were the Boston Public Library, with its works by John Singleton Copley, and the Library of Congress (regular folks can't check out books, but you can access the resources in some fabulous reading rooms). On trips to my in-laws in northern Wisconsin I have seen the central role of Carnegie libraries in many small towns. The design of a community's library conveys much about their character.

With the construction of the new downtown library coming up, we now have a chance to shape the creation of a new palace in Pensacola. Please make plans to go to the public meeting where they will welcome comments and suggestions on the design of the new library. It will be Tuesday, Dec 1, at 6:30 pm at the downtown library, 200 W. Gregory St. Your comments will help create the building that will be a legacy of this era of Pensacola history.

This building is also going to be even better than anticipated, thanks to an energy efficiency and conservation block grant the city was just awarded. This grant will provide funding to make the new building a LEED silver certified building. These improvements will likely result in lower operating costs for the building (not to mention other environmental benefits), thereby providing an ongoing savings.

I hope you will be able to come share your ideas about the new library. As you know, I think libraries are an essential component of a successful city, and this library will provide an opportunity for us to create a signature building that reflects our values and aspirations--a true palace for our community.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

CRA Plan Update

The CRA last year commissioned a team to update the CRA master plan, incorporating many of the already existing plans (Gindroz plan, Belmont Devilliers plan). On this Thursday, Nov 12, at 5:30 at City Hall, they will be presenting the new plan. I hope you will be able to attend and see what the new plan is.

I have received an advanced copy of the plan, and I think it looks pretty great. It aims our downtown toward the future while maintaining our historic character. In some ways it is a summary of a philosophy for the direction of the downtown to help guide public and private improvements. While the CRA is going to be short on funds for the next several years with the maritime park, there are many ways the CRA and the private sector can work together to build our downtown.

I will work hard to make sure this is not another plan on the shelf. I appreciate that it has particular targeted improvements with approximate costs so we can work to include them in the budget. And it can be a spark for how we can all think about developing the many vacant sites in the CRA, both the public properties and the private. While there is a need to wait until the market is stronger for some of the development, we can still push forward many of the elements of the plan.

I hope you can attend the event on Thursday. I am sure that the plan will be posted online as the process progresses, and I will share a link. I welcome your thoughts on the plan--we need to all contribute to steering the direction of the focal point of our city, making it the city we all know it can be.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Every day we all encounter things that we would like to see improved in our community--the poorly up kept property across the street, the safety of their kids on their way to school.

The decisions the council makes are aimed at improving our citizen's daily lives. But, ultimately, we rely on the citizens to help us direct our resources. The best tools the city has for addressing needs are our neighborhood associations.

I have visited many of our neighborhood associations. I've shared information about planned neighborhood improvements, learning about specific neighborhood issues. In Scenic Heights I even got to be present for the birth of a new association. Every meeting is a reminder for me of the central role of neighborhoods in our city.

Neighborhood associations help us get the right city services to each neighborhood. The city has a number of programs available to help associations build their neighborhoods. These include the Pensacola Community Initiatives Program (PCIP) grants, neighborhood planning, and an urban infill program. Many associations have city staff give presentations at their regular meetings, like safety presentations by the police or fire departments, or have councilmembers speak on city issues and hear concerns.

The PCIP grants, in particular, are a great resource for neighborhoods and the city. They are a matching grant for neighborhood improvements, with the city providing dollars and neighborhoods matching with cash, in-kind contributions, or volunteer time. Recent project from these grants include new gazebos in East Hill and Eastgate, entryway signs, right of way landscaping, and park improvements. Applications for the next cycle of PCIP grants are being accepted until Dec 11--more information is available.

Associations also push for additional improvements or targeted services. For example, Cordova Park lobbied hard for sidewalks, which they recently got. Others might request increased code enforcement activity or traffic calming. By coming together the residents can speak with a louder voice.

And ultimately, building community comes down to knowing your neighbors. Associations organize movies in the park and Christmas celebrations, things that help neighbors know neighbors. These relationships are the backbone of our community.

City government, government of all kinds, is a partnership with the citizens. However we structure our government, those in the leadership positions need advisers, need citizens to speak up and share their ideas, thoughts, and concerns.

If you want to get involved in your neighborhood association but need more information, let me know. Or if you don't have an association and would like to start one, I can help get you the right resources so that together we can create the Pensacola we all know it can be.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tryon Library event at Barnes and Nobles

Get an early start on the holidays or just bring the kids for some Halloween fun this Saturday starting at 11 am at Barnes and Nobles on Airport Blvd. It is all for a good cause: raising money for the new Tryon library.

There will be:
  • storytime by city councilmembers (I'm at noon)
  • Wii sports
  • refreshments
How does it raise money for the library? If you are wearing a special sticker, 10% of the price of your purchase will be donated to the library. An important caveat, though, is that the stickers won't be available at the store--you will need to pick them up at a library before the event. You will also have an opportunity to buy books directly for the library from their wish list.

So stop by the library (any branch) this week to get a sticker (and a good book), then come to Barnes and Nobles on Saturday for some fun and fundraising to support our libraries.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hollice Williams Park Visioning Workshop

The community is invited to a visioning workshop for Hollice Williams Park. That's the park under the Interstate, from Cervantes to Yonge. The workshop will be a chance for the community to weigh in on their hopes for the site. A professional landscape architect and planner will be on hand to hear your thoughts and ideas as plans are developed to fully utilize this park as a community asset for multiple purposes.

This linear park encompasses over 5 acres and currently includes Hunter pool, basketball courts, football uprights, and extensive open space. But with your input, we can make this park even better. This park has lots of potential, but we won't know what you would like to see unless you tell us.

What would you like to see? Bike trails? Exercise trail? Skate Boarding? Jogging? Strollers? Come share your thoughts with your neighbors, landscape architects, and city staff.

The workshop will be held Thursday, October 29, 2009 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Loaves & Fishes, 257 E Lee St.

Hope to see you there.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

West Florida Public Library

With the opening of the new Tryon library, it is a good time to consider the value of the investment in the public library system. Public libraries are invaluable for a community. They are a statement about the importance of an educated population, one that continues learning throughout their lives. Libraries today are also more than just a book repository. They provide resources of all kinds, from travel videos to books on cds, from language tapes to internet access. (When we visit my in-laws, we spend time at the local library for high speed internet access so my husband and I can continue to work on our vacations.) Children's programs expand learning opportunities and create life-long library users.

From last October to this July, for example, our library:
  • circulated 646,000 items
  • responded to 65,500 information requests
  • had 510,000 people using one of the branches
  • had 140,000 people using computers
  • had 9,300 children attend programs
Think about this. If, instead of checking things out from the library, people bought 646,000 paperback novels, it would have consumed about 300 trees. Those books would fill 10 miles of shelves. And they would have cost several million dollars.

Sometimes I hear about the future demise of libraries. As more people gain internet access, they will have greater access to online information and there will be no need for reference desks. Kindles and other electronic books will replace print. So far I haven't seen it. Recently I was picking my son up, and another mom was standing reading from a Kindle. I asked her about it. She loves it, particularly having a selection of books for her recent flight, moving here from Okinawa. But, she said, she also loves libraries, browsing the stacks, thinking about all of the people who have read the book before.

As Rebecca Ryan, who recently spoke to the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce, has noted, young workers pride themselves on lifelong learning; one of her metrics for an area's success at recruiting and retaining young professionals is the Learning Index. Strong libraries can improve the lifelong learning opportunities in our city, improving our local economy.

The new Tryon branch is open on Langley. Soon the geneology department will move to the old Tryon location. The city is working on the plans for a new downtown library. I look forward to the strengthening of our library system to improve education opportunities, from teaching kids to read to supporting life-long learning, in our city.

Hope to see you at the Tryon library grand opening Friday (Oct 23) at 2 pm!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Charter vote

On Thursday, October 9th the City Council voted to send the new proposed charter to the voters. This charter, which is the product of the Charter Review Commission, proposes substantial changes to the government of the City of Pensacola. The Supervisor of Elections will send out mail ballots in early November, and they will be due Nov 24. There will be only one question on the ballot, and it will read as follows:


Shall the City of Pensacola replace its current Charter with a completely revised Charter providing for:

  • A Mayor-Council form of government, replacing a Council-Manager form of government;
  • A nine-member Council with two at-large seats and seven district seats;
  • Four-year staggered terms of office instead of two-year terms of office;
  • Term limits of three consecutive terms;
  • Recall, initiative and referendum

as described in Ordinance #35-09.

There are, appropriately, many questions that people have about this vote, and I hope everyone will take every opportunity to educate themselves on this. The following are some frequently asked questions:

Where can I see the two charters to read them for myself?

Both the current charter and the proposed charter are posted online. In addition, the videos and minutes of the Charter Review Commission are available.

What's the difference between the charter and consolidation?

The charter is for the City of Pensacola only. City voters will vote on the charter this November. Consolidation is an effort to combine the governments of the city, the county, and the Town of Century. It is anticipated that consolidation will come before the voters throughout Escambia County in the fall of 2010.

What are the differences between the two charters?

The ballot language (above) highlights the key differences between the two charters, including the form of government, term lengths and limits, and changes to the referendum process. Other differences include some stylistic updates, like including a preamble, as well as putting into the charter some things which are currently governed by ordinance.

What if I like certain provisions of the new charter but not others?

The charter review commission put many, many hours of work into drafting this new charter. There are a variety of provisions that they changed, including the form of government, council terms, term limits, and referendum provisions. Each of these could have been a separate ballot item. The council decide to simplify the current vote by having only one question. In the future, however, it is likely that individual items could be brought forward, if the new charter does not pass in its entirety.

What is Mayor-Council and Council-Manager?

Council-manager describes our current form of government. The council (and the mayor) can be likened to a board of directors. One of their tasks is to hire a city manager, who oversees the day-to-day operation of the city. In a way, the city manager is like the CEO.

Mayor-council describes a system more like the federal or state government systems. The mayor acts as the head of the executive branch, in this case hiring city department heads and overseeing operations. The council is like the legislative branch, controlling the budget and passing ordinances.

Will the Mayor be governed by the Sunshine Laws?

The Sunshine Law is a law which governs the communication between members who serve on the same elected body. Under it, two members of the same body can not speak to each other outside of a public meeting about any matter upon which they might vote. The communications between council and mayor are governed by this law, but it does not apply to individual council/mayor communication with members of another elected body (e.g., individual members of the county commission or the Gulf Breeze city council).

Under the new proposed charter, though, the mayor no longer serves on the same body as the council. The mayor then may have private meetings with individual council members to discuss issues, including issues that may come up for a vote before the council. Under both the current charter and the proposed, though, all written/email communication is still subject to public records, though face-to-face and phone conversations are not.

Do we have a charter currently?

Yes. Our current charter was adopted in1931. Like other constitutions it allows for amendments, which must be ratified by the voters. One amendment, for example, allowed for the direct election of the mayor in 2000 (previously the mayor was chosen by the council). On the other hand, Escambia County does not have a charter. Several years ago, a group worked on "charter government" for Escambia County, but that referendum failed. Without a charter, the county relies on the state legislature to control certain aspects of our county government. However, the existing city charter and the proposed one both confer the benefits of home rule, so we do not have to get legislative approval for changes.

If the charter passes, what happens next?

The outcome of this referendum will be known in the end of November. If it passes, the city government will begin the transition process. In either case, the next election for council members and mayor will be in August 2010.

How many people will I vote for?

Under the current charter, each city voter votes for four people: a district council member, two at-large (city-wide) council members, and the mayor. That will remain the same under the new charter. Currently every vote of the council is deliberated by 10 people, requiring 6 people for a majority. Under the proposed charter, the council will consist of 9 people, requiring 5 people for a majority, and the mayor will have veto power. The council, however, will be able to override the mayor's veto.

Will the elections be partisan?

Current city council elections are non-partisan, meaning that the candidates are not listed based on their party affiliation (e.g., Democrat, Republican) on the ballot. The new charter preserves this form. Some individuals, because of their employment, are prohibited from participating in partisan politics, so under either charter they are still able to serve on the city council.

Why not wait until the next election cycle to save on the cost of the ballot and give voters more time to study the issue?

The charter commission has spent over a year and a half working on drafting this new charter. They revised many provisions. However, after all of their study, they created a short document that can be reviewed in a short time. If we postpone until the next election cycle, citizens will be voting on state referendums and a large number of elected officials. Our charter, the underlying structure of our government, deserves to be considered separately from all of the other clutter. If we postpone until this spring, there would be insufficient time for candidates to file and run for the new positions, if the new charter passes. If we postpone and vote either in the spring or next fall, we would have to consider holding a special election for the new officials in the new government (again, a cost to the city) or electing a caretaker government to wait until the 2012 election. For quite some time now the potential of the new charter has caused some uncertainty in city government, and it is in our best interest to resolve this as soon as possible so that we can all again come together to creating the best city we can, under whatever form of government the voters choose.

So, which form is better?

That is the question that the voters must decide. In the multiple meetings we have had on this issue, we have heard examples of great cities with both forms of government. The underlying issue is ensuring that we have people in the government that are leaders and best represent the citizens.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Southwest Airlines

Steve and Sarah are a bright young couple. Their jobs are based in Chicago, but they spend most of their time traveling. They awakened one day and realized that they could work from anywhere as long as they had computers and access to air travel. They approached their employers with their plans. Their employers agreed. Steve and Sarah traded their down jackets for flipflops.
I am sure you have heard the buzz about efforts to attract Southwest Airlines to Pensacola. What's it all about? What are the benefits? Well, the primary benefit is to air travelers. When Southwest enters a market, they typically offer two things: lower prices and more service.

When I was in college in the early 90s, it cost about $350 to fly roundtrip between PNS and Boston. As soon as AirTran came to Pensacola, the prices dropped considerably. And they have stayed lower than those of our nearest competitors. Lower prices are nice for each of us as individual travelers, but they also attract more travelers from across our region to our airport, lowering the per passenger cost of the overhead. In addition, tourists who want to come to a beach are also more likely to come here instead of Destin or Panama City Beach if the price is right.

The economic impact of Southwest goes beyond filling hotels and restaurants, though. The more people who visit, the more who will realize how attractive our community is and the more likely they will move their companies here. (A recent editoral in Florida Trend suggests that perhaps local chambers of commerce should just check resort guest lists to generate potential contacts--sometimes vacationers are some of the best recruits.) Beyond beautiful beaches, diverse recreation, rich history, vibrant arts and all of the quality of life our community offers, when we add a great airport with low fares and direct service to many cities Pensacola becomes increasingly attractive to business leaders and their employees. Southwest, then, is more than an airline--it is an economic engine.

Southwest will not displace other carriers--it will enhance the menu of services. Having Southwest in addition to AirTran will increase competition, helping to cement the low prices that we enjoy. They will also fly different routes, making it easier for us to reach our destinations (and easier for people around the country to reach us).

And, ultimately, Southwest is--in popular jargon--just cool. They have adopted a corporate culture that values the flying experience. They are hip, innovative, and fun. And if they choose us, maybe it suggests that we are, too.

What needs to happen to land (no pun intended) Southwest? Money is important. Panama City has put a big incentive package on the table, courtesy of St. Joe. We can't afford the same amount, but as a community we can pull together to attract them:
  • Escambia and Santa Rosa counties have pledged bed tax money.
  • The City has approved incentives for new routes at the airport and authorized the purchase of ground equipment for a new carrier.
  • And you can help too.
We need to show community commitment--they need to know that we want them and that we will fly Southwest if they come. Pledge to purchase a Southwest giftcard if they come to PNS. Support the cause on Facebook. Tell Southwest that you want their next destination to be Pensacola.

Even with all of this hoopla about Southwest, we need to remember that all of the incentives are great, but if folks don't buy tickets, they won't want to stay. When PNS recruited AirTran, they offered incentives. But AirTran has stayed because we are loyal. Please continue to support our local carriers and fly Pensacola.
Sarah and Steve bought and restored an older house on the west side of downtown Pensacola (where their taxes are a lot lower than they were in Chicago). They now are engaged in the life of our community. They pay taxes. They donate their time to charities. They add vibrancy to downtown. And as they travel, they are ambassadors for our city.
Southwest is more than low fares--it may help us recruit more Sarahs and Steves....

Friday, October 2, 2009

Walk to School Day

October 7 is international walk to school day, part of walk to school month. We all know why kids should walk to school: it's good exercise, it helps them know their neighborhood, it gives them a sense of freedom and responsibility, and it keeps cars off the roads (and their emissions out of the air).

This year Unite Escambia Health Solutions Team, along with the mayor, fire chief, and other city representatives, will be at Spencer Bibbs school at 1:45 to to join the kids as they leave for home. On foot. You are welcome to join us. Or you might be interested in organizing a similar event at your own school. There are resources available to help you.

I am excited about this event and hope it will start some discussions on how the city can become more pedestrian-friendly. We are making some strides (pardon the pun). We have a sidewalk program. Last year, for example, Christy Ball took the lead in getting new sidewalks in Cordova Park to make it safer for kids to walk to school. But sidewalks aren't always enough. Lara McKnight, a resident in Scenic Heights, became so concerned about the safety of her kids on their way to school that she is organizing a new neighborhood association to push for improvements. (Want to start a neighborhood association or get involved in one in your neighborhood? Check out the Neighborhood Association How-To Guide or the Neighborhood Resource Guide. Email me, too--I would love to help.)

How can walking be improved in your neighborhood, near your school, or near your church? Try the walkability test. Email me about spots that aren't safe, and we can talk about how the city can help. Together we can build a more pedestrian-friendly city.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Play Pensacola

If you are in the habit of reading blogs, I will venture to guess that you like getting information online. If so, you will probably like the new Play Pensacola website. This is a new, revamped site with information on the City's parks and recreation amenities. It is a nice resource for finding out new activities that you could participate in or finding a new playground to visit, reserving a tee time at the golf course or registering for a course. There is a site plan for the new Scott pool, which should be open next summer, as well as a calendar with many activities listed. While I feel that I am pretty familiar with our parks and rec offerings, perusing this site has been a good reminder of this wonderful asset in our city.

I hope this site serves as a resource for you as you explore the huge array of recreational opportunities in the city. Please let me know your thoughts on this site or our parks and recreation programs.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Goals, Strategies, and Action Items

As the next step in our goal setting process, the council has been asked to submit action items for each strategy/goal that we agreed on. [The exact terms have changed through the process, but I am calling my submissions "action items" since I aimed to make them items that we can begin to take action on in the near term and on which we can make measurable progress. ] After all council members submit their items, we will receive a listing of all the items and discuss them further in committee meetings.

Below are my action items as submitted. Each could be expanded at length, and I intend to provide more detail on them as we move forward.

Strategy #1: Maintain a fiscally sound and sustainable city government that earns the trust and respect of its citizens and encourages citizen input and active participation in all city affairs.
  • Ensure that our employee compensation packages are in line with local employers and provide incentives for employee innovation which reduces costs.
  • Improve communication with citizens and businesses by ensuring that our website has all of the information people need and is readily accessible and user-friendly.
  • Track progress toward annual and long term goals by establishing defined metrics for department programs and publishing annual report and regular updates on website.
  • Form a youth council.
  • Enhance SBE program as recommended by MGT study to encourage participation of local businesses in city work.
Strategy #2: Provide proficient public safety and other city services through collaboration among agencies, sustainable environmental policies, utilization of technology, and proven innovations.
  • Streamline financial and other operations by increasing online usage (online bill pay, electronic paystubs, online RFP submittals).
  • Increase xeriscaping and native planting in parks to reduce maintenance, fertilizer, pesticide use.
  • Create one stop permitting and work with other regulatory agencies to reduce regulatory burdens.
  • Create a Citizens on Patrol Program.
Strategy #3: Prepare a responsible annexation policy and plan that provides for a pro-active approach to annexation with a focus on elimination of enclaves and improved service delivery.
  • Compile list of individual properties and blocks with split jurisdictions, non-city properties on streets only serviced by city (Walton St; Nobles St).
  • Create plan for council approval for waiving property taxes on selected property targeted for annexation.
Strategy #4: Focus on improving city esthetics by maintaining public property, updating the land development code, partnering with property owners, and enforcing property maintenance codes throughout the city.
  • Update land development code to encourage the construction of a strong, sustainable urban fabric (e.g., adjusting parking requirements).
  • Establish an overlay district for entrances and key thoroughfares that includes landscape/tree plan, updated codes, pedestrian orientation, etc.
  • Work with realtors, title companies, attorneys to create a team to assist in proactively clearing titles to facilitate property improvements.
  • Develop plan for undergrounding utilities with priority given to downtown and main thoroughfares.
Strategy #5: Encourage and facilitate educational opportunities that exceed traditional educational practices through city initiatives and collaboration with the school board, chamber of commerce, and other stakeholders.
  • Increase usage of library system, particularly by at-risk population by constructing new downtown library, increasing outreach and community awareness (open houses, library card forms at pediatricians), increasing programmatic offerings with related participation increases.
  • Enhance educational and recreation opportunities in community centers for all ages, from birth to seniors, including increasing partnerships with local organizations (e.g., Pensacola Little Theater) to enrich education programs and measuring educational impact on school aged participants.
  • In conjunction with school district, PJC, UWF, and chamber of commerce, inventory education programs to determine areas where city can augment education and workforce training.
  • Facilitate and encourage city employee volunteering in education (e.g., paid leave for volunteer activities).
  • Work with stakeholder groups (ECSD, employers) to explore creation of city charter/magnet school.
Strategy #6: Promote economic development through affordable housing opportunities, clear direction for the airport, the port and other waterfront property, and utilization of “best practices,” including green initiatives, proficient permitting, and public/private sector partnerships to encourage business development while preserving and strengthening the value and character of the city’s residential neighborhoods.
  • Facilitate the creation of mixed affordable, infill housing by targeting housing dollars, identifying city property which might be suitable for development, and establishing incentives (permit fees, tax incentives) for construction.
  • Work toward goals set for port by Maygarden port study.
  • Implement recommendations of forthcoming CRA master plan which includes the Gindroz plan.
  • Initiate green programs including becoming a Florida Green City, creating a dark sky ordinance, piloting integrated pest management, and encouraging recycling, reduction, and reuse of waste for both residential and businesses (including recycling goals for commercial franchises and recycling cans in parks).
  • Create a vibrant downtown and waterfront by facilitating events (e.g., closing Bayfront Parkway on weekends) and supporting private efforts (e.g., Evenings in Olde Seville).
Strategy #7: Establish a “quality of place” for all citizens through continual improvement and enhancement of the city’s infrastructure, assets, and properties to facilitate city, private sector, non-profit, and other stakeholders’ initiatives that will enhance the “quality of life” throughout the city.
  • Create a walkable/bikeable community by creating an inventory of existing sidewalks and plan for upcoming construction, design city wide bike map, and ensuring that areas that should attract high amounts of pedestrians (near schools, links between neighborhoods, etc) are safe and inviting to pedestrians.
  • Enhance parks and recreation facilities by replacing outdated park equipment with new, ADA-compliant facilities and broadening types of parks and contents (community garden, orchard park, natural vegetation, natural playground).
  • Support public transportation and other alternatives and create policies which encourage their use.
  • Support arts and culture by, for example, facilitating the construction and maintenance of cultural buildings.
I welcome your comments on these items or others that you think are important. I am hopeful that by going through this process the council and the staff will have clear direction on where we want this city to move in the coming year and well into the future.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

On Gardens and Lights

Is Pensacola getting greener? Two tentative steps seem to be leading in that direction...

LED lights

THe first is a private sector initiative. Gulf Power is participating in a trial program to test new LED lights for street and area lighting. LED lights use 50% less electricity than conventional lights in delivering the same brightness plus they are longer lasting. For the next two years, Gulf Power will be testing this new technology near their Bayfront Parkway headquarters to assess the effectiveness of these lights. Previously LED lights have been demonstrated far superior to traditional lighting in stop lights (which explains why the city now has LED stop lights), and I am hopeful that the new street lights will be as successful. I also was pleased to learn that the fixtures they will install are partial cut-off--they are designed to light the road and walkways rather than the sky. I hope that the city can move toward full cut off fixtures for our lighting--we don't need to waste electricity and money lighting the sky.

Fricker Center garden

A second green initiative is a public-private partnership. The summer camp program at the Fricker Community Center has partnered with Home Depot to plant a vegetable and flower garden. This program gives kids and other participants a chance to learn about gardening and healthy food. For more detailed information on this project see the article in the Pensacola News Journal.

Programs such as this that make our parks more than green spaces and more than playgrounds, but an integral part of the communities they serve. Many urban lots do not allow the luxury of a garden. When asked where vegetables come from, many kids simply answer, "The store." But I believe the benefit goes beyond the flowers and vegetables that may grow there and any lessons about gardening. During our years in Boston, my husband and I had a small plot in the community garden (originally a World War II Victory garden). There, we met neighbors we might not have met, traded gardening tips and produce. It was a way of becoming part of a community. I hope that our city will continue to pursue more initiatives like this.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pension and benefits changes

In November the voters called for sweeping change—including an unprecedented turnover in the Pensacola City Council. Resonating through local races was a call to reform the serious pension problem that was threatening to gobble up the city budget. I continued to hear “No more studies, please take some action.”

Since being sworn in we have discussed, debated, and dissected the pension issue. We have expanded the deliberations to include the entire benefits package. Meanwhile uncertainty looms over the heads of City employees in an already tough economic time.

Rumors have been swirling that the general City employees are contemplating union—which, among other things, would further complicate any future reforms by adding another layer between policy and practice. At the same time a proposal is being submitted by the Charter Review Commission to fundamentally change the structure of city government—further adding to the climate of uncertainty in City Hall.

I believe it is time to take decisive action to 1) save the taxpayers’ money, and 2) restore some stability to the city workplace.

I suggest that we
  • approve two reforms to the pension plan that should save $2.5M per year,
  • adjust leave accrual and payouts so that these benefits will be more consistent with the benefits in the private sector, and then
  • make a commitment to City employees to take these issues off of the table for the duration of this term.

We have a clear mandate from the voters to tackle the pension problem and to do so swiftly. I propose that we act now to make the two changes to the pension I outlined in my previous post:
  • adjusting spousal benefits and
  • implementing 5 year averaging
The combined impact would save $2.5M annually in pension costs, an overall savings of 20%. These changes must be applied equitably to all of our pension plans: general, police, and fire. (While making this change to fire requires legislative action, we should adopt the policies now and enact the changes as soon as we can in each case.)

Adopting these changes now will send an unambiguous signal that we are committed to making the changes necessary to ensure the fiscal stability of our city and that we intend to deal fairly and equitably with all city employees. And we will begin accruing savings immediately.


The press has documented some of the most excessive pensions. Often the most bloated retirement packages have been coupled with huge payouts for accumulated vacation/sick leave. So it makes sense to examine this part of the benefit package while we are doing pension reform.

How do we compare?

In comparison to the private sector, the City allows the accumulation of a large amount of vacation/sick time (combined as paid time off—PTO), and it is paid out at the end of employment. This structure, which defers to the future costs incurred today, doesn’t make for sound fiscal policy. That’s why most other employers—both public and private sector—have limited accumulated leave.

Certainly, there is some value to accruing leave time, allowing employees to have a cushion in case of catastrophic illness for themselves or family members, but a reasonable benefit should not balloon into a golden parachute. We can't afford it.

My Proposal

I propose bringing our leave accrual and payouts closer to the private sector. The Family and Medical Leave Act allows employees 3 months leave for illness or caring for a sick relative, so it is a valid benchmark. I suggest that employees should be able to accrue up to 12 weeks of leave, which pegs this benefit to a national norm.

(The payout cap is just one component of leave. Other issues include separate sick and vacation time, leave accrual rates, and mandatory vacations. These are primarily policy issues, with little long-term budget impact. We should leave the tweaking of these minor issues to future councils. Simply changing the payouts for accruals will make a significant change to our system and prevent the “sticker shock” that has occurred recently regarding payouts.)

What about employees whose cumulative hours exceed the new cap?

We need to honor previous obligations. Therefore, I propose that we pay out employees’ accumulated time in excess of the new cap over the next two years. This payout will cost approximately $1.5M per year for only two years. The ongoing $2.5M per year savings from the pension could offset these short term costs. What’s more, this change—which will benefit the taxpayers in the long term—will put cash in the hands of nearly 600 of our 850 employees (employees who have not seen a raise in two years, who have had the opportunities for overtime pay reduced, and whose longevity benefits have been put on hold).

So why not embark on a study?

Sure, it would be nice to know precisely and exhaustively how the rest of our benefits and salaries compare, but much of that information is available without paying a consultant. City staff has already provided data on other cities, and this information is available as public record. Many local employers have shared their pension and benefits packages with me during the past week. I have reviewed the plans from Gulf Power, Baskerville-Donovan (who also furnished data on benefits for engineering firms nationwide), O’Sullivan Creel, Escambia County, and others, and my proposal regarding leave is based on that research.

Benefits are not an exact science; they reflect the current situation of the particular employer. No matter what a consultant reports, in the end we will likely be in the same position we are today—faced with enacting cuts that are fair to both employees and taxpayers. However, it is clear the issues I propose changing are ones that are most out of line with other employers and promise to take a big bite out of current and future costs.

We could tinker. But while we tinker we lose time. We lose money. And we allow the climate of uncertainty to persist.

Moreover, the benefits in taking decisive action far outweigh any minor additional savings that a study might uncover.


In summary, I propose several changes:
  1. enact the Life Annuity Normal Form (choose whether spouse is part of pension calculation)
  2. adopt 5-year averaging for pensions (as opposed to current 3 year averaging)
  3. cap leave accrual/payout to 12 weeks
  4. make no further changes to pensions and benefits during this council’s term.
The benefits?

For employees:
  • a pension system that values an employee’s work and dedication,
  • stability and protection from other changes,
  • for most, a pay out of accrued leave now during a time with tightened budgets.
For the City:
  • reduced annual pension payments
  • reduced future payouts for leave accrual
  • short- and long-term financial savings.
And, for the taxpayers:
  • stabilized, reduced future costs on pensions and benefits
  • improved ability of the City to provide superior service at the lowest cost.
This council has already shown it has many creative ideas, but we have been bogged down by this huge problem which we have inherited. If this Council proves equal to this task, we can set our eyes on the future and the exciting challenge of making Pensacola the great, vibrant city that we can become.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

City Pensions—a couple of quick fixes

City pensions consume $13 million a year. That is a huge piece of our $212 M City budget and almost as much as the city collects in ad valorem (property) taxes. (This doesn’t count the money going for the new employees who are going into FRS.) There are no easy answers, no silver bullet, but there are meaningful measures we can take to curb this growing liability. And we don’t need a consultant to point the way...

Why does the city offer pensions at all?

Pensions offer one tool to attract and retain the best employees we can. And we must be fair. If we are perceived as an organization that doesn’t honor commitments to employees, we will be unable to attract and retain the best talent to serve this city.

But we also have an obligation to the taxpayers—to deliver high quality services at the lowest price.

When our benefits threaten to decrease the quality of city services, we must take action.

What can we do?

I believe we have two options that could improve the pension picture immediately, changes that will both save money for the taxpayers and improve the fairness to city employees.

Five year averaging

The headline-grabbers are the handful of folks on the high end of the salary range who will receive large pensions. But there is a second group of retirees who receive disproportionately high pensions: The end-game over-timers. . .

Currently, the city pension plans calculate an employee's salary based on the best two out of the last five years. Some employees have used this provision as an opportunity to pad their pension-basis through stepped-up overtime during their last two years. Instead of rewarding steadfast service, this provision rewards those creative employees (something we usually encourage) who can game this system in the final innings. And it unfairly penalizes those employees whose jobs do not provide opportunities for overtime.

By switching to a calculation based on the average salary over the last five years, we can get a better picture of an employee’s work history and reward each employee based on his or her work.

The savings? According to our finance director, making this change in all city pension plans could save us $1 million a year.

Spousal benefit

Today most people subscribe to the concept of “equal pay for equal work.” Yet the seemingly antiquated city pension system violates that goal. . .

Today the city pension is paid to an employee until he (or she) or his spouse dies. This system presupposes that 1) people marry within their own age group and 2) that they stay married. And it is based on a by-gone era when the social norm was one bread-winner/pension-earner per family.

But look what happens when a retiree violates the Leave-It-To-Beaver social more:

A Tale of Two Officers
(Not to pick on police—just easier with a pension that is 100% of salary to make this illustration)

For the sake of simplicity, let's make the following assumptions:
  • Both join the force at 20 years old.
  • Both officers serve the city admirably, receive the same base pay for their equal work for 35 years.
  • Both retire at 55 and receive a pension paying 100% of salary.
  • Both officers earned the same, constant amount of $40,000 every year on the force.
  • Everyone (pensioners and their spouses) lives until they are 80 years old.
Let's look at their compensation while on the force:

Officer AOfficer BDifference

Years on Force3535--

Total Salary Payments While on Force$1.4M$1.4M--

So far so fair.

Now let’s say that Officer A is a devoted husband who is married to a woman of his age. Officer B has a midlife crisis at 50 and marries a woman half his age. Let's see happens to their pension compensation:

Officer AOfficer BDifference

Years of Pension Payments255025

Total Pension Payments $1.0M$2.0M$1.0M

As you see, there is a difference of a million dollars between these two employees. Equal pay for equal work? Not.

This inequity not only costs the taxpayers, it violates the fairness principle. A simple change could repair this inequity. The technical name for this change is “life annuity normal form.” In practice it means that upon retirement, the employees must choose whether to receive benefits only until they die or until their spouse dies. If they choose to include their spouse, then the benefit level is adjusted based on the age of the spouse, dividing out the pension expectation of the employee over the life expectancy of the youngest partner.

This is a standard practice with other pension plans and provides equitable payments with respect to different life choices. According to the city finance director, making this change for all city pensions would result in a $1.7 million a year savings.

Action now

By making these two changes for all of our employees, the 5 year average and the spousal consideration, we can create a pension system that treats our employees fairly and equitably. These changes also bring our system more in line with other local governments and the FRS system, our main competitors for top talent.

These changes will should save the city an estimated $2.7 million a year. The city should move forward with these changes now.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Natural Playground Update

Several weeks ago I presented the idea of creating a natural playground at Bryant Park, surrounding the new Tryon library, and the City Council wholeheartedly supported a new way of thinking about and designing parks.

Bryant Park in many ways provides a great proving ground in Pensacola for a natural playground. Primarily an empty field prior to the construction of the library, the original design for the park included a walking trail and a standard plastic playground structure. Armed with a new direction, City Parks and Recreations staff began working with the architects and others involved in the park to modify the plan to become a natural playground.

In Pensacola we have no expertise in natural playground (there are none in Florida, as far as I am aware), so staff and the architects enlisted the help of Natural Playgrounds Company to explore this idea. I recently had the pleasure of attending a meeting with the architects overseeing the project, Parks and Rec director David Flaherty, John Ewing (Parks department Project Manager), and Doug Durden, the supervisor of park maintenance. They had asked Ron King and his son, both of Natural Playgrounds Company, to come to town for a site visit. (The visit was held during some of the rainy weather we have been having, which Mr. King thought was a great time, since they could see some of the real conditions the park will experience.)

We all came out of the meeting energized and excited about this new park. Mr. King described some of his ideas about elements to incorporate in the site. He was very sensitive to the experience of the site, such as views of the park as well as the relationship with the adjoining neighbors. The original plans had a walking trail around the park, and the current plan is for that to stay, with major play elements in the center as well as some scattered around the park. Mr. King was particularly conscious of the fact that this is a park around a library, noting the potential for outdoor activities and the appeal of quiet places for reflection and reading. Among the ideas were:
  • a 10 ft tall hill with built in slides and climbing walls,
  • an amphitheater,
  • a frog bog,
  • a bridge across the shallow retention pond planned for the site.
And there is good news regarding costs. The rough estimates are that the park will come in within budget even considering that this is going to be a change order with the architects. One of the benefits of this natural playground over the traditional structure originally planned is that most of the money that will be spent will be spent on local landscapers and local materials, rather than being paid to a manufacture in another community.

The architects and park staff will work with Mr. King on the design which should be forthcoming in late May or early June. Citizen input is certainly welcome, so send me your ideas. Look for this natural playground to be completed some time this fall. Bring your kids and grandkids. Then let me know what you think.

The Maritime Museum

The Admiral John H. Fetterman Maritime Museum will be the crown jewel of the entire maritime park project. As a mother and a scientist with a passion for education, it is the part of the project that excites me the most. I want an economical viable park that acts as a magnet for drawing people of all types to one of our greatest assets, our downtown waterfront. Some will come for work, others for ballgames, others for a nice walk, but I believe the largest group will be coming to visit the maritime museum. However, I believe that we must consider the museum as part of the whole and think that creating the best park might entail shifting the museum site.

The negotiations regarding the project as a whole. I began considering the museum in the context of the overall site as our negotiations with the Master Developer evolved. (And steady progress is being made in making this project a reality.) Incredible effort has been going into crafting a Master Developer agreement that will provide incentives for retail uses of the private development (as opposed to offices on the ground floors) and other elements that will make this a economically viable, exciting park for all of us to visit.

The park is a three-leg stool: maritime museum, multiuse stadium, and public park. The master developer agreement governs the construction of the multiuse stadium, the public park, and development of the private buildings (along with the environmental cleanup of the site). A separate agreement, between the CMPA and UWF, governs the construction of the maritime museum.

Maritime Museum site. The maritime museum has always been envisioned along Devilliers Wharf. It seems fitting that a maritime museum have some element of water frontage. However, I believe that the activity we all have come to expect, the pretty pictures we were sold on, will not occur if the museum consumes the entire frontage of Devilliers Wharf.

Certainly, the entrance should relate to the waterfront. The entrance of all great museums sets the tone for the experience you will have inside, looking at the museum collections. Still, museums are by nature inward-looking—the curators expect visitors to enjoy the exhibits rather than the views (though occasional nice views can be integrated into the experience). Once a visitor enters the museum, they have left the public realm and do not add vibrancy to the street. And that’s a critical issue.

Activity on Devilliers Wharf limited by single use frontage. Currently, under the CMPA contract with UWF, the museum is proposed to consume the entire stretch of Devilliers Wharf that has buildings (the southern half of Devilliers Wharf will front the park). So the only reason to walk along Devilliers Wharf in this design is to enter the museum (assuming the museum puts the entrance on the wharf—their preliminary sketches have the entrance on the north side, by Devilliers Square). As I understand it, the museum will house the Trader Jon’s collection to add character to the museum restaurant. It would certainly be appropriate to have an exterior entrance to the restaurant, and perhaps they will have the restaurant stay open after museum hours. However, a museum entrance and one (potential) restaurant along Devilliers Wharf will not create the activity that will make this park successful. That is why I suggest some flexibility in siting the museum.

Additional uses on Devilliers Wharf. There are, I believe, changes that could be made that will improve the overall park design and success. Key to the park will be an active waterfront with a variety of attractions: restaurants, shopping, the museum. Perhaps we could create a narrower entrance for the museum on Devilliers Wharf with private development (restaurants/retail) on the first floor on either side and museum on the second floor. Perhaps shift the museum complex to the north to allow private restaurants/retail on the south side. I am not a planner nor a developer, so I don’t know what changes exactly would be most viable—I just feel that the plan as it is does not contribute to the level of activity needed for this project to meet the expectations of the community.

Collaborative Effort. This park has a number of participants, all necessary for its success. In all of the other agreements that the CMPA is entering (the Studer MOU, the Pelicans lease, the master developer agreement) there is wording that acknowledges that this is a multi-faceted agreement and that all parties will work together to create the best possible park. These agreements include wording like “a site selected by the mutual agreement of Studer Ownership Group and CMPA” and “in the general location at the Park.” The CMPA will have final oversight of all building placements on the park. Unfortunately, as I read the CMPA/UWF agreement, there is not the flexibility that would allow UWF and CMPA to work together and make adjustments to create the park we want.

What I would like to see. The UWF/CMPA agreement does not include any provisions for adjusting the site of the museum to create the best park for the community. In my conversations with many involved in the project and museum, there is a general understanding that the museum placement might be adjusted to conform to the overall plans. However, from what I know about contracts, if it is not written in the contract, it is not part of the agreement. I propose amending the museum contract to include language that allows flexibility in siting the structure. This would be consistent with the contracts governing the other pieces of the project. In addition, any considerations necessary for a move should be included—-the museum should have waterfront access/views, reimbursement for architectural charges paid by the museum in developing plans for a prior site, proximity to park, etc—-so that all of the parties know what the expectations are.

Am I undermining the project? I don’t believe so. By adding some flexibility, I believe the proposal helps strengthen the project as a whole. It can enhance the economic viability of the project by opening additional waterfront to commercial, revenue-producing, tax-generating activity. And it could increase the number of people enjoying the waterfront, bringing essential vibrancy to this wonderful community asset.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Opening our Bayfront to Pedestrians, Cyclists, and family Activities on Weekends

The Case for Waterfront Access. Pensacola’s greatest natural asset is our beautiful waterfront, particularly our downtown waterfront. We need to capitalize on this asset to improve our quality of life for those who live here and to help recruit new jobs to our city.

Unfortunately, many of us have limited opportunities to be close to our waterfront. Indeed Bayfront Parkway, which affords passing motorists vistas of our bay, also acts as an effective barrier to access. Therefore, I propose that we create a program that will close Bayfront Parkway to cars on the weekends to open our waterfront for the enjoyment of all.

Other models. Many cities around the country have similar programs. In Cambridge, MA, they have closed Memorial Drive, one of the most major thoroughfares right along Boston’s Charles River, on Sundays from April to November since 1975. This is an extremely popular event, bringing almost 6000 people on a good day to a 1.5 mile stretch.

In Cambridge, they use simple metal gates like those used for parades to block access to the roads and in some places just orange cones. Typically one will see ice cream vendors, roller blade rentals, and other related businesses set up. Many people come out for a jog or bike ride with the family (little kids do great on their bikes on a wide roadway). Additionally, fitness centers like the YMCA have programs in adjacent parks, people picnic, and even belly dancers have been seen practicing.

An event like this could prove to attract a range of people to downtown on the weekend and would help make Pensacola recreation-friendly.

How to move toward a family friendly bayfront. When Bayfront Parkway was closed in the aftermath of Ivan, there was a constant parade of people using this scenic route for recreation. I would like for the City Council to request that staff do further research on my proposal to close Bayfront Parkway on weekends for bicycling, rollerblading, jogging and walking.

We could close either all of Bayfront—say from Chase to Palafox—or close the south lanes of Bayfront from Chase to Alcaniz. I believe the latter proposal would get less resistance, especially from downtown businesses and restaurants. Indeed, if done right, this would help bring customers to their businesses.

The role of the City. The CRA has been advocating “enlivening public spaces” downtown, and I think that is an important part of revitalizing our downtown. However, we need to be clear on the role of the government versus the private sector. The city has control over certain tools, like road closure. The city should work closely with private groups to see how the city can use its tools to facilitate events. However, the city should not be in the role of providing entertainment.

The costs. I understand that there will be costs. The FDOT has regulations for closing roads, and I am optimistic that we can work with them to create a program that is safe and affordable. Roads are closed all the time for construction without huge barriers or being manned, even for extended periods. And Bayfront Parkway is frequently closed for special events in the historic Seville area.

Funding. While closing off a portion of Bayfront Parkway would entail some costs, it should be relatively small. Still we should scrutinize any new programs and costs and look for funding sources other than tax dollars. To fund this road closure, I propose that we shift money from some of the existing CRA programs which, if they are deemed beneficial by the private sector, could be taken over by private sector groups (*see below). These funds would cover the costs of the proposed road closure on Bayfront Parkway.

In addition we should seek private sector support (perhaps banners of sponsors on the light posts) for this program. These banners could be used to enliven the Bayfront just as we use those on Palafox to promote community events.

What's next. I presented a version of this information to council at our committee meeting this week. I let them know that I would like to bring it up at our next meeting, and Sam Hall has asked for it to be on the agenda for the Neighborhood Services committee. I would appreciate hearing your comments about this between now and then (and after) so we can work together to make this the vibrant city we all want it to be.

*The city should play either a supporting role (road closures, etc) or a catalytic role in enlivening our downtown. Last New Year's Eve the city successfully created the Pelican Drop. The success of that program should lead the private sector to sponsor the activity again next New Year's Eve, though the city will continue in a support role (closing Palafox, etc).
We need to review all of our programs to determine the city's role. For instance, the private Evenings in Olde Seville program has been going on for many years. While it is wildly popular, each year they struggle to raise sufficient funding for this summer music program. When the city sponsors a similar music program on the same night, it undermines the efforts of the private group. Why would a donor use their limited funds to pay for something the city is already doing? The city should carefully review the music program to see if it was successful, and, if so, we should step back to a supporting role, allowing the private sector to vote with their dollars if the program improves the quality of life downtown.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Marketization: A new approach to government services

In our agenda this week, we approved a contract to have the YMCA staff the Hunter pool for the summer. That got me thinking about other creative ways we can provide city services….

The City of Pensacola performs a large range of services: fighting fires to servicing cars, running a library to sweeping streets. Some, like police and fire, are unique to the city. In other cases, by opening the service up to competition, we can improve the efficiency of the overall services of the city and improve our bottom line.

I would like to see us open up more city functions to competition, but with a particular twist—city departments get to bid, too. This is not “privatization” but “marketization.”

What might happen?
  • City workers will demonstrate that they can provide services more efficiently and at a lower cost than the private sector.
  • In other cases, we may discover that the private sector is more efficient, and in those cases we will save money.

Indianapolis experience
Steven Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, is a major proponent of the idea of opening up certain city services to competition. In Indianapolis, city workers compete with the private sector. During the course of marketizing of city services, the city discovered that it is not the city workers who make for inefficiencies in government. Rather, the bureaucracy of the government itself often limits the creativity and initiative of the employees. If the systems are changed and the workers are liberated from bureaucratic constraints and have a vested interest in the success of their small corner of the city, they can compete against private-sector service providers, and often win.

Yellow Pages test
A concern with privatizing services is sometimes that we would get a private company to do a task and then would no longer have in-house skills. Subsequently we could be at the whim of the private company who could raise our rates. The key for avoiding this is to marketize only areas where there is sufficient competition in the community to ensure that we continue to get a competitive rate. A very simple test for this is the Yellow Pages test. If there are three or more companies listed in the yellow pages who perform a service the city currently performs, then that service can be opened up for competition. It is the kind of free market capitalism that built our country

Competition empowers employees
Since I’ve been on council, I’ve met many city employees, and I’ve discovered this: our employees have better ideas on how to run this city (or at least their slice of it) than I do. Unfortunately, we often trap them in “a system that punishes initiative, ignores efficiency, and rewards big spenders.” [Much of my information on the Indianapolis experience and this quote come from The Twenty-First Century City by Stephen Goldsmith. Indianapolis has been a leader in marketization and reviewing their experiences can help guide us. I am not advocating adopting all of Goldsmith’s inititiatives. Instead, we can pick the best of his ideas and adapt this process to suit our unique needs.]

By letting the employees function more like those in the private sector, we can unleash their creativity, likely finding many cost savings. Additionally, in Indianapolis the city employees who started bidding in competition with the private sector soon started demanding a reduction in overhead to increase their competitiveness. Morale increased which also resulted in increased productivity. In Indianapolis, city workers win about 25 percent of the bids. In addition, they have become so effiencent that they actually win bids for contracts with other local governments.

Government workers have advantages
In some ways, we should expect that government would provide services for a lower price than the private sector. The city doesn’t pay property taxes, we don’t have to make a profit, and we get financial deals like lower utility and borrowing costs. Therefore, it is logical that city employees, when empowered to think creatively about their jobs, could compete successfully with the private sector.

Support for local small businesses
One of the biggest issues that keeps cropping up on council is supporting local, small businesses. Many of the types of things that the city could open to competition are the things that local, small businesses do. If the private sector wins a contract, then the money we spend will, in many cases, stay in our community and strengthen our businesses.

Sometimes the winners won't even be businesses at all. For instance, in Indianapolis some of the park maintenance is performed by churches in the neighborhood. Who would care more about maintaining a neighborhood park than the neighbors?

How to get started
At our committee meeting yesterday, I raised this issue. Council supported me in asking staff to identify a targeted group of services where they think that our employees could clearly compete with the private sector and provide a plan for moving forward on marketization of those services. Again, keep in mind that the services targeted will be ones not unique to the government; more likely they will be the support services that underlie many business functions.

By the way, I want to stress that this is not a criticism of our employees. I know there is anxiety among employees about their job security in this economic climate, but this kind of shift would allow them to have a degree of control that they don’t currently enjoy.

We sometimes hear about the Creative Class. The Creative Class, importantly, is not just scientists and artists, it is anyone who uses creativity in their work. I think that we can use this structure to help all our employees, whatever their role, become creative problem solvers. Workers who are creative, who know that they have say in their job, tend to have higher morale. And, in the end, they do a better job for our citizens.

This is truly a paradigm shift on the way we do government business.

For more information, I recommend this website which has a number of resources about the tenure of Goldsmith or the book by Mayor Goldsmith, The Twenty-First Century City. Of course, there is lots of information out there, and a simple search will turn up lots of links.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

City Pensions

The city pension systems continue to be a hot topic in council meetings and the press, as well they should. While I believe that the city must continue offering retirement benefits in order to attract the best workers, we must ensure that the benefits meet our goals without bankrupting the city. The issue is complex—a puzzle with many pieces, not a problem with one key to solving it.

While the unfunded liability and, hence, the city's annual payments to the funds are very large, we are currently limited to acting only on a small sliver of the pension pie. We cannot touch the benefits promised to retirees; we are obligated to keep the prior commitments made to existing employees (as we should be); and any changes in a large chunk of our benefit packages are subject to union negotiations.

Our options are limited in other ways as well, sometimes by state law. In particular, state law makes converting new police and fire hires to the Florida Retirement System fiscally unattractive. However, in digging into this problem, I have learned of an opportunity for opening this option for us. But if we are to have this option, we need to act quickly.

First, some background

The city has three separate pensions: general, police, and fire. A few years ago, the city’s general pension was closed to new hires. Existing employees could elect to continue with the general pension or be transferred to FRS (Florida Retirement System). All new general hires are now enrolled in FRS.

This change was desirable for the City and employees for many reasons, most notably the differences in benefits between FRS and the city general pension, the ability to spread risks state-wide, and the options available to participants (defined benefit and defined contribution).

Police and Firefighter Pensions

It seems logical that the City might have moved police and firefighters to the FRS when the change was made for general employees. Both the City and these employees would have accrued the same benefits from this plan that general employees reaped. However, action was postponed on the city police and fire pensions because state law makes this a risky move for the city. Here’s why.

Problem#1: A $1.4 M unfunded liability passed on to the City.

The State of Florida charges an excise tax on casualty insurance. This money is distributed to municipalities for their fire and police pension plans. Currently the state provides the city with about $800,000 for fire and $600,000 for police for their unfunded liability (roughly the difference between employee contributions and what we will need to pay out to retirees).

What this money is and how it is distributed is complex (and this whole thing is complex enough), so suffice it to say that we get the money, which means we have to follow state law that regulates whether we get it, how we spend it, and what happens if we don’t get it any more.

If the city chooses to close the police or fire pensions and require new hires to enter FRS, this will trigger a change with respect to the casualty insurance—the most obvious being that the city will no longer receive $1.4 million from the state. If we do not receive this money, we will need to make up the difference out of city coffers.

However, there is another problem that also crops up with possible major (much more than $1.4M) financial implications

Problem #2: A mandated reorganization by the pension board.

If the city begins letting new hires go into FRS, it would trigger (per state law) a reorganization of the pension by the pension board. The board could do one of three things.
  1. It could continue to operate the existing pension investments and the subsequent contributions from the grandfathered employees as it had before the change, with some adjustments based on the actuarial rules.
  2. It could terminate the pension and pay cash to the participants, sufficient to fund their retirements, again based on actuarial calculations.
  3. It could invest the money in annuities at a level sufficient to pay retirement benefits.
The last two options are scary for the city. Both require the pension board to demand a large lump sum from the city, money we don’t have. It is unclear which option the board would choose, and they do not have to make their decision before we vote to close the funds! By closing the fire and police pensions to new hires, we could be on the hook immediately for large sums (tens of millions of dollars at minimum). This conundrum is dictated by state law.

What can we do? (I’m finally getting to that.)

There is currently a bill before the House Governmental Affairs Policy Committee, HB 673, that would give cities the option to enter new police and fire employees in FRS while letting existing employees continue in the current plan without triggering the loss of the state money or the restructuring.

I urge the city to support this bill which will give us the flexibility we need to address this weighty problem. A companion bill, SB 1572, has been filed in the Senate and is currently in the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee.

Bills in the legislature routinely die before the end of session. I do not want to see the legislature end their session without giving us one of the tools we will need to address one of the biggest financial challenges before this city, not to mention other Florida cities in our same circumstances.

Do note that one of our local representatives, Dave Murzin, is in the council over the committee where the House bill currently is. Along with other legislators, he needs to be made aware of how important this bill is to our community and asked to help expedite its passage before the end of session. Please contact him and any other legislators you know and let them know your concerns.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Maritime Park moving forward

Moving the Maritime Park from referendum to reality has been quite a saga for this community. However, the end—or perhaps the real beginning—is finally in sight.

On Friday, March 13th, the Maritime Park Board met. We had quite an agenda. First up was the master developer agreement. Negotiations between the city, maritime park board, and the master developers on that agreement were completed during the first week of March. The developers took a stab at putting the points that were negotiated into the contract and handed us a copy at the meeting on Friday, still warm from the copier.

In addition to the master developer agreement, we discussed the many other contracts the board will be signing. These include the lease agreements with the Pelicans, Studer Group, UWF (for the conference center, maritime museum, and other UWF components), and the Contractors' Academy. As you can imagine, these are all complex agreements, and our discussions at the meeting went on over 4 hours.

The rough timetable on the agreements presented on Friday is:
    March 31: a final copy of the master developer agreement, reviewed for accuracy and consistency, will be posted online for the board, city council, and citizens.

    April 3: Maritime Park Board will vote on the master developer agreement as well as the other agreements we discussed Friday

    April 6: Presentation to city council during committee meeting by city consultant (Barry Abramson) about the agreement. City council action on agreement (pending park board approval of contract).

    April 9: Final approval of contract by city council.

Of course, none of this is a done deal, and this schedule is subject to change. However, this is the expected course of events. Scott Davidson, the point man of the developers, suggested during the meeting that once the agreement is signed, we can expect action at the site within 60-90 days. (If you haven't been that way recently, there is already some action--dirt from digging the new sewage line is being put on site to provide some of the necessary fill.)

If you want to see the current version of the master developer agreement or the other documents, visit the Maritime Park page on the city website. None of these agreements are final, so please let me know if you have any comments on them.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

CRA Plan update

The Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) is undertaking a comprehensive master plan update. The CRA is a special district from 17th Av to A St, Cervantes to the waterfront. On Thursday the consultants working on the plan had a kick off, highlighting the process they will undertake and some initial observations. For two days they met with various groups including neighborhood associations, business owners in the CRA, and various governmental entities to begin understanding where we are and where we can go.

Scope of Work
This study will focus on the CRA area. In recent years we have had multiple studies for portions of this area. These include the Historic District Master Plan (Gindroz study), the Belmont DeVilliers plan, a residential market plan, and a retail market analysis. The consultants will include elements of these studies as well as their own observations to plan for the entire CRA. They will focus primarily on the waterfront west of Palafox Street and a few other urban infill demonstration areas. This plan will also address the site of the existing sewage treatment plant, which will be moved by the end of 2010.

The Process
This set of meetings was the lead trip, part of the first phase of the process. Over the next month, the team will review existing plans, analyze the real estate market, and gather as much information as possible to set the stage. The next phase will be a design workshop where they will work on overarching ideas. During this phase they will hold a series of public design workshops, and they will present a preliminary concept plan. After that, they will spend several weeks refining the plan to create specific recommendations, and, finally, they will present a final report in the fall.

The team
The plan is being created by a strong team, headed by Looney Ricks Kiss. They are supported by RKG Associates, Kubilins Transportation Group, Engineering and Planning Resources [local woman owned business], Wolf Riddle and Associates [local minority owned business], and EDSA (Waterfront Design).

Initial observations
Like many other urban planners, this team was very impressed with the assets we have in Pensacola, notably our wonderful waterfront and our strong sense of history. They were particularly surprised by the presence of the 5 main types of art organizations (ballet, theater, opera, symphony, and museum) and the support they receive. Too bad they had to leave Friday morning--they missed a great show at the Little Theater, Death of a Salesman. My husband and I were again amazed by the great talent we have in Pensacola. They still have tickets for this weekend and next....

They also sensed some weaknesses that they will address in their plans. Those weaknesses probably led to the homework they issued us as a community:
  • Go to work a different way.
  • Walk along the waterfront.
  • Ride a bike downtown.
  • Visit downtown for the day with no set agenda (no event to attend).
Perhaps if we all try those items, we will be able to come up with some great suggestions and ideas for the team when they return in a few weeks for the public design workshops. I will post the information about these as soon as I can so you can plan on participating. Also, feel free to contact me with any particular ideas you'd like to share with the design team.