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.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Perdido Landfill

Last week I had the opportunity to tour the Perdido Landfill, run by the Escambia County Division of Solid Waste Management. The staff, headed by Mr. Pat Johnson, is so enthusiastic about their jobs that sometimes you forgot it was trash that they are talking about....

An interesting mix of people took the tour, from UWF students to curious citizens to elected officials, and I highly recommend joining a future tour.

The landfill, visually. The first thing you notice as you approach the landfill is the plastic bags. They are everywhere, particularly covering the fences around the landfill. We were told that most of the bags don't even hit the ground when they are dumped from the truck, but rather just fly off. A nice visual reminder of why we should use reusable bags when we shop and to recycle the bags that we do get (they can go in the recycling dumpsters around the county).

Where does it come from. Operations at the landfill are financed by the landfill fees charged to all of the users of the landfill. These users include the city, the ECUA, and commercial haulers (the companies that provide dumpsters at businesses or apartment complexes). Fees are charged only on waste that goes into the landfill, not on the materials for recycling.

Recycling—paper, plastic, and cans. Recycling is where the landfill gets interesting, encouraging a lot of creative on the part of the staff, led by Jim Howes. Of course, there is recycling that is familiar to most of us--paper, plastic, and cans. These materials are sold to various companies, most notably Armstrong World Industries here, which takes paper. In many cases, the cost of transporting the materials, etc, eats up the return on the materials, but it still keeps them from entering the landfill and reduces the use of virgin material in manufacturing.

Glass. They also recycle glass at the landfill. However, there are no glass recyclers nearby, so the folks at the landfill grind the glass to use in their road building materials. [I have been asked why glass is not taken in the ECUA program or the city pilot program. The reasoning is that the glass will break in the compactor, getting embedded in the other materials. With our recycling manually sorted, it becomes risky. In addition, the embedded glass reduces the quality of the other materials, making them less marketable.]

Beyond expectations. Recycling at the landfill goes beyond these materials. They collect household hazardous waste, including paint. The paint gets remixed and goes back to code enforcement and others. If there are structures that aren't up to code due to lack of painting, they will be repainted with paint from this program. A new building at the landfill will include the capabilities to mix multiple colors of paint, and this paint could be used by groups like Habitat for Humanity.

Reuse. This new building will also house a swap shop, an idea promoted by DeeDee Green, where people can bring items that typically they would have thrown in the landfill but might be usable by others. Things like household chemicals (bug spray, for instance), used furniture, old computers. Visitors to the landfill could then take these items free of charge.

Yard waste. Yard waste is another material that can be reused. Material that is not in plastic bags is mulched and used for stabilizing the landfill. In addition, it is made into mulch that is available for free to county residents. Yard waste that is packed in plastic bags, however, can not be used for these efforts. Therefore, landfill staff request that residents use a separate container, paper bags, or simply set yard trash curbside.

Methane. Another interesting reuse is the methane produced by the landfill. In the past, this methane was sold to International Paper to heat their boilers. Now the landfill folks are working with Gulf Power to install generators. The burning methane would then generate electricity that will be sold back onto the electric grid.

Landfill fees. As I mentioned, the landfill charges fees for all of the waste that comes in. These fees cover all of the operations of the landfill. This includes the actual operation of the current landfill as well as the maintenance of the old landfills. In addition, it covers the cost of the recycling programs. While some of the recycling is revenue-generating, many of the recycling efforts are a cost (such as waste tires or the paint remixing). The county also funds neighborhood clean ups using money from the landfill fees. [These are similar to the programs that the city funds through our sanitation department.]

Education. The staff takes a very active role in educating area students about recycling. [They also have been dedicated volunteers with the I LOVE Science program that I coordinate through IHMC. I appreciate their work on that.] Many people have also been seeing the tote bags they have given out at various events, like Earth Day. It seems the landfill staff would rather put the landfill part of their business out of business with their efforts. They push reducing with their tote bags, reuse with the swap shop, and all kinds of recycling.

City recycling. Of course, this all prompts the question, what about recycling in the city? We are moving forward, with staff developing a curbside recycling plan to bring before us in March. The East Hill pilot program is a partnership with the Escambia County Department of Solid Waste, and they hope to participate in a larger program. The pilot program was quite a success, and I appreciate the effort of those residents to show how successful recycling can be in this community. The ECUA program is growing fast, too. So all indications show that we will have a great program in place by this summer.

Trommel screen. Though curbside recycling is what most people think about when they talk about recycling, I do want to point out a new "recycling" effort the city has started. The council just authorized public works to buy a trommel screen. What, you might ask, is a trommel screen? It is a large piece of equipment (approximately $100,000) that will sort sand out of the city's street sweepings. About 90% of the weight of the street sweepings the city collects is sand. By using the trommel screen, we can keep that sand from going in the landfill. Instead, it will go into making new roads. This screen will divert about 5000 tons of sand from the landfill each year. That is comparable to the about 8000 tons of recycling we would expect to collect from a successful (25% diversion rate) recycling program. This highlights how many ways we can work together and think creatively to improve the environment and the economy of out community.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Natural Playgrounds

How often have I heard from other parents that they got their kids a great toy and all the kid wanted to play with was the box it came in????

While the council has not yet had a goal setting session, our discussions so far have indicated similar goals:
  • a green community
  • attracting good jobs and building a community that would attract young professionals.
  • strengthening neighborhoods
  • innovative ideas not costly solutions
  • and fresh ideas.
I believe that natural playgrounds offers us an opportunity to combine all of these goals.

Natural playgrounds use natural elements to create safe, accessible, age-appropriate play, social, and learning opportunities. Examples of elements, some in the pictures here, include
  • hills which integrate climbing aspects and slides,
  • shrubs for play forts or labyrinths,
  • sand areas,
  • ampitheaters,
  • butterfly or rain gardens, and
  • fairy villages made from willow branches.
Natural playgrounds provide unique advantages.
  • Educational: Research shows that the natural environment fosters more creative play.
  • More ages: More of the park is considered play space, but it appeals to all ages. (Many of the standard pieces of equipment are skill based and therefore limited to narrow age groups.)
  • Environmental: The materials are natural, often from local sources or native plants, while plastic playstructures are environmentally costly to manufacture, ship, and dispose of.
  • Jobs: Construction of natural playgrounds utilizes primarily local landscapers rather than remote manufactures.
  • Budget: More unique play elements can be constructed per dollar
  • and so forth
Common concerns voiced are accessibility, safety, and maintenance. However,
  • They can be built to ADA standards, and some elements may exceed standards. For example, a slide embedded in a hill would be easier for kids to access than one that was reached by a ladder.
  • Most of the safety problems with playgrounds are from the high elements, which a natural playground lacks. Kids may scrape their knees while climbing boulders, but they could do the same on a sidewalk.
  • Information that I have found has indicated that they are less costly to maintain, but comparisons are hard, since they include general park maintenance rather than just checking bolts.
They are different from what we are used to. In this high-tech era, we expect “clean” playgrounds. Nature is unknown and sometimes scary. Kids would get dirty. But I think that is a good thing.

Bryant Park and the new Tryon library will be a great asset for our community. Therefore, I believe that making this park unique by capitalizing on current research in playgrounds provides an exceptional opportunity for our community.

In our committee meeting yesterday, I asked that we wait until our next committee meeting, in two weeks, to vote on purchasing a new, plastic playground structure. I believe that there is no shortage of similar structures in our city (though this one was commendable for going beyond ADA requirements), and a two week delay in purchasing equipment would not seriously impact playing in this community.

For the next two weeks, I will be working with staff to find ways to overcome obstacles and bring this idea forward. We may still be faced with a delay in terms of the opening of the park if we go the natural playground route, but I believe that the result would be well worth it.

  • Checking nature kits out from the library, with field guides and magnifying glasses to explore the nature in the park.
  • Rolling down a hill.
  • Making daisy chains.
  • Hide and seek possibilities.
  • Reading a book under a muscadine grape arbor.
These types of parks could become destinations and unique assets, putting an environmental face on our community.

In short,
  • these playgrounds are green—both in terms of the environment and based on my research, in budgetary terms.
  • They are more aesthetically appealing than rigid plastic equipment. They appeal to a broader age range.
  • And they help us make Pensacola a progressive, innovative, family-friendly community.
I welcome your input on this kind of park. There is much work ahead to make it happen, and I would like to know if you think it is worth the effort.

There is an over-used cliche about thinking outside the box. Here, let's not think inside the box or outside; let's think about kids and creative play and rather than a new plastic toy, let's give the kids what they really want, what will stimulate their creativity: the cardboard box.

Monday, February 2, 2009

City council retirement plans

Like any new job, the first few days of city council required lots of paperwork. One of the forms that I was given to fill out was the application for the city council retirement system. I demured, wanting to get more information since it is an issue that is of concern to me. I have more information now and have chosen to enroll.

Here's why.

Defined contribution plans are no more risky to the city (or in this case, the state) than a paycheck.

There are two key types of plans, both of which we can participate in:
  • Defined benefit: a guarantee by employer of a certain percentage of your salary once you retire. This is what is typically called a pension.
  • Defined contribution: a contribution by the employer to an investment plan, the amount of which is some percentage of the employee's salary. This is comparable to 401(k) or IRA retirement plans.
The city's contribution to each is the same percentage of salary, at least nominally.

The problem that we run into with pensions (defined benefit) is that the value is based on some actuarial table that assumes certain market conditions, etc. Unfortunately, the assumptions are frequently wrong, and the employer or pension administration gets put on the hook many years down the road. We typically underestimate the cost of such a plan.

I have chosen to participate in the defined contribution plan (though I have to elect that after I sign up). Such a plan can be viewed as simply part of my salary. When I am no longer in office, the state (this is a state plan, so it is not related to the city's pension) no longer has any financial obligations to me.

The city's contribution to the defined contribution plan is 16.53% percent of our salaries. Our salaries are $13,998 per year. That works out to $2312 per year toward retirement. Therefore, the salary plus this benefit (the city also pays into Social Security and Medicare) is $16,310.

I believe that city council should be a paid position and that pay can take the form of paychecks or similar compensation.

By providing financial compensation, whether as a paycheck or contributions to a retirement plan, we can attract more of a range of people to serve on the council.

There is a cost to my family for me to be on the council. I am a fiscally responsible person. But I have to be fiscally responsible for my family, not just for the city. There is a cost to my family (not just my husband and kids, but also my parents and grandmother, who are participating in childcare) for me to be on the council: the opportunity costs of the money I could make if I looked for a job that needed someone of my training; the costs in time that my mom, my dad, my husband, and my grandmother are putting in to helping with the kids; the costs to my kids of the loss of time that I can spend with them; the actual money I will have to pay for a babysitter when my family can't fill in. Without the salary, I would have a hard time justifying being on the council.

I am not alone. There are other people I know who considered running but decided against it because they have an obligation to support their family financially.

I would like to put the salary and retirement contributions in context. Other similar jobs in our community, like school board and ECUA (both paying about $35,ooo) and county commission (about $75,000) pay more. I have not researched what benefits they receive in addition to their salaries. All have fewer regularly scheduled monthly meetings than the city council.


In closing, I am concerned like many others about our city pension system. First, we must stay true to our current and past employees who served expecting a defined benefit. I believe, however, that defined benefit plans have contributed to the financial instability of many companies and understand why the private sector has moved away from them. I think that defined contribution plans have a role in recruitment and retention of quality people to jobs in this city, and, like most of the citizens of Pensacola, I want to see the highest quality people attracted to serving on the council and staff.