Friday, March 30, 2012

Public Safety No longer Job #1

With Mayor Foster backing away from a new public safety facility, he has resoundingly indicated public safety is NOT job #1. It is obviously way down on the Mayor's priority list.

Since no one at the Police Department will speak up for fear of their jobs, and Chief Harmon is unlikely to step into the spot light and say what needs to be said about the current facility, let me take a shot.

I returned to the City in 2006 for a five year run at completing the technical implementation of the Police Department's Dispatch and Record Management Systems.

Shortly after settling in I noticed plaster foaming away on inside exterior wall, the roof leaked in the secure computer room. My area supporting 13 people, an open work space with cubicles, was cobbled together with cube walls of different colors from different manufactures purchased used from an office supply house. They were held together in some cases with cable ties.

It was necessary to remove several dead rats from the overhead dropped ceiling.

Electrical outlets were supplemented with power cords, often several linked together.

The equipment closets located throughout the building are not aligned vertically making wiring and adding facilities difficult and costly. Bundles of abandoned wire hang from pipes and lay in dropped ceilings because it is to costly to remove.

The data center air-conditioning was 17 years old, beyond its useful life, it was replaced with a commercial (not data center grade) system with a life expectancy of on only 7 years for cost purposes and in anticipation of a new facility.

We added a third small auxiliary generator to back up one of the primary generators, since it had become unreliable, and the other primary generator was leaking oil.

The Communications Center on the 4th floor frequently suffered from roof leaks as did Chief Harmon's own office, until extensive roof repairs were made. There were roof issues every spring I was there.

The Building Security system, now at least 15 years old is not reliable.

Elevators are old and require significant repair. It is not uncommon for civilian employees coming to work to find themselves on an elevator with a handcuffed juvenile subject. Very unnerving.

The facility consists of two buildings one constructed in 1950s and the second in 1970s. They are not aligned , so wiring and plumbing are expensive to install and maintain.

The 80 year old Annex across the street, given a true inspection could easily be deemed unfit for human habitation.

No one at the PD is looking for a monument to Law enforcement, they just want a decent and safe place to work. What the City needs is a new Public Safety facility.... Not a new Pier.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Setting Up the St. Pete Property Tax Increase

You tee up the golf ball, you serve the tennis ball and, the Mayor Foster's favorite, you pitch the baseball. Well, that's what happened Thursday at the Budget Finance and Tax Committee meeting.

A while back the budget shortfall was $10 million, then $12 million, then $18 million and before the meeting was over a whopping $22 million was mentioned.

Where did all that come from? Reduced property taxes, falling sales tax revenue on and on. Costs are up, pensions are up - the perfect storm.

You have probably had this experience. You go into a store looking for the advertised item, the sales person immediately walks you the most expensive model, and before you know it you buy something in the middle. They call that trading up, by trading down. Or if you prefer, bait and switch. You did not buy the advertised model, you spent a few dollars more.

Foster is teeing up, serving or pitching, pick your metaphor, the high end number to set up City Council for a property tax increase. Go for the big number and work backwards.

Faced with these staggering numbers and no other place to go is it time to look at the millage rate?

Why the problem, as it seems things are getting better?

In local government, revenue flow usually trails the economy by 18 to 24 months. What that means is, when things get worse, it takes government that long to feel it so they keep spending, and when things get better it takes and equal amount of time for local government revenue flow to catch up so they are in crisis mode longer. It's mostly due to the way tax levels are set and actual taxes are collected.

Smarter people than me predict that 2013 will be down year for local government revenue, 2014 will be slightly down to flat, and in 2015 revenue flow should begin to slowly grow.

While the public may not like it, a revenue neutral millage rate increase for St. Pete might not be a bad idea, if it includes a sunset clause. That would mean the tax rate (millage) would go up, but you would pay no more St. Pete property tax that paid last year, and the millage increase would go away in a specific time period say two years.

But before we even go there, the City needs to look at the survey results from The Peoples Budget Review, and take another hard look at the top end organizational structure, administrators, directors and assistant directors and managers giving carefully consideration to options like moving the Police Department Communications Center responsibilities to the County. There are still a lot of opportunities to fine tune City operations to save significant amounts of money while delivering quality public service and public safety.

City Council should not be overwhelmed by the numbers, they should get the facts, listen to the public input and make sound decisions. Most all don't buy the bait and switch or in this case entice and tax.

A Day at the Track - No The Other Track

Theresa had a business meeting at Tampa Bay Downs Saturday so we headed for Oldsmar about 10:00AM for a day enjoying the "Sport of Kings" at Tampa Bay Downs (TBD) TBD opened in 1926, it was called Tampa Downs when it first opened. For more information on the track's fascinating history click Tampa Bay Downs.
The track is beautifully manicured 1 mile oval with all of the horse racing amenities on site. TBD is a pari-mutuel facility, simply meaning betting and gambling are on site.
The meeting was in one of several party rooms available for rent. It had a great view of the track, pretty good food and there was a wagering agent in the room so if you desired to bet you did not have to go to a wagering window to bet or cash out. 
Horse racing is an easy going event, first race about 12:30PM then 8 to 10 more races about 20 minutes apart. All of the pageantry you see on TV with the stakes races is present and you can get right up to track side and the winners circle.
Lots of horsepower, but really quiet. On Saturday 108 different horses were scheduled to run with 35 different Jockeys.
The staff was helpful, pleasant and knowledgeable. They also have a racing Program that gives the first time race goers great insight into the sport.
The track is about 40 minutes from downtown St. Pete in Oldsmar, on Racetrack Road, phone 813-855-4401, the racing program runs through May.
If you are looking for something different to do, check out the TBD web site, and go take a look at the "Sport of Kings" at the only thoroughbred track on the West Coast of Florida.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Pinellas County School District Shuffle

School Superintendent John Stewart is proposing to drop the number of administrators from 121 to 61 to save money and bring the Pinellas District more in line with similar Florida School districts.

BRAVO It is about time!

OOPS.... wait a minute.

The assistant Superintendent in charge of Human Resources said the employees involved will move to a "different pay scale a few may see some pay reductions but that would be rare".

Explain to me how this saves money?

Doc Webb's First Law of a Bureaucratic Activity states: A bureaucracy in place stays in place, grows for no logical reason and slowly declines in performance until acted on by an external change.

This is not a change it is the old "cut and shuffle" . We cut the position and shuffle the body over to a "lower" position at the same pay rate, the body falls off the organizational chart and everyone is happy.

Apparently the insidious culture of the District is so caustic and infectious that even Stewart can't resist it. First he announces his departure then a reorganization that really isn't. It's a re-shuffle.

Pressure from where? The School Board, The unions, or has he just thrown in the towel? The devil will be in the details to be presented April 24 for a School Board vote.

Also interesting was the reluctance on the School Board's part to cut Stephanie Joyner's position. Are we getting a hint of the next Superintendent following an "unproductive" national search?

The District is in full hustle mode to pass Referendum 411 that extends an existing property tax, but a recent Survey by St. Petersburg Polls and Surveys indicates 60% of those surveyed do not support the referendum.

There's a big hint about how the public feels about the Pinellas County School system.

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Sunday, March 18, 2012


I am a big fan of the musical group Lady Atnebellum. So when they announced tour date at the 1-800 Ask Gary Amphitheater, I was ready when the tickets went on pre sale last week.

I dutifully logged on, followed all the suggestions, selected my two tickets 56.50 each total $113.00 and hit pay. Amount due $131.00. What? I must have missed something.

I sure did. As I scrolled up there was unwanted $18.00 added for the Lady Antebellum Online Fan Club.

Now I really like Lady Antebellum, but as you might imagine my e-mail box fills up with important stuff from you guys, and I really don't need any more e-mail from people trying to sell groupie junk.

Should be pretty simple, I thought, I'll just delete it and all will be OK. Nope not so fast.

Now I am pretty good at finding carefully tucked away buttons on web sites that allow you to make decisions that the page owner really doesn't want you to make, but I could not find anything that would let me opt out of the online Lady A Fan Club.

Suddenly it was the principle rather than the money or the annoying e-mails. These guys were trying to force me, an on line customer, into an additional $18.00 purchase I did not want.

Not right, not fair, no way I hit delete.     

After cold drink, I calmed down a bit I decided to accept the challenge and try to get the tickets without the Fan Club Option. Figuring it was tied to the on line site I called Live Nation the event promoter 1-800-745-3000.

Here is a confused crowd. First they answer TicketMaster, they bought TickeMaster a while back to get monopoly control of event ticket sales, and when I asked about the Lady A concert they said "the show at the 1-800-Ask Gary Ford Amphitheater"

Smiling, I said "yep that would be the one". I suspect the Ford people are laughing all the way to the bank.

The agent was polite, helpful and within just a few minutes I had the seats I wanted total price $113.00 no fan club and the tickets showed up in my e-mail about 5 minutes later.

The point of all of this is watch your on line buying, and be sure to look at those final prices, then check your credit card to make sure you're not getting ripped off.

This technology that we have all wrapped our lives around can easily be turned against us. Like every other tool we use to make our lives more pleasant and convenient, on line shopping needs to be managed. If they're trying to stiff, you hit delete. There is always another way.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Search for Pinellas County's Most Important Person

With the departure of interim School Superintendent John Stewart, the Pinellas Country School Board begins, for the fourth time in the last 8 years, a search for a new person to lead the Pinellas County school system.

Here is a group that is almost the poster child for dysfunctional decision making. Especially in the hiring arena. Already they are arguing about who the consultant/recruiter should be. Up for sole consideration FASB ( Florida School Boards Association). Just the name sends shivers up my spine. More in breeding.

This is the crowd that conducted a national search, recommended Alberto Carvalho from Miami Dade, who turned the job down. Probably after one interview with the School Board.

They ended up hiring Julie Janssen.

If after looking statewide, and considering only one recommended candidate; then selecting an in house, under qualified, lack luster manager is the best the Board could do, why would they even think about considering FASB. Maybe the Board just likes to deal with its own kind.

The problem with the School Board is no vision and no courage. It is time to get a first rate national recruiting firm that can bring candidates who want and appreciate the challenge a school system like ours presents. Let's not let the School Board set up another recruitment "failure" and then quickly hire some insider that we have to pay off to get rid of in a couple of years.

Chairwoman Robin Wikle and newest member Glenton Gilzean want to open up the recruiter selection process to completion and that is a great idea. It would be refreshing to follow the rules for a change.


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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

County 911 Dispatch for St. Petersburg Police - Why Not?

At the last Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee meeting, Mayor Foster held up a City organization chart and said "this is $199 million organization model, we need a $185 million model."

County administrator Bob LaSala and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri have begun serious talks to consolidate the County emergency center and the Sheriff's 911 center.

The St. Petersburg 911 Center literally duplicates the service performed by the County 911 Center. All 911 calls in Pinellas County go to the County 911 Center. St. Petersburg medical emergency and fire calls are already dispatched by the County Center.

Calls for St. Petersburg Police Service (911) are answered by the County 911 Center and transferred to the St. Pete Center, where they are processed through a call taker and a dispatcher, adding two more people and additional time to the actual Police dispatch. Centralized dispatch should result in better service for the public.

Duplicating 911 call centers has always been a parochial issue, and the City can no longer afford it. There is absolutely no reason to spend millions of dollars on a dispatch center in the new Police building to duplicate something that already exists at the County level ; and continuing to spend millions of operational dollars on Police dispatch when the balance of that money can be turned into on the street police presence.

The cost of the new Police Building is driven as much by the technology as it is by the bricks and mortar. Elimination of a fully functional 911 center and its associated security, environmental requirements and technology infrastructure should reduce the cost of the new Police building significantly.

Now is the time to get the Public safety issue on the Budget radar. The Mayor and City Council must take the lead in developing a new, more efficient and more effective public safety program.

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

The City Budget Battle is On

It is time for that annual City government exercise called the Budget. In St. Petersburg this year the budget cycle is going to be a bit different. In the last election one of the Charter amendments requires the Mayor to bring a balanced budget to the City Council.

In the past, the administration would bring a budget that was NOT balanced to City Council putting Council in the position of making the painful cuts. It was kind of fun forcing the elected folks to squirm with the painful stuff of budget reductions.

This approach was one of former Council Member Herb Polson's biggest frustrations. He sponsored the Balanced Budget Charter amendment this year, which passed. The administration must bring a balanced budget to City Council, and Council needs to force the Mayor to do just that. No laundry lists, no alternatives - a balanced budget.

The first rough projection (the shock and awe number) is a $10 million shortfall on a $199 million operating budget. That is just about 5%. That $10 million figure is before some significant costs are in, such as healthcare insurance increases, pension increases, utility and other fixed costs that may increase.

The shortfall will likely drop with home sales increasing and sales tax revenue up a bit. The final number should be in 5 to 7 million dollar range. But if any of the unknown costs shoot up, they could soak up the likely revenue increases.

With the departure of new Budget Director Matt Spoor, former Safety Harbor City Manager who left just about as quickly as he was hired, it is unclear who is really running the budget process.

City Administrators, Directors and Managers are a well seasoned group. There are still some here who worked on the Dome. They are, for the most part, very good at what they do. They know how to put together a budget and they know how to build "flexibility" in to those line items.

Whoever manages the Budget process is in for a real challenge as the administration tries to tuck money in and around the normal budget for the Pier, the new Police Building, support for the Rays.

A new person here, a few bucks there so we can do this or that study, few more dollars for marketing, some extra money in Down Town Development all in the budget but off the record and not part of the $50 million cap for the Pier. All of this while trying to cut up to 10 Million from the 2012 budget. Should be intresting.


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