Sunday, March 28, 2010

Broken trust: How promises to revive Jacksonville's depressed Northwest side fell short

The unfinished projects are glaring examples of costly meltdowns marring the $25 million Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Trust Fund.

The fund, aimed at sparking private investment in a long-neglected part of town, helped win African-American support for Mayor John Delaney's far-reaching $2.2 billion Better Jacksonville Plan in 2000.

The key findings:

- The program failed to meet its goals as a job-generator. Forty-seven percent of the companies receiving trust fund money either didn't create the number of jobs promised or failed to provide any proof of doing so - a program requirement. A review of records could find evidence of only 923 jobs spawned by the fund.

- The city gambled big on risky startups and lost. The failed bistro and car dealership-related ventures alone swallowed $5 million and haven't created a single job.

- Oversight was lax and requirements laid out to safeguard taxpayer dollars often were ignored. A $1.7 million facade grant program was under the control of one employee who ended up doctoring documents from contractors and forging signatures to steal $95,000.

JTA allocates $9 million of stimulus funds to park-and-ride program, new buses, shelters

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced this month that JTA was being awarded $9.3 million as part of a new batch of federal stimulus awards that distributed more than $600 million throughout the country.

The JTA money will go toward buying new buses, purchasing new fare collection equipment, a hybrid electric cooling system for buses, bus shelters, operating assistance for bus routes and a regional park-and-ride hub in Clay County.

Arrington estimates about nine buses, with about $3.1 million of the stimulus money. The 40-foot buses will look the same as the current vehicles but use a cleaner-burning diesel fuel.

Obama Signs Health Care Overhaul Bill, With a Flourish

“The bill I’m signing will set in motion reforms that generations of Americans have fought for and marched for and hungered to see,” Mr. Obama said, adding, “Today we are affirming that essential truth, a truth every generation is called to rediscover for itself, that we are not a nation that scales back its aspirations.”

Jacksonville ranks 39th for cybercrime risk

Jacksonville ranks No. 39 on Norton from Symantec's list of 50 cities most vulnerable to cybercrime.

The rankings were determined through a combination of Symantec Security Response data on cyberattacks and potential malware infections, and third-party data about online behavior, such as accessing Wi-Fi hotspots and online shopping.

Jacksonville jumps five places in population rank

Jacksonville's population was 1,122,750 in 2000, ranking 45th, and that rose to 1,328,144 last year for 40th place.

State tax collections down $67B in ’09

State government tax collections in 2009 totaled $715.2 billion, down 8.6 percent — or $66.9 billion — from 2008.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 Annual Survey of State Government Tax Collections also showed that taxes on individual income totaled $245.9 billion, an 11.8 percent decrease, while general sales taxes were $228.1 billion, down 5.4 percent. Corporate net income taxes — which made up 71.9 percent of all state government tax collections nationally — totaled $40.3 billion, down 20.7 percent.

Florida took in $31.95 billion in total taxes in 2009, including $19.2 billion in general sales taxes and $1.83 billion in corporation net income taxes.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rethinking Sex Offender Laws for Youth Texting

“Generally this should be an education issue,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union. “No one disputes that sexting can have very bad consequences, and no parent wants kids sending out naked images. But if you’ve got thousands of kids engaging in this, are you going to criminalize all of them?”

One recent survey found that about one in five teenagers reported having engaged in sexting. Another found that almost half the boys in coed high schools had seen a picture depicting a female classmate nude.

Obama signs $17.6 billion jobs bill

President Barack Obama signed into law a $17.6 billion jobs bill on Thursday and sounded an optimistic note about the U.S. economy, saying it may soon begin adding jobs instead of losing them.

The legislation would exempt businesses from paying the 6.2 percent payroll tax on new employees who had previously been out of work. Employers would also get a $1,000 tax credit if those workers were still on the job a year later.

Obama said that while the jobs bill "is absolutely necessary, it is by no means enough. There is a lot more we need to do to spur hiring in the private sector and bring about a full economic recovery."

The bill also subsidizes state and local construction bonds and allocates $19.5 billion to shore up a highway construction program and extend it through the end of the year.

The bill's costs, other than the highway fund, are offset by a crackdown on offshore tax shelters.

Barriers Found to College Degrees for Hispanics

In the study, the American Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit research organization, examined graduation rates for students who entered college in 1999, 2000 and 2001, and found that 51 percent of those identified as Hispanic earned bachelor’s degrees in six years or less, compared with 59 percent of white students.

The researchers also found that Hispanic students trailed their white peers no matter how selective the colleges’ admissions processes.

For example, at what the researchers considered the nation’s most competitive colleges — as a yardstick, they aggregated institutions using the same six categories as a popular guidebook, Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges — the institute calculated that nearly 83 percent of Hispanic students graduated, compared with 89 percent of white students. Among colleges identified as “less competitive,” the graduation rate for Hispanic students was 33.5 percent, compared with 40.5 percent for whites.

Jax aviation has $2.9 billion impact

Jacksonville's four commercial and general aviation airports have a nearly $2.9 billion annual impact, according to a Florida Department of Transportation study.

Jacksonville International Airport, Cecil Field, Craig Municipal Airport and Herlong Airport employ nearly 29,900 people, according to the "Florida: Statewide Aviation Economic Impact Study." The state's aviation industry has a $114.7 billion impact through its 19 commercial airports, 102 general aviation airports and 11 military airfields.

The industry supports about 1.2 million jobs, which have an annual payroll of $38.8 billion. Commercial and general aviation in Florida has a $97 billion annual impact and creates about 1 million jobs.

Jacksonville can’t afford mandatory study of small-business program

The city’s Small and Emerging Business program was schedule to end Sept. 30, 2009. But the city isn’t able to clearly outline whether the program reached race- and gender-conscious goals for its contracts. Therefore, a disparity study to determine the availability and use of businesses owned by various racial minorities and women is now required by the 2004 ordinance that created it.

Devin Reed, the city’s director of procurement, said that will cost between $750,000 and $1.2 million. It’s money the city doesn’t have.

City Council President Richard Clark has pledged to find the money. A long-time critic of the city’s procurement policies, he said the council and minority contractors must be given all the facts about how the program is working.

“We need to find out if we’re meeting the goals and if indeed we need to go to a race-conscious JSEB program,” Clark said. “And we will find the money.”

The city’s goal was that collectively, small businesses would land 20 percent of its contract money. In the 2007-08 fiscal year, that figure was 24 percent.

But an independent audit of the program released in February said the city couldn’t identify whether the goals for women and minorities were reached. Instead, the city focused on the overall success of the Small and Emerging Business program, which is open to all small businesses regardless of whether they are owned by a woman or minority.

Fla. voucher expansion bill advancing

Sellers of beer, wine and liquor would be added to the list of businesses that can get tax credits for donating to a private school program for low-income children as part of a bill that also increases the value of the vouchers.

The measure that easily cleared the Senate Finance and Tax Committee on Tuesday pits a couple old adversaries: former Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

The union was part of a lawsuit that overturned a voucher program Bush started for students from what the state deemed to be failing public schools. The Florida Supreme Court struck down the "opportunity scholarships" that allowed those students to attend private schools at taxpayer expense.

Patricia Levesque, executive director of Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, argued the state would save money by expanding the Tax Credit Scholarship Program because it would still pay less than what it costs to send children to public school.

Union lobbyist Lynda Russell told the committee this isn't the time, with the state in a financial squeeze, to take more money out of public education.

The voucher program is supported by credits businesses can get against their corporate income taxes and insurance premium taxes for every dollar they donate to the program.

The bill (SB 2126) would add credits for alcoholic beverage and gas and oil severance taxes as well as a form of sales tax paid by some businesses.

The bill also would raise a $118 million cap on the program to $140 million during the budget year starting July 1 and allow for automatic increases after that if the program raises at least 90 percent of the capped amount in a given year.

For the next school year, the bill would increase the vouchers, currently worth $3,950, by about $140 to equal 60 percent of what it costs to send a student to public school. It eventually would grow to 80 percent, or at least about $5,500, in the future.

The committee approved the bill 4-1 with only Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg opposed. The only other Democrat on the panel, Sen. Jeremy Ring of Margate, voted for it.

Report: Jacksonville retail vacancy to top 12%

Jacksonville’s retail market faces tough times ahead in 2010 with the vacancy rate expected to climb above 12 percent and the average asking rent expected to fall to 2003 levels, according to the 2010 National Retail Report by Marcus & Millichap.

The report estimates that the lingering effects of the recession will cause a jump of 100 basis points in the local vacancy rate to 12.3 percent this year and rents will slide 3.4 percent to $14.12 per square foot.

Jacksonville ranked No. 43 in the report’s annual National Retail Index, which ranks 44 retail markets based on a series of 12-month, forward-looking supply and demand indicators. The city’s ranking was up one from last year.

Teenagers in need of direction can turn to apprenticeships

Make sure to read the full article to understand how our education system should be working.

Apprenticeships is a great common sense idea that went away in the 20th century in America.

Jacksonville AIrport had Fewer Passengers in 2009

According to the JIA website, it had more than 395,000 fewer passengers in 2009 than in 2008. In 2008, JIA had 6,002,698 passengers. In 2009, that was down to 5,605,934. Those numbers are also down from 2007, which saw 6,319,016 passengers.

Of the 50 largest airports in the United States, only four showed growth in passenger traffic in 2009.

Overall, U.S. airports saw 704-million domestic and international passengers in 2009. That's 5 percent less than in 2008.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

$729M in education stimulus part of $3.7B overall to Florida

Florida will get an extra $729 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The state recently reported that recovery dollars have been used to provide funding for more than 24,000 education jobs from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2009, while also supporting programs that drive education reform.

In addition to the nearly $729 million announced today, the Education Department said the Recovery Act has provided $3.71 billion through 10 different state programs as well, including $1.98 billion in State Fiscal Stabilization funds, $671.25 million in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funds, $8.25 million in Work Study funds for students attending schools in Florida, $32.16 million in Vocational Rehabilitation Funds and $30 million in Education Technology Grants.

To date, Florida has received $4.44 billion in stimulus money.

Key Vote: Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act

Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act
- Vote Passed (217-201, 14 Not Voting)

The House approved this bill that would provide $13 billion in payroll tax relief over 10 years for employers who hire unemployed workers and extend through 2010 a law that allows small businesses to deduct up to $250,000 in qualified expenses. The bill goes to the Senate.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act

Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act
- Vote Passed (262-153, 16 Not Voting)

The House passed this legislation that would establish the first federal safety standards on seclusion and restraint in schools, allowing for restraints in cases when there is immediate danger to the student or others. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Temporary Extension Act of 2010

Temporary Extension Act of 2010
- Vote Passed (78-19, 3 Not Voting)

The Senate passed this bill that provides short-term extensions of a number of programs that expired February 28, including unemployment benefits and federal health care subsidies for jobless workers. The bill was quickly signed by the President.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Sen. George LeMieux voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010

Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010
- Vote Passed (235-168, 29 Not Voting)

The House passed this intelligence authorization bill after stripping out controversial language on interrogation techniques used by U.S. personnel. The bill now has to be reconciled with a Senate version (S. 1494) in conference committee.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Health Insurance Industry Fair Competition Act

Health Insurance Industry Fair Competition Act
- Vote Passed (406-19, 8 Not Voting)

The House voted to end an exemption from federal antitrust law for health insurance companies. The bill now goes to the Senate, where its prospects are uncertain.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Jobs for Main Street Act

Jobs for Main Street Act
- Vote Agreed to (70-28, 2 Not Voting)

The Senate passed this $15 billion jobs bill, which includes payroll tax breaks, bond-financing for state and local infrastructure projects, and an extension of federal highway programs. The bill now goes to the House.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Sen. George LeMieux voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

U.S. says "drugged driving" growing threat

The United States is calling for discussions at United Nations level to tackle "drugged driving" and says it wants to collect data to gauge the scale of the problem among public sector drivers and commercial truckers.

"If you think about driving on an American road on a Friday or Saturday evening about 16 percent of the vehicles - one in six of the cars - (the driver) will be under the influence of an illicit or licit drug," Gil Kerlikowske, director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, said.

"Drugged driving is a significant problem." he told reporters at a week-long U.N. drug policy review meeting.

He said the two countries had agreed to conduct operations on certain facilities in Afghanistan, producer of over 90 percent of the world's opium, which fuels a $65 billion illegal market and helps fund the insurgent Taliban.

Monday, March 8, 2010

U.S. Enriches Companies Defying Its Policy on Iran

The federal government has awarded more than $107 billion in contract payments, grants and other benefits over the past decade to foreign and multinational American companies while they were doing business in Iran, despite Washington’s efforts to discourage investment there, records show.

That includes nearly $15 billion paid to companies that defied American sanctions law by making large investments that helped Iran develop its vast oil and gas reserves.

Many of those companies are enmeshed in the most vital elements of Iran’s economy. More than two-thirds of the government money went to companies doing business in Iran’s energy industry — a huge source of revenue for the Iranian government and a stronghold of the increasingly powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a primary focus of the Obama administration’s proposed sanctions because it oversees Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

Other companies are involved in auto manufacturing and distribution, another important sector of the Iranian economy with links to the Revolutionary Guards. One supplied container ship motors to IRISL, a government-owned shipping line that was subsequently blacklisted by the United States for concealing military cargo.

Jacksonville tree protection fund nearly depleted, council says

The main financial resource Jacksonville's mayor and City Council have used over the years to plant trees and improve landscaping on public roads and property is nearly depleted.

There is about $2 million left in the city's tree protection trust fund, an account fed by developers' contributions that had a balance of more than $10 million just a year ago.

The council's Finance Committee, led by Stephen Joost, has stopped new spending out of the tree protection fund until a decision can be made on how the remaining dollars should be used.

"At the rate we're going, we're going to run out of money," he said. "Maybe there ought to be some kind of hierarchy so we can prioritize some of the upcoming projects."

Councilman Reggie Brown wants to use $97,000 from the fund to plant trees along Moncrief Road, Avenue B and 45th Street in his district. Brown said it doesn't make sense to stop using the money in the way it was intended.

"I believe that stalling it only stalls beautification of Jacksonville," Brown said.

The fund was established by ordinance decades ago and required developers who cut down protected trees to mitigate those losses by either planting new trees or, more often, paying into the account. Later, a citizen referendum in 2000 led to a charter amendment that strengthened requirements and extended the accountability to housing developers.

As the city grew and development remained robust, the fund was constantly replenished. When the mayor's office or a City Council member wanted to use the money to plant trees along a public road or landscape property, few questions were asked, Joost said.

"Every time a councilman has a request for trees, it's pretty much rubber-stamped," he said.

It wasn't until recently that Finance Committee members began asking for an accounting of the money that remains and where it has been spent.

Numbers supplied by the Council Auditor's Office show that of the nearly $19 million spent in the past five years, the districts with the highest tree protection fund spending were those adjacent to downtown.

Analysis documents college 'grade inflation' over decades

Grades awarded to U.S. undergraduates have risen substantially in the last few decades, and grade inflation has become particularly pronounced at selective and private colleges, a new analysis of data on grading practices has found.

In "Grading in American Colleges and Universities," published Thursday in Teachers College Record, Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor of geology, and Christopher Healy, an associate professor of computer science at Furman University, illustrate that grade point averages have risen nationally throughout most of the last five decades. The study also indicates that the mean G.P.A. at an institution is "highly dependent" upon the quality of its students and whether it is public or private.

"There's no doubt we are grading easier," said Rojstaczer, the founder of, where he's built a database of grades at a range of four-year institutions since 2003. The findings are based on historical data dating back at least 15 years at more than 80 colleges and universities, and contemporary data from more than 160 institutions with enrollments totaling more than 2,000,000.

Since the 1960s, the national mean G.P.A. at the institutions from which he's collected grades has risen by about 0.1 each decade — other than in the 1970s, when G.P.A.s stagnated or fell slightly. In the 1950s, according to Rojstaczer's data, the mean G.P.A. at U.S. colleges and universities was 2.52. By 2006-07, it was 3.11.

Though there's "not a simple answer as to why we grade the way we do," Rojstaczer speculated on several reasons why mean G.P.A.s have increased. One factor, he said, is that faculty and administrators "want to make sure students do well" post-graduation, getting into top graduate schools and securing jobs of their choice. Particularly since the 1980s, "the idea that we're going to grade more leniently so that our students will have a leg up has really seemed to take hold."

Senators: Lift Ban on Gays Donating Blood

The time has come to change a policy that imposes a lifetime ban on donating blood for any man who has had gay sex since 1977, 18 senators said Thursday.

"Not a single piece of scientific evidence supports the ban," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who joined 16 other Democrats and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in writing Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

The lawmakers stressed that the science has changed dramatically since the ban was established in 1983 at the advent of the HIV-AIDS crisis. Today donated blood must undergo two different, highly accurate tests that make the risk of tainted blood entering the blood supply virtually zero, they said.

The senators said that while hospitals and emergency rooms are in urgent need of blood products, "healthy blood donors are turned away every day due to an antiquated policy and our blood supply is not necessarily any safer for it."

Florida No. 8 for unemployment in 2009

Florida’s average unemployment rate shared a three-way tie for the 8th highest in the nation in 2009.

A new report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the state’s average unemployment rate edged up 4.2 percentage points from 6.3 percent in 2008 to 10.5 percent in 2009. An average of 966,000 Floridians were out of work last year compared with the average 578,000 out of work in 2008.

Jacksonville’s literacy rate takes a tumble, study finds

A recently released survey puts Jacksonville in the bottom third of the country when it comes to literacy. At question isn’t whether people can read, but how they read: how often they access books and news, and how many libraries and bookstores the city has to offer.

Jacksonville was ranked No. 55 overall in the survey that was led by Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis. El Paso and Corpus Christi, both in Texas, were at the bottom of the list of 75 cities.

For Jacksonville, the 2009 ranking marked five straight years of declining literacy, according to the annual assessment by Central Connecticut State University.

Fla. Deadliest State for Pedestrians, Cyclists

Florida is the deadliest state in the U.S. for pedestrians - and bicyclists don't fare any better.

In 2008, the most recent year for which federal statistics are available, 11.1 percent of pedestrians and 17.4 percent of bicyclists killed in the U.S. died in the Sunshine State, which has 6 percent of the nation's population.

The top four of the 10 most dangerous metropolitan areas for walking are in Florida, according to a study last fall by two Washington, D.C.-based non-profit groups. The state has been in the top three in bicycle and pedestrian fatalities every year since 2001, federal data show.

Drug Gangs Taking Over US Public Lands

Pot has been grown on public lands for decades, but Mexican traffickers have taken it to a whole new level: using armed guards and trip wires to safeguard sprawling plots that in some cases contain tens of thousands of plants offering a potential yield of more than 30 tons of pot a year.

Local, state and federal agents found about a million more pot plants each year between 2004 and 2008, and authorities say an estimated 75 percent to 90 percent of the new marijuana farms can be linked to Mexican gangs.

In 2008 alone, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, police across the country confiscated or destroyed 7.6 million plants from about 20,000 outdoor plots.