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Another Clearwater competitive bid error proves devil is truly in details

After awarding more than $16 million in the past decade to consultants without going through competitive bidding, the city of Clearwater had finally corrected a gross misunderstanding of Florida law governing the process.

While that may be indeed admirable, another potential problem could be on the horizon, as small print in a recent Request for Qualifications for Clearwater consulting services could lead to big headaches for the city.

Florida law has allowed governments to hire professional services — such as architects and engineers — without competition, but only if total project construction costs are less than $2 million.

Last year, officials in Clearwater corrected a misinterpretation of the law had continued for more two decades. Previously, as the Tampa Bay Times noted, Clearwater city leaders believed that if design contracts met another requirement in the statute — an agreement for particular work that has a fixed end date — design companies chosen with no bids, even for construction projects over $2 million.

“We weren’t trying to do anything wrong,” Director of Engineering Michael Quillen told the Times. “It’s confusing language in the Florida statute.”

Citing a confusion in the language of the law, Attorney General Pam Bondi said, “an apparent ambiguity exists” for when governments can use a firm on a continuing contract. It all rested on the word “or.”

According to the law, governments can give contracts to a company when construction costs are under $2 million; if design fees are less than $200,000; or for specific work that has an end date.

The word “or” implies a choice, Bondi asserted. It led to governments “circumventing the selection process,” when the $2 million limit should apply in all cases.

Good catch, but that might not be all.

In the Florida Statutes, there is the Consultants’ Competitive Negotiation Act (CCNA), a law that applies to the procurement of certain professional services, such as architecture, engineering, landscape architecture and the like.

CCNA instructs agencies to use a multistep process to select professional services — more than a simple dollar figure — where the qualifications of those who will provide the service are as important (or more) than just the costs.

Among the factors to be reviewed in qualifying firms, the agency has to consider the capabilities, adequacy of personnel, past record, and experience.

In these cases, the lowest bid is not necessarily the best way to go. Assigning a dollar figure to intangibles like experience and qualifications works against the intent of the CCNA.

It is for that reason a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) from the City of Clearwater raises more than a few red flags.

On March 30, the city issued an RFQ for an engineering firm to offer consulting services for its Wastewater Collection System Master Plan.

The company selected would help update the Clearwater’s plans for the wastewater collection system, which currently includes approximately 8,287 manholes and 389 cleanouts; 1,951,179 feet (370 miles) of gravity sewers; 199,811 ft. (about 38 miles) of primary force lines and 73 pump stations. The system has three service areas associated with the city’s three water reclamation facilities.

The proposal format gives very detailed instructions for interested firms, on the format, experience, qualifications and technical expertise.

Buried on Page 16, however, are specific criteria:

— “Schedule to complete the Master Plan including estimated number of hours per task, by personnel/position.”

— “Project Methodology. Demonstrate project understanding and ability of proposed approach to meet the needs of the City. Provide a detailed work plan, including a tentative schedule to complete the Master Plan including estimated number of hours per task, by personnel/position.”

Each notation attempts to put a number on something subjective, which is forbidden by the CCNA — and Florida law.

Companies under consideration could manipulate such by-task estimates, handing the city a shortcut in the bidding process by enumerating what is not supposed to be quantifiable.

All it takes is for the Clearwater screening committee to use that number, which is only an estimate and can be lowballed, to give an unfair advantage to the “lowest” bidder.

That was exactly what lawmakers sought to prevent when passing the CCNA in 1984, to keep from throwing good taxpayer money after bad when a winning bid turns out to have unreliable qualifications or expectations.

It should be noted the criteria with theses phrases appear in a single Clearwater RFQ (so far), and it only pertains to a section of the request worth 20 points out of a possible 100. But even a slight, intentional change in that number could prove just enough to tip the scales for one company over another.

And for Clearwater, after 20 years circumventing the legally required competitive bidding process for certain city projects, the devil is truly in the details.

Document: Tampa man accused of plot to kill federal judge

Federal authorities say a jail inmate who supports the Islamic State group is accused of plotting to kill an 80-year-old federal judge in Florida.

A grand jury on Wednesday indicted 39-year-old Jason Jerome Springer on a charge of threatening to assault or kill U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich.

The Tampa Bay Times reports Springer was awaiting trial on a gun violation when he told other inmates he wanted to kill Kovachevich, and would do so if released.

Court documents say Springer mentioned flying an “explosive-packed drone” into her office and tried to learn her home address.

An inquiry began in February when an inmate reported Springer had prayed for Kovachevich’s death.

Prosecutors say social media postings indicate he’s sympathetic to the terrorist group.

An attorney for Springer isn’t listed.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Charlie Crist adds voice to those calling for Frank Artiles’ resignation

Congressman Charlie Crist also wants Frank Artiles gone.

“The racial slurs used by Sen. Artiles are deeply offensive to me and the community I represent,” said the St. Petersburg Democrat and former Republican governor in a short statement on Thursday.

“He should restore the dignity of the Florida Senate by immediately removing himself from it.”

Artiles, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County, made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night.

Artiles also used a variation of the “N-word,” referring to her and to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President.

Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Thurston has lodged a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his expulsion. An investigative report by General Counsel Dawn Roberts is due next Tuesday.

Pinellas nursing home operators worried about impact of payment system

Leaders from Pinellas County nursing homes joined local residents, families and advocates to voice concern over a prospective payment system (PPS) plan under consideration by the Florida Senate.

Pinellas County has 69 nursing homes, of which 39 (57 percent) could lose money under the Senate budget plan — potentially more than $13 million.

 “On average, our facility has a Medicaid census of close to 70 percent, which translates into 172 seniors, and under the proposed PPS system, we would lose $1.7 million — this is a cost we simply cannot afford and one that would be devastating to our core mission of caring for the sick and dying,” said Kip Corriveau, director of Mission at Bon Secours St. Petersburg Health System.  “I ask lawmakers to prioritize quality care for our state’s most vulnerable and fragile seniors, whose families have entrusted their care to us by deferring the proposed PPS system until a fair solution that truly cares for seniors can be reached.”

Three of Pinellas County’s largest skilled nursing facilities — Bon Secours, Mease Manor and Menorah Manor — have opposed the PPS model, arguing it would negatively affect local nursing homes by shifting resources from high-quality nursing home communities to primarily lower-quality facilities.

“Menorah Manor is a mission-driven, charitable, nonprofit, faith-based organization that strives to provide the highest standards of care, and our doors are open to everyone — regardless of ability to pay, which means our Medicaid census on average is roughly 65 percent,” said Rob Goldstein, CEO of Menorah Manor.

“Yet, under the PPS plan included in the Senate budget, our facility will lose nearly $1 million when the transition funding runs out,” Goldstein added. “Moreover, this proposed PPS plan lacks any requirement that providers who receive new money under the plan have to spend it on care, programs or services.

“I respectfully ask, on behalf of the residents we are committed to caring for, that the legislature rejects this plan.”

Mease Manor president and CEO Kent McRae added: “Mease Manor is focused on the delivery of high-quality nursing home care and we oppose the proposed PPS plan, as it will have a negative impact on the quality of care we provide to our residents. Under the plan in the Senate budget, Mease Manor stands to lose nearly a quarter of a million dollars each year. Losses like this will negatively affect our nursing home, staff, residents and their families.”


Vern Buchanan talks jobs with restaurant owners

Jobs and the economy drove the discussion Wednesday when Vern Buchanan met with a group of nearly a dozen restaurant owners from Sarasota and Manatee counties.

The Sarasota Republican congressman listened as the entrepreneurs discussed some of the financial challenges facing their businesses during the meeting at the Holiday Inn Sarasota-Airport.

Buchanan’s meeting comes on the heels of a study released this week ranking Bradenton one of the best small cities in the U.S. to start a small business. According to the personal finance website WalletHub, Bradenton was ranked 114th out of 1,261 small cities around the country. Sarasota came in at 391.

Buchanan, a successful businessman before entering Congress, has called for an overhaul and simplification of the tax code to lower rates for individuals and small businesses.

“When our small businesses succeed, the Suncoast succeeds,” he told the group. “Your hard work helps to drive our economy and create jobs.”

John Horne, chief executive officer of Anna Maria Oyster Bar in Bradenton, was among the attendees.

“It’s nice to have a businessman representing us in Congress,” Horne said. “Congressman Buchanan understands these issues well.”

Buchanan represents Florida’s 16th Congressional District, which includes Manatee County, along with parts of Sarasota and Hillsborough counties.

The area’s 1,500 restaurants employ more than 29,000 people in Buchanan’s district, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Buchanan also updated the group on his “Main Street Fairness Act,” a proposal to make sure that no small business in the country pays a higher tax rate than large corporations. The legislation picked up bipartisan steam earlier this month when Sens. Bill Nelson and Susan Collins of Maine introduced a companion bill in the U.S. Senate.

“Tax reform will generate enormous economic growth and create jobs,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan (middle, white shirt) addresses the group

No surprise — Sierra Club endorses Darden Rice re-election to St. Pete City Council

As Earth Day approaches this weekend, Darden Rice is rolling out endorsements from two environmental organizations for her re-election bid in St. Petersburg City Council District 4  — Florida Conservation Voters and (unsurprisingly) the Sierra Club, where she had previously worked.

“We’re proud to endorse one of our own,” said David Harbeitner, President of the Suncoast Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Darden has a long history of environmental activism and a strong commitment to standing up for what is right. We want to continue to work with her to make St. Petersburg a cleaner and healthier city.”

“Florida Conservation Voters is proud to announce Darden Rice as our first-ever local endorsement in her race for St. Petersburg City Council,” said Aliki Moncrief, Executive Director, Florida Conservation Voters. “City Council Chair Rice is a dedicated public servant who will tirelessly defend what is best about St. Petersburg. We look forward to working with her to protect our parks, waterways, and wildlife.”

“I’m very honored to have the support of these two respected and effective organizations,” Rice said in a campaign statement. “I started my career working to protect the environment, and I have continued that deep commitment to those values in my career as a City Councilwoman. I am focused to continue the necessary work of protecting our environment in St. Petersburg.”

In addition to the Sierra Club, Rice served as the Florida Director of Gulf Restoration Network before her election to the council in 2013.  She’s also the founder and chair of the City Council’s Environmental, Natural Resources, and Sustainability (ENRS) Committee.

Rice is running for a second term in District 4. Challenging the 46-year-old is USFSP student Jerick Johnston.

Janet Cruz latest Democrat to call for Frank Artiles resignation

Florida Democratic Minority House Leader Janet Cruz is calling for Miami Republican Sen. Frank Artiles to step down, following the outrage over published remarks of his racist comments to black Democratic lawmakers.

“Frank Artiles’ comments Monday night transcend politics and get to the idea of who we are as people,” said the Tampa Representative in a statement issued late Wednesday afternoon. Her response was the latest in a series of calls by Democrats for Artiles to resign.

The Florida Legislative Black Caucuswhich includes seven senators and 21 state representatives, issued a letter Wednesday calling for the Senate Rules Committee to begin the process of ousting Artiles from the Senate.

Fort Myers Republican Lizbeth Benaquisto, the Rules chair, agreed there was “probable cause” Artiles violated Senate rules  that say a senator must “maintain the integrity and responsibility of his or her office.”

Artiles apologized on the floor of the Senate Wednesday morning, less than 24 hours after the Miami Herald reported on racist comments he made to Democratic Sens. Audrey Gibson from Jacksonville and Perry Thurston from Fort Lauderdale.

Artiles also made a sexist remark to Gibson, the Herald wrote.

“My comments to you were the most regretful of all because they injured you personally,” Artiles said to Gibson. “No one deserves to be spoken to like that.”

Senate President Joe Negron stripped Artiles of his chairmanship of the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee, while Florida Gov. Rick Scott called the comments, “disgusting,” but would not respond to questions about whether he thinks Artiles should step down.

Cruz had no such qualms.

“Do we believe in equality and treating each other well?” the Minority Leader asked in her statement. “Or do we believe that loose slurs and misogynistic attacks should be a part of our rhetoric? These disgusting remarks do nothing to bring us closer together as people and should not be tolerated by a civil society. Senator Artiles should take into account the best interests of his constituents and resign immediately.”

Primary care physicians: Health care plans must have prevention

Dr. Joy Jackson

Any health care program implemented by Congress or the state must include affordable preventive health care for all, Dr. Joy Jackson told members of the Polk County Tiger Bay Club Wednesday in Bartow.

Jackson is the Polk County Health Department director and chairs the Florida Department of Health’s statewide committee on Pharmacy and Therapeutics.

She has also served as medical director for Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, a free and low-cost clinic for those in the health insurance gap, since 2012.

Tiger Bay had billed her talk as “Trump vs. Obama health care programs,” but Jackson said affordable health care for everyone is the key to prevention of more serious health problems and increased medical costs. The “how” is up to the politicians, she said, declining to take a side.

At the turn of the 20th century a third of worldwide deaths was due to influenza, she said. Now the No. 1 cause of death is cardiovascular disease and No. 2 is cancer.

“We are living longer and dying of chronic diseases,” Jackson said, making it more crucial that everyone has access to preventative health care.

One of the major causes is obesity and the state has implemented a preventative program known as the Healthiest Weight Project.

Although Jackson steered away from the political side of health care, some Tiger Bay members characteristically did not, asking blunt questions.

One, in particular, wanted to know if Jackson supported universal health care.

“As a physician, I struggle with universal health care, but also universal health care would include preventative health care,” she said. “It is desirable for everyone to have access to affordable, quality health care.”

Asked if she thought everyone gets quality health care she said she didn’t think they do, adding there are multiple reasons. A major one is people not having a primary care physician.

Another health issue concern in Florida with summer approaching is last year’s Zika virus outbreak.

The Florida Department of Health and its county departments monitored the threat carefully she said. There were over 30 travel-related cases of Zika in Polk County alone. But only in Miami-Dade County were there local mosquitoes found to be carrying Zika.

Six babies in Florida were reported with Zika-related issues.

While the health agencies throughout the state are on guard, residents must also be, she noted.

“Keep tipping and draining,” she said referring to bird baths and small water containers outside, “No going away and leaving standing water.”

While there is no visible presence the alerts must continue with strong mosquito control and with people being aware, Jackson said.

Hillsborough Commission expresses caution about fully investing in Cross-Bay Ferry for second year

Hillsborough County Commissioners sounded impressed by the relative success of the Cross-Bay Ferry pilot project between Tampa and St. Petersburg that concludes at the end of this month, but whether they are prepared to spend another $350,000 to fund a repeat performance later this year remains uncertain.

After hearing a presentation from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, whose leadership led to the project happening, the board passed a motion to have County Administrator Mike Merrill review whether the board can find the funds to subsidize its portion of the four-government pilot project later this year.

Curbing his enthusiasm somewhat, Kriseman began his address to the Board by acknowledging that the ferry is hardly the solution to the Tampa Bay area’s vexing transportation issues. “It is simply an additional tool in our toolbox that works toward those solutions that I think all of us seek and know that we’ve got those challenges that we’ve got to address if we’re going to grow out counties and our region,” he said.

The St. Petersburg mayor, who is running for re-election this year, unveiled a PowerPoint presentation filled with statistics to measure who has actually taken the ferry over the past five-and-a-half months. At the end of March, more than 31,000 people had ridden on the ferry, with organizers hoping the total number could hit 40,000 before it ends in 12 days.

Kriseman said that expectations were low for people to commute to work on the ferry, especially with the project using only one boat. During weekdays the service offers only two full round trips, with three on the weekends.

The visit to the Hillsborough Commissioners was the mayor’s second appearance before one of the four local governments who contributed the $350,000 to get the project with HMS Global Maritime rolling last fall. He will visit the Tampa City Council next week.

The survey shows that 90 percent of passengers were Tampa Bay residents, but Board Chairman Stacy White said he wanted those numbers broken down further by zip code, questioning how many people living in the outlying parts of both counties were using the service, vs. those living in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Nearly everyone – 95 percent – said they enjoyed the experience.

The ferry has had a farebox recovery rate of 35 percent. That’s higher, Kriseman noted, than the standard farebox recovery for bus systems, which is around 20 percent.  (Farebox recovery is the proportion of the amount of revenue generated through fares by its paying customers as a fraction of the cost of its total operating expenses).

One of the biggest disappointments was that the ferry was inoperable during high profile events like Gasparilla and the Saturday before the national college football playoff game. Kriseman said that the lack of a permanent docking station was the culprit. The ferry has been taking off the Vinoy Basin in St. Petersburg, and dropping off passengers next to the Tampa Convention Center.

Commissioner Les Miller noted that the passenger loads were less than filled to capacity in the opening weeks of the ferry service, but grew noticeably in recent months. What changed, he asked Kriseman.

The mayor acknowledged that the reduction of the fare had a considerable influence on ridership, dropping one-way tickets from $10 to $5 on weekdays, but he said he thought the number one factor was the awareness and word of mouth factor.

The local governments will not get their $350,000 back, but they will collect some funds to reduce the subsidy when it ends later this month. As of the end of March, more than $111,000 was scheduled to be returned to Tampa, St. Pete, Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, with the mayor predicting they will receive a check back for approximately $30,000. “It rarely pays for itself,” he said of transportation outlays, a comment frequently invoked by local officials advocating for light-rail in recent years.

An optimistic Kriseman said in addition to ferry service in Hillsborough County and from downtown Tampa to downtown St. Petersburg, he also mused about ferries running from St. Pete to the Westshore area of Tampa. “Not only giving people the opportunity to go to work in Westshore, but also to take a shuttle to Tampa International Airport and not have to rent a car.”

“This was one of the best reports that have come back to us that we’ve made,” enthused Commissioner Sandy Murman after Kriseman’s presentation Murman reminded the public that the board did approve a proposal two weeks ago to move forward on a much delayed public-private partnership ferry plan to take passengers from South County to MacDill Air Force Base, then to St. Petersburg.

“I don’t know if we can go up to $350,000 the next round,” she admitted about a similar Tampa-St. Pete Cross-Bay Ferry project for 2017-2018. “I think we’re building a very solid case for continuing this.”

“The wife and daughter and I enjoy our moments crossing the bay on the ferry, ” said Commissioner Victor Crist. ” They’re memorable moments.”

Merrill said that “there are enormous needs and enormous opportunities,” regarding the upcoming budget discussions, but said that the Cross-Bay Ferry project would fit into the “return on investment category” in the budget, where it could hopefully recoup all of their investment next year.

“It’s probably a little bit early to judge how this would fit with all the others (budgetary issues) because we haven’t really finalized all of the work that we plan to bring back on May 9th,” Merrill said, adding that his staff will seriously look at the funding request.


Janet Long doubtful about supporting $14 million CRA request for St. Pete Pier

The St. Petersburg City Council is poised to vote for a final time this week on approving another $14 million for the city’s plan for a new Pier. If approved, the Council will then approach Pinellas County about re-allocating $14 million in tax increment financing, or TIF funds, to the $66 million Pier project, boosting the price tag overall to $80 million.

Commission Chair Janet Long says she’s not likely to support the request.

“The City Council themselves are not united, number one,” she said on WMNF’s MidPoint program Tuesday, referring to the different ideas that Councilmembers made earlier this month when initially approving the request from Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Long also expressed dismay about the price tag of the new Pier continuing to escalate, as well as the fact that the money comes from the city’s Downtown CRA (community redevelopment agency).

“CRA’s, from my understanding, are put in place to try to help take care of blight in a community,” Long said. “Frankly, I don’t see anywhere I go in downtown right now that could be considered blight. Downtown St. Pete is humming. It’s going to be humming whether there’s a new Pier or not.”

Shortly after Long’s comments, Brandon state Senator Tom Lee struck out in a Florida Senate committee attempting to make the same point, arguing for legislation that he said would cure a problem with CRA’s that were originally created to address blight in a community but have transmogrified into what he called  occasionally pet projects for CRA board members, or in some cases, “slush funds” for said legislators.

“To me, it’s gorgeous the way it is,” Long said about the St. Petersburg waterfront, sans an operating Pier.

“I’m going to have to hear a lot more solid reasons why we have to allocate another $14 million that has been heretofore designated for a transit hub, and since there are so many transportation issues we have, just getting people from point A to point Z downtown is often difficult, so I’d let to see some deeper discussion about what that money can be used for, and maybe that CRA for that matter needs to go ‘bye-bye,’ and we take our thoughts and put it on the Tropicana Field area, or what’s going on the south side of St. Pete. Those two places seem to continue to get the short shrift.”

Long says she has previously made her feelings known to Mayor Kriseman. It’s uncertain where the rest of the County Commission heads are on approving the $14 million.

Long also weighed in on the legislative vehicle proposed by Jack Latvala and strongly endorsed by the Tampa Bay Partnership that would revamp TBARTA, making it smaller and redirecting its focus. Supporters of the legislation took a blow this week when the bill was seriously amended by Tampa Bay area Lee and Jeff Brandes, requiring that any desire for light rail would have to be approved by lawmakers in Tallahassee.

The bill also calls for a majority vote by the MPOs of each county impacted by any proposed rail projects before the authority can pursue any real related contract. It would also require the authority to conduct a feasibility from an independent third party before pursuing any rail-related project.

“At this point in the session, for it to blowup the way that it did, is a bit small minded in my opinion,” Long said, criticizing state lawmakers for not focusing on the future.

Long is supportive of local Metropolitan Planning Organziations merging, an idea that the Obama federal government encouraged. Beth Alden, the head of the Metropolitan MPO, told SPB earlier this year that she didn’t understand the community’s urgency on the matter, a notion that Long is baffled by.

“Are you kidding me? What is the sense of urgency?” said a flabbergasted Long. “Have you ever tried to leave Tampa International and drive across the Howard Frankland and go to Clearwater Beach?” she asks. “I mean it’s a transportation gridlock. “

“Beth is a planner, while I understand in the great big visionary world you want to have those areas in an MPO,” she continued. “If you talk about Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco that’s where the density is. It’s not in Herando, or Sarasota, or Manatee counties.”

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