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‘Join the club’ — Tampa Airport CEO welcomes Tom Lee’s proposed audit

TIA chief Joe Lopano

Tampa International Airport’s chief executive officer welcomed the possibility of an audit as suggested by state Sen. Tom Lee last week.

“We get audited all the time,” Joe Lopano said last week at a meeting of the St. Petersburg City Council.

The Tampa Bay Business Journal reported Lopano was on hand to present the $543 million Phase 2 of TIA’s three-part expansion.

Council member Charlie Gerdes addressed Lee’s call for an audit: “I’m not asking this to ask you to defend yourself. What is that all about?”

“That’s the elephant in the room, right?” Lopano said, explaining airport officials “expect to be held accountable” for state money.

“The reality is that the state has given us a grant which we’ve been very grateful for,” he explained.

TBBJ notes that the state awarded $194 million in grants to develop SkyConnect, a mostly automated people mover project as part of Phase 1 of TIA’s master expansion plan.

“We expect an audit,” Lopano added. “We get audited all the time.”

Lopano pointed out that TIA is audited by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration and both external and internal auditors.

“To be audited by the state is fine,” he said. “Join the club.”

Completion of Phase 1 of the expansion — costing $971 million — is scheduled for next year.

Lopano told the Council that Phase 2 will be less expensive than originally planned.

“It was already 5 years old,” he said. “And as you know the world changes a lot in five years.”

In that time, projected costs rose from $1.7 billion to over $2 billion, leaving airport officials to overhaul Phase 2 to make the project affordable.

“By taking some things out, we reduced the cost estimates by 20 percent,” Lopano said.

Phase 2 — now at about $543 million — includes $194 million for curb expansion and $121 million for the Gateway Development, a 17-acre site for hotels, office and retail space.

Business leaders lobby Tampa Bay-area lawmakers on regional transit

As for discussion over a proposed Senate regional transit bill for the Tampa Bay region, it’s all about timing.

A group of a dozen local business executives arrived for a lobbying trip to Tallahassee just one day after a contentious Senate committee meeting where three Tampa Bay lawmakers clashed over a bill seeking to overhaul the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA). The nonprofit Tampa Bay partnership arranged the trip.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that in a heated meeting of the Senate Community Affairs Committee, Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala watched in frustration as Republican colleagues Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Tom Lee of Thonotosassa amended the bill.

The bill, originally approved April 17, was changed to require legislative approval for any local spending proposal that would include a light rail system and also prohibit TBARTA from financing a voter referendum on light rail.

Many saw the amendments as a significant blow to the TBARTA’s independence.

“The timing could not have been better for this trip because the bill was at a critical point,” Tampa Bay partnership president Rick Homans told the Times.

Among those in the business delegation were Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik; University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft; Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes; Ron Wanek, founder of Ashley Furniture; Tampa attorney Rhea Law, as well as Tampa executives of TECO Energy, BlueGrace Logistics, the BayCare Health System, PNC Bank, Vology and Florida Blue.

While the group’s agenda included supporting Latvala’s transit bill, ride-sharing legislation, and a creation of a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Times noted that TBARTA received special emphasis.

“It’s not dead,” Homans said. “It’s very much alive.”

The amended bill now includes a feasibility study ahead of any forward movement of a light rail system, and would require approval by a majority vote of each Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) of the county or counties where the investment would be made. If a rail project is planned for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, for example, each of the affected counties would need to approve the project.

Also, any rail project must get preapproval from the Legislature – since Tallahassee would be fronting much of the money anyway.

“They were not poison pills,” Brandes explained. “They were logical, reasonable steps that would largely have to be followed.”

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.”

Ridesharing bill advances to final vote in Senate

Legislation creating a statewide regulatory framework for ridesharing companies was debated Tuesday on the Senate floor.

Sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, SB 340 would require ride-sharing companies to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged onto their app but hasn’t secured a passenger. While with a rider, drivers would be required to have $1 million in coverage.

It also requires transportation network companies to have third parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers.

Brandes substituted the House version of the bill (HB 221) sponsored by Republicans Jamie Grant of Tampa and Chris Sprowls of Safety Harbor, which had already passed the lower chamber.

Brandon Republican Tom Lee and Miami Democrat Julio Rodriguez introduced amendments, but then withdrawn.

Lee’s amendment would address what he said was an oversight in the legislation involving local governments cutting a deal with a particular transportation network company while cutting out others.

“What I fear what’s going to happen is that the extractions that are going to occur for that exclusivity are going to cost those transportation network companies a lot of money,” said Lee. “And then they’re going to have to drive their costs back through the rates paid by consumers, and yet those consumers wouldn’t have any choice.”

Lee didn’t want to jam up the legislation, he said. However, he would try to add his proposal to a different bill.

The next amendment, offered by Rodriguez, would address what he said was unnecessary language on standards in the bill if a ride-sharing driver is an employee or independent contractor.

Brandes considered it an unfriendly amendment; Rodriguez quickly withdrew it.

The bill now advances to the Senate for a third and final hearing Wednesday. Passage there would bring the bill to Gov. Rick Scott‘s desk to become state law.

Tie score in Legislature could leave Tampa Bay Rays big winners

In sports, a tie means no one wins. No one loses, either.

Sometimes, in politics, ties can turn out to be victories.

On Monday, the Florida Senate essentially handed the Tampa Bay Rays a win with a tie, after the Commerce and Tourism Committee voted 3-3 on a bill from Thonotosassa Republican Tom Lee, which prohibited pro sports facilities from using taxpayer funds.

With that, Lee’s bill was officially called out on strikes this Session.

Supporting Lee (who is not on the committee), were Tampa Republican Dana Young, Elkton Republican Travis Hutson, and Miami Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez.

Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala voted against the bill, joined by Tallahassee Democrat Bill Montford and Panama City Republican George Gainer. Montford is committee chair; Gainer is its vice-chair.

Lee calls using state funds for sports facilities a “giveaway program.” He is looking to repeal the Sports Development Program, established in 2014 to help construct or improve structures.

Despite being a state law, the Legislature has yet to appropriate any funds for the program. Lee sought to get rid of a law that, as he sees it, has set aside $394 million for future use.

If Lee’s bill had somehow made it through (or manages to do so next year), the Rays have no choice but to begin looking even harder for a new home outside Florida.

For those claiming “millionaire, billionaire” owners can build their own stadiums, they can one day see how the Rays are doing in Charlotte, Buffalo, Las Vegas or wherever.

Stadiums are funded a penny at a time, not with $700 million checks. On rare occasions, stadiums are built with private funds.

A rare example is the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, where owner Stan Kroenke appears to be going into hock to the tune of $1 billion.

No one in Florida is going to do that for the Rays. No one.

St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater combined cannot come anywhere near the market and TV money flowing in Los Angeles. The Rays, the local community, and the state represent a three-legged stool necessary as a foundation for a new home to keep the team.

Passing Lee’s bill would have removed one the stool’s three legs, as well as any real chance for the Rays to remain in Florida.

Stuart Sternberg and his partners cannot privately fund a new stadium, nor can they continue to operate in a 20th-century facility. It’s that simple.

Monday’s vote keeps alive a chance this team can get a facility that lets them, at a minimum, remain financially competitive with rivals. Pulling the state out of the process sends an unmistakable message to Major League Baseball that Florida’s elected leaders, especially those from Tampa Bay, cares little about baseball in the region.

While the final score was 3-3, there will be no extra innings this year, at least not for this bill. The Rays left the field as big winners.

And the Rays left the field big winners.

Senate advances plan for new Tampa Bay-area transit agency

Legislation to reconfigure the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) was approved Monday by the Florida Senate Commerce Committee.

However, the bill passed with changes taking some power from the agency and giving it to the state.

Sponsored by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, SB 1672 would change TBARTA to a transit agency (no longer transportation) and would encompass just four counties — Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco and Pinellas Counties. It’s been a top priority of the Tampa Bay Partnership this Session.

However, two other Bay-area Republicans — St. Petersburg’s Jeff Brandes and Brandon’s Tom Lee, neither of whom as considered enthusiasts of light rail — added an amendment that would create additional obstacles if the newly configured TBARTA ever opted to pursue a light rail project.

The amendment 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, and require the authority to receive approval of the entire Florida Legislature before pursuing any rail project.

The amendment does restore more local control in one aspect; it removes the appointment of authority members by the Speaker and Senate President. Instead, those appointees will be named by representatives from the four counties.

Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson is sponsoring the companion bill in the House.

Tom Lee not backing down on claim of questionable spending at Tampa International Airport

Tom Lee insists he never wanted to air any “dirty laundry” about Tampa International Airport when he attempted to introduce an amendment to the Florida Senate’s budget last Wednesday that would have the airport independently audited.

But the Brandon Republican says that there are too many unanswered questions about how the airport is being run for him to stand silent.

“When you’re presented with this information, and you’re a member of the Florida Legislature, and you don’t act on at least an innocuous audit of status of the airport expansion project, that’s a pretty irresponsible disregard of your public duties,” Lee said Sunday.

The Senate rejected Lee’s amendment on a voice vote, but airport officials have stated that they would have no issue with such an audit, if one ultimately took place.

Tampa Republican Dana Young objected to the process by which Lee introduced his amendment, asking him on the floor why he couldn’t have done so when the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation (which Lee chairs) met last December.

Lee told Young and Jack Latvala, who also objected to the late-filed amendmentthat it was only because of recent media reports that he was compelled to do his own due diligence about the airport’s finances, specifically referring to a report from WFLA News Channel 8.

That story, which aired on March 1, reported that phase one of the airport’s $1 billion master plan expansion was running four months behind schedule.

A story that Lee didn’t mention on the Senate floor, but which he confirmed with FloridaPolitics.com, was a crucial source for him was reported approximately a year-and-half ago by WTSP’s Mike Deeson. That story relied on quotes from two Hillsborough County Tea Party activists who questioned the spending at the airport, as well as excerpts of memos written by former Hillsborough County Aviation Authority member Martin Garcia to board members years earlier. Garcia has been a frequent critic of TIA executive director Joe Lopano and his spending plans at the airport ever since Garcia abruptly left the agency after less than a year of service in May 2014.

Lee says that he “stumbled across” Garcia after he had done some initial research on the airport’s finances, and says that the former Aviation Authority board member “put some meat on the bones” of those reports.

Garcia is the head of a Tampa-based investment firm and served as Pam Bondi’s campaign manager for her successful run for Attorney General in 2010. Lee says he knew of Garcia from local GOP circles, but not well before the recent conversation about the airport.

During those discussions, Lee stated that Garcia told him that he was in possession of documents that referred to the extent of which airport management had “gone out of its way to conceal some of the facts and had refused to proceed in a fiscally irresponsible manger with these independent feasibility studies.” But when Lee asked him if he could share that information with him, he said Garcia told him he would not do so “without a subpoena.”

A call to Garcia for comment was not returned.

Garcia also told Lee about his issues with Gigi Rechel, the Aviation Authority’s former attorney who Garcia encouraged the Florida Bar to investigate regarding text messages she had sent to him that could not be recovered.

In February, the Florida Bar ruled that Rechel did not violate the state’s Sunshine Laws.

Lee admits that other various other media reports about other incidents about the airport have inspired his zeal for an audit. One of those incidents was a report about an alleged security breach and questionable business practices by staffers in the IT department. Two of those staffers ultimately resigned, and a business consulting firm found no security breaches.

Lee says that his request for an audit was a “perfunctory” request, and says he remains surprised that it has become such a major story. But while he insists he doesn’t have a “settled opinion” on whether improprieties are happening with the airport’s finances, Lee also injected the arguably inflammatory words “potential public corruption at the airport” early in his discussion of the debate on the Senate floor last week.

He defends those comments, saying it came later in the public debate after Young challenged him.

“The airing of the dirty laundry on the Senate floor is not my doing,” he maintains, saying he did everything he could to avoid that conversation and said that there had already been ten minutes of discussion off the floor of the Senate before he made that comment (You can watch the debate on the Senate floor, beginning at the 5:30:45 marker here).

Lee also says that Young was advised by lobbyists for the Aviation Authority not to challenge him on the floor because they knew that it could result in exposing “dirty laundry.”

(FloridaPolitics.com reached out to Young and the two lobbyists working for the airport to confirm the accuracy of the claim. None immediately responded).

Acknowledging that an internal state audit could be time-consuming, Tampa Airport officials say that they would welcome such a review because they have nothing to hide.

“If an audit turns up any findings, we certainly would adjust practices as necessary,” says airport spokesperson Janet Zink, “but we feel really comfortable with the way the project has been managed.”

Zink says the Aviation Authority provides monthly updates to the Florida Department of Transportation and has their internal auditing team reviewing the project on a regular basis, as well as producing an annual audit with an external auditor.

“There is a lot of monitoring going on, and we’ve been really, really diligent and careful in the way that we’ve managed the project,” she says.

Lee says that he also is concerned that there hasn’t been much public discussion about phases II and III of the ultimately $2.6 billion master plan. However, Zink says that there will be a board workshop at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Aviation Authority’s boardroom on Phase II of the Master Plan (public notice was the first week of April). There will also be an open house April 27 at 6 p.m. in the boardroom for more people to get information about the project.

Over the weekend, FloridaPolitics reached out to two Aviation Authority members for comment; neither Mayor Bob Buckhorn nor Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist chose to respond. Crist initially responded to a request to talk, but later returned a subsequent message.

Rick Kriseman says St. Petersburg ‘under siege’ by bad bills, budget cuts

Donald Trump’s proposed budget and bad bills in Tallahassee are putting cities “under siege,” according to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

“Our city is under siege by bad proposed bills and budgets,” Kriseman said in a news conference Thursday. Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman joined the mayor to speak in front of a home in South St. Petersburg.

Urging residents to call their representatives in protest, the mayor blasted the Trump administration for efforts to shut down the Community Development Block Grant program, as well significant cuts to the Housing and Urban Development budget.

The president was actively standing in the way of efforts to help low-income citizens, Kriseman said.

St. Petersburg receives about $3 million in CDBG funds, which goes to improvements to homes in low-income neighborhoods like the one where the event was held at 2645 14th Ave. S.

“These programs are vital to our community,” Wheeler-Bowman said. “The loss of these programs will be devastating.”

Kriseman also had strong words for the Florida Legislature, which is considering changes in the tax increment financing (TIF) process.

Legislation sponsored by Republican State Rep. Jake Raeburn of Valrico and Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa are seeking to change the rules governing TIF funds.

TIF’s use tax revenues for specially designated community redevelopment areas (CRA), financing improvements in low-income communities. St. Petersburg has four CRA’s.

The bills from Raeburn and Lee (HB 13/SB 1770) came after reports of mismanagement in a single Miami-Dade CRA in Hallandale Beach.

Kriseman criticized blaming an entire system for the “actions of one community.” Residents should contact Senate President Joe Negron directly, Kriseman said, calling him to stop the bills.

“We need to hold them all accountable for their votes,” he added.

House, Senate bills to repeal PIP clear committees despite questions, differences

Florida lawmakers appear to be taking steps to repeal a state law requiring personal injury protection coverage, but differences remain between the House and Senate proposals.

The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee voted 8-1 to approve a bill (SB 1766) that would repeal the Florida Motor Vehicle No-Fault Law, replacing the PIP mandate with a requirement that motorists carry bodily injury protection.

The Senate proposal, sponsored by Hillsborough County Republican Sen. Tom Lee, would create a medical payment, or MedPay, coverage mandate of $5,000. That system, according to a staff analysis, would provide “substantially similar coverage to current PIP medical benefits.”

That provision is not included in the House proposal (HB 1063) which cleared the House Commerce Committee on Thursday morning. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Erin Grall, also repeals the portion of the state law that requires motorists to obtain and maintain PIP coverage. Like Lee’s proposal, the House bill replaces the PIP mandate with a requirement to purchase bodily injury protection.

The bill bill increases the minimum bodily injury coverage limits to $25,000 of injuries to another person, and $50,000 of injuries for two or  more people.

The decision not to include MedPay in the House proposal had members in both chambers concerned. During discussions of the Senate bill, Sen. Rene Garcia asked Lee what commitment he has that the “MedPay component stays as part of the package.”

“I’m going to do my best to make sure hospitals and ER physicians aren’t adversely impacted,” said Lee, before saying it would likely be something that would have to be hammered out during negotiations.

But even then, Lee conceded there was no guarantee the MedPay component would end up in the final bill.

“At some point, we have to agree to disagree … and that’s why they make next year,” he said.

Garcia was the lone dissenting vote on the Senate proposal, citing the panel’s decision not to take up and adopt several amendments. Lee withdrew the amendments, citing concerns that amending the bill in the committee would slow down the process and decrease its chances of getting to the floor.

That could be a valid concern for those looking to reform the system. Lee’s bill received its first of three committee hearings on Thursday, with just three weeks until the end of the 2017 Legislative Session. The last day for regularly scheduled committee meetings is April 25.

The House bill cleared the Commerce Committee on a 22-5 vote, and is now headed to the floor. During the meeting, some members expressed concerns about the impact it could have on rates. However, several members said they were supporting the bill because they thought the current system needed to be changed.

“PIP as we know it is a dinosaur,” said Rep. Richard Stark, who said he was supporting the bill in committee but wasn’t prepared to commit to supporting it on the floor.  “The current system can’t prevail.”

Sparks fly with Tampa Bay GOP senators over Tom Lee’s call for Tampa International Airport audit

Sparks flew on the floor of the Florida Senate Wednesday between Tampa Bay-area Republicans after Tom Lee stated that “potential public corruption” is taking place at Tampa International Airport.

The Brandon Republican then proposed inserting an amendment to the Senate budget calling for the Auditor General to review spending at the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which is currently in the midst of a billion-dollar-plus master plan renovation.

“There have been allegations of gross representation,” Lee told Dana Young of Tampa (as well as the rest of the Senate), saying reports surfaced on local television and in “newspapers.”

Young objected, as did Jack Latvala of Clearwater; both stated that they had no idea what Lee was talking about.

“That’s a very inflammatory thing to say,“ Latvala said. “Can you tell me which channel it was on and maybe a little more about it, because obviously none of us condone corruption, but since you’re the only one in the delegation that has seen it, maybe help us a little bit?”

Senate President Joe Negron then interrupted, saying all legislators should be cautious when talking about the reputation of others, or, in this case, Tampa International Airport.

Lee then backed away slightly, saying that what he has seen was the definition of public corruption, but “perhaps I shouldn’t use that term.”

After seeing a report on WFLA News Channel 8, Lee said he reviewed the financial statements on the airport’s website, as well as pulling the Fitch bond report from last summer.

“I concluded that … rental fees going up from $2.50 a couple of years ago to $5.00 and now $6 a day … maybe our airport is having a problem sinking those bonds,” Lee said. “Based upon that personal analysis … I concluded that we needed a second set of eyes.”

Latvala noted that several lawmakers had just tried to Google “Tampa airport corruption.” They came up empty.

“So maybe you can tell what they said?” he asked.

Lee said he was convinced financials from the airport “weren’t just matching up.”

Young added that she believed in complete transparency; her only concern was the method Lee presented his amendment.

By bringing the issue up without making very much concrete information available, Latvala said: “We’re potentially putting a black mark on the name of that airport.”

Jeff Brandes then piped up. The St. Petersburg Republican took Lee’s side, saying: “We should give great deference to any senator who asks for an audit.”

But after a 20-minute debate, the Senate rejected Lee’s amendment. Nevertheless, Lee’s proposal had one effect — a dramatic spike in interest on the spending habits of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

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