Pensacola, Florida
Monday September 1st 2014

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The Buzz 3/8/12

SCHOOL PLAYGROUND DISCORD Mayor Ashton Hayward tried to work with School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas on the closed schools inside the city limits. They met six months ago and nothing has been heard from Thomas on the mayor’s proposals.

Recently, a Pensacola resident tried to get the school district to allow the playground at the closed Allie Yniestra Elementary School to be made available for neighborhood children. According to an e-mail received by the IN, Deputy Superintendent Norm Ross blamed the lack of access on a “divide between the Mayor’s Office and City Council.”

Mayor Hayward disputed Ross’ assessment. His office released the following statement after the e-mail was published on Rick’s Blog:

“Mayor Hayward has raised the issue of vacant, taxpayer-owned, School District buildings and property several times, both publicly and privately, with the Superintendent and his administration. We are still awaiting a response to the Mayor’s September 2011 letter asking the District to adopt an acceptable facilities reuse policy. There is no division, real or perceived, between the Mayor and Council on the use of this playground or the reuse of closed school facilities in general, and any suggestion to the contrary is just not accurate.”

Two days after Hayward’s statement was published, Superintendent Thomas sent another e-mail to the Pensacola parent.

“I do not believe there is a ‘divide’ between the government groups in Escambia County or the City of Pensacola,” wrote Thomas. “I actually believe all of the groups are working effectively and cooperatively to improve our community.”

Thomas went on to write the issue may be with the city’s Park and Recreation Department and its standards.

“If the city evaluates the Yniestra site and determines it fits into their plan to meet the community’s needs, then I would fully support the request,” wrote the superintendent.

PENSION NIGHTMARE The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report on the state of municipal and state pensions. The federal agency found that most pension plans face challenges over the long term because of the gap between assets and liabilities.

In the past, some plan sponsors have not made adequate plan contributions or have granted unfunded benefit increases, and many suffered from investment losses during the economic downturn. The resulting gap between asset values and projected liabilities has led to steady increases in the actuarially required contribution levels needed to help sustain pension plans at the same time state and local governments face other fiscal pressures.

This is where the City of Pensacola finds itself. Despite warnings from the IN and others, the old city administration and the city council refused to deal with this. The unfunded portion of the city’s three pension funds was nearly $80 million
in 2010 and has been growing. Last spring Mayor Ashton Hayward appointed an advisory group to make recommendations to fix the plans. Its chairman, David Penzone, will present its recommendations to the council on March 8.

The GAO found that since 2008 the combination of fiscal pressures and increasing contribution requirements has spurred many states and localities to take action to strengthen the financial condition of their plans for the long term, often packaging multiple changes together. The changes include reducing benefits, increasing member contributions and switching to hybrid approaches that shift some investment risk to employees.

The GAO believes that growing budget pressures will continue to challenge state and local governments’ abilities to provide adequate contributions to help sustain their pension plans.

FEDS OBJECT TO NEW FLORIDA VOTING LAWS The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) objected March 2 to new provisions of Florida election law which place strict regulations on third-party voter registration groups and cut down on the early voting period.

DOJ alleged in a court filing that Florida was unable to prove the new provisions were not discriminatory under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act: “As to the third-party voter registration and early voting changes enacted … respectively, the United States’ position is that the State has not met its burden, on behalf of its covered counties, that the two sets of proposed voting changes are entitled to preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” according to a court filing.

Florida had begun the preclearance process with DOJ, but subsequently sued the government after federal lawyers asked for additional information about how some provisions of the state’s new election law would be enforced.

Non-partisan groups like the League of Women Voters have ended their voter registration efforts in the state because of the law, which forces individuals conducting voter registration drives to get permission from the state and turn in voter registration cards within 48 hours of a voter filling them out.

ADIOS, PENSACOLA The daily newspaper’s political reporter, Jamie Page, has posted on his official blog that he has accepted a reporting position at “The Tennessean,” the Gannett’s daily newspaper in Nashville, Tenn. His last day at the “Pensacola News Journal” is March 11.

Page’s departure could be the first of many in the newsroom at the paper. Gannett—the largest newspaper owner in the country as well as the owner of “Bella,” GoPensacola.com and Pensacola’s daily newspaper, is offering to buy-out the contracts of certain veteran employees. Fifteen local employees have received offers—eight of them are in the newsroom. Sources tell the IN that Ginny Graybiel, Carl Wernicke and Gary McCracken are among the eight, but we’ve been told that not all of them will take the offer.

Last year, the daily paper dropped its two veteran columnists, Mark O’Brien and Reggie Dogan. Reporters Kris Wernowsky and Travis Griggs have also left. Deal Chicken has not.