Angels & Assholes for September 28, 2018

Hi, kids!

Although you can’t tell it by the temperature, the calendar says fall has arrived – my favorite time of the year!

Let’s face it, unless you make an annual pilgrimage to western North Carolina – those of us who inhabit Florida’s Fun Coast don’t get to enjoy the crisp days, kaleidoscope of golden leaves and frost on the pumpkin that mark the change of seasons in northern climes.

But most long-time residents agree that we have a few traditional elements that differentiate a Florida autumn from the Dog Days of summer, for instance:

Our cars will be fouled with the carcasses of those flying nymphomaniacs known around these parts as “lovebugs,”  insects who ride to Glory – in flagrante delicto – on our spattered windshields each September.

Despite the constant squawking of airport executives who try their level-best to convince us that Daytona International Airport continues to experience an overloaded airlift of visitors month in, month out, you and I will notice that the tourist trade is  beginning to thin out, the wait for crab legs at Charlie Horse is slightly less than interminable and we have more real estate to ourselves on our favorite stretch of beach.

Another sure sign of the autumnal equinox is that our taxes are going up.  That’s a given.

In my experience, people don’t mind paying their fair share of the civic load, so long as what they are being asked to pay is just that – a fair and equitable share.

Way back in 1927, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said it best when he wrote  in an opinion, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society. . .” 

I should know.  Like the song says, I made my living off other people’s taxes for over three-decades.

In that time, I found that citizens are more than willing to pay for quality essential services – so long as they feel that those they elect to steward their hard-earned tax dollars have the community’s best interests at heart.

While taxation is necessary to preserve civilization and social order, in Volusia County, residents have consistently seen instances where the needs and wants of those least able to afford increased tax levies are ignored, while the for-profit interests of uber-wealthy insiders and campaign donors are met every time.

We are asked to subsidize “synergistic” shopping and entertainment centers owned and operated by Forbes-listed billionaires – then forced to pony up a sales-related “enhanced amenity fee” – a money-grubbing tax by any other name – if they want to shop there.

We stand helpless while those on the dais of power give away public assets, underwrite private projects with our money and use our most precious natural amenities as a cheap bargaining chip with out-of-town developers.

Then We, The Sheeple are forced to absorb the social and economic consequences as our elected officials abuse their ability to impose exorbitant fees on constituents for the increasingly limited use of our public beach and other recreational facilities which we already support with our tax dollars.

We watch as those dullards we have elected to represent our interests – little more than bought-and-paid for tools of those who can afford to pay-to-play – allow their political benefactors to build massive developments without supporting infrastructure, destroy our natural places and threaten our water supply while calling this obscene western sprawl “sustainable growth,” all while predatory land barons hire mercenary marketing gurus to convince us that our quality of life will somehow be enhanced by these bullshit “lifestyle” communities.

Don’t get me started. . .

In November, Floridians will be asked to vote on Amendment 1, a Constitutional change expanding our state’s homestead exemption program by adding the exemption from property taxes on the $25,000 of home values between $100,000 and $125,000.

As I understand it, and I’m not sure I do, the measure will bring the maximum homestead exemption up to $75,000.

Some experts estimate that, if approved, Amendment 1 could result in annual statewide losses of $650 million in local government revenues – you know, the hometown funds we use to provide quality police, fire, emergency medical services, code enforcement, treat our water, etc.

Look, I’m the first to admit that tax cuts are almost always a good thing – but I question whether this lopsided measure is yet another unfair tax giveaway to our most wealthy – a Constitutional amendment which will ultimately shift the burden to struggling low-income families, renters and others who can least afford an increase?

For instance, a study conducted by Volusia County Property Appraiser Larry Bartlett found,  “The percentages varied among Volusia County’s 16 cities, but the most glaring difference was illustrated when comparing Holly Hill to Ponce Inlet. In Ponce Inlet, 90 percent of the homes would qualify. In Holly Hill, only 5 percent would.”

 Further, Mr. Bartlett wrote, “Our analysis suggests that Volusia County’s tax base will be reduced by $1.3 billion if the voters agree to increase the exemption. What will happen when the tax base is decreased? The taxes on the remaining properties go up.”

Is Amendment 1 a good thing for Volusia County residents?

Again, I don’t know.

But it is increasingly clear to me that Mr. Bartlett – the person we have elected to represent our best interests in these matters – is absolutely right in his assessment that if Volusia County’s tax base is reduced for higher-priced homesteads, the deficit will almost assuredly be made up for with a higher burden on the rest of the tax base.

There’s an old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” 

Sometimes when we get what we want – we lose what we had.

It’s time once again to turn a jaundiced eye toward the newsmakers of the day – the winners and losers – who, in my cynical opinion, either contributed to our quality of life, or detracted from it, in some significant way.

Let’s look at who tried to screw us – and who tried to save us – during the week that was:

Asshole:          Volusia County School District

Some chary old rube once lamented, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

It means that most people learn from their mistakes – and become wary once deceived.

Unfortunately, in Volusia County, this idiom has become the mantra of cautious constituents whenever they are forced to deal with a school district gone haywire.

Last week, during a public meeting in New Smyrna Beach, district officials told concerned parents that Read-Pattillo Elementary School will not merge with Chisholm Elementary, which is currently undergoing an estimated $21 million rebuild that will increase capacity from a current 450 students to 750.

It’s part of our “1/2 cent sales tax at work.”  It’s also 180-degrees counter to what parents were told earlier this year.

In July, the Volusia County School Board announced that it was planning to merge the two schools, rather than build a replacement for Read-Pattillo, resulting in an estimated savings of $23 million.  The board’s original plan called for using half-cent sales tax money to complete the Chisholm on-site rebuild – then replacing Read-Pattillo with a K-8 (similar to what Holly Hill got stuck with) in the Venetian Bay area of New Smyrna Beach.

In June, district staff announced that enrollment estimates wouldn’t support investing in both Read-Pattillo and Chisholm in the next five years.

Naturally, parents rallied in support of keeping Read-Pattillo students, staff and teachers together.

People are funny that way – they want the best education possible for their children – and that begins with the stability and identity of an established, well-performing, community-based school they trust.

According to one parent, speaking in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “I just feel like pretty much they came to sugar coat and calm us down,” said Sophia Green, who has a son in fifth grade at the school. “They couldn’t give us a straight answer.”

And therein lies the problem.

The complete lack of transparency – coupled with the historic problem of bait-and-switch maneuvering, political insulation tactics and cover-your-ass decision making – naturally lead people to the unmistakable conclusion that regardless of the function or taxing district – Volusia County government entities simply cannot be trusted.

As a result, parents and teachers are forced to speculate on what their future may look like based upon an extrapolation of previously known facts and conjecture.

For instance, a smart friend of Barker’s View who follows these things with an educated eye recently speculated, “The current enrollment at Chisholm is in the 400/425 range.  So. . .where do you think those students to fill those seats will come from?  The state will not let the district overbuild.  So, somebody must have told the Florida Department of Education that the new Chisholm will be full.  How do you think that’s going to work out?  Also, there is/was a presentation scheduled for the next School Board meeting concerning cost savings from closing Read-Pattillo. . .”

 See why Read-Pattillo parents are naturally skeptical of what they are being fed?

In other news from Volusia County schools, this week we were treated to a ‘feel-good’ piece in the newspaper touting the fact that only 46 students took the option to flee the sinking Palm Terrace Elementary School in Daytona Beach after it chalked-up its third “D” grade in as many years.

According to the article, each school day, Palm Terrace Principal Tucker Harris leads students in the inspiring self-affirmation:

“I am loved. I am courteous. I am capable of great things. I am a dynamic dolphin.”

He should add to that:

“I am a victim of the system.”

“I am lost in the growing chasm between irresponsible fiscal policy and decreasing standards.” 

Look, I applaud Principal Harris for doing all he can – with a true sense of urgency – to bring the struggling Palm Terrace out of its seemingly unrecoverable dive.  However, I question when he, and the dedicated teachers and staff, can expect any outside help?

According to the News-Journal, “As the district dips into its reserves to cover a $3.21 million budget deficit for this year, Palm Terrace Elementary missed out on $1.4 million in grant money from the state for failing schools last year. Blue Lake Elementary received $1.3 million from the same program. The school pulled its grade up to a C this year.”

Perhaps more disturbing, long-time Volusia County educator Elizabeth Albert – an academic coach at Palm Terrace – expressed the concerns of many when she said:

“I don’t see any visible evidence of the district prioritizing the needs of our school and our community,” Albert said. “I don’t know why they have not taken any steps to provide equity and fairness.”

I don’t either.

These issues include several teacher vacancies and a perceived lack of external support for initiatives that have helped turn around other struggling schools.

Look, my hat’s off to dedicated teachers, staff and leaders like Tucker Harris and Elizabeth Albert who are desperately working to turn around Palm Terrance and other stressed schools throughout the district – all while senior administrators continue to sit on their collective thumbs in their Ivory Tower in Deland.

Why is it that our elected officials on the Volusia County School Board have simply acquiesced to the fact that Superintendent Tom Russell and his “Cabinet” are clueless as to how to save our schools – and our children – from the malignancy of mediocrity?

Angel:             Amy Pyle, Candidate for Daytona Beach City Commission Zone 3

In my view, Amy Pyle, the dedicated neighborhood improvement activist and current candidate for the Daytona Beach City Commission Zone 3 seat, has done more to enhance the quality of life of area residents than perhaps any sitting member of an elective body in Volusia County.

In fact, her efforts to advance the Halifax area, mend the sins of our past and improve the vitality and livability of our neighborhoods transcends any political aspirations.

Amy Pyle is a true grassroots advocate – and she cares deeply about our future while preserving our heritage.

Most recently, some friends of Amy’s campaign contacted Mark Shuttleworth, owner of Florida Victorian Architectural Salvage in Deland, to evaluate what items could be saved from the historic “Coquina House” which will soon be demolished to make way for the Brown & Brown headquarters on Beach Street.

According to Amy’s recent social media post, her friend, Stephanie Ruta, of Daytona Beach contacted Brown & Brown and received permission to salvage items having architectural value from the home.

These extraordinary efforts are helping to save and re-purpose materials and craftsmanship of historical significance in our community.

During the salvage operation, Amy interviewed Mr. Shuttleworth at the site and learned that much of the coquina can be saved – and the doors and windows have been rescued for other projects.

 According to Amy, “We have so many historic homes and structures that have seen better days – I support them being restored wherever feasible.”

Rather than simply making a campaign season suggestion, Amy Pyle has a viable plan to help property owners by encouraging deconstruction, assisting reuse markets like Florida Victorian Architectural Salvage and incorporating upcycling into public policy:

“So how can the City encourage preservation or at bare minimum salvage of materials that might otherwise become landfill?  By assisting owners to find avenues of restoration or salvage that they might not have otherwise considered.  By a ‘checklist’ that might be reviewed before a property is considered for demolition. Mark also gave me a couple of contacts in other cities that have enacted similar methods, so I can learn more.  I believe we can do better, and this is just one example of how.”

Kudos to Amy Pyle and her civic-minded supporters as they work hard to make the City of Daytona Beach a better place to live, work and play.  For more information, please visit www.amypyle.com – or better yet, listen as Amy discusses her ideas and candidacy this afternoon on GovStuff Live with Big John beginning at 4:00pm.

In my view, Amy’s the real deal – and a refreshing option for Daytona Beach voters.

Angel:             First Step Shelter Board

Here’s a tip o’ the Barker’s View scally cap to the First Step Shelter Board for working to get hard answers on how construction costs for the languishing homeless “service center” soared from $2.8 million earlier this year to the current ‘estimate’ of $6 million.

On Wednesday, during the groups first meeting since the astronomical price increase was made public, board member and Port Orange City Councilman Chase Tramont rightly pressed Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry for answers.

Councilman Tramont is right to seek the truth and clear the air.

Most people I talk to are unaware that this project is being managed – in its totality – by the City of Daytona Beach.

We are told that the City’s Community Relations manager, L. Ron Durham is in charge  – but it is most definitely being directed by City Manager Jim Chisholm, who, according to Durham, has “looked at every option under the sun to lower the cost.”

“We are working daily to value engineer this project to bring it down to the lowest cost possible,” Durham said.

Look, I know a little about project management – and a collaborative, open and transparent process involving all stakeholders in the planning, coordination, financing, control and monitoring of complex projects is always better that the cloistered, myopic environment of an autocratic system where critical information is intentionally withheld from key decision-makers and future funding sources.

Sound familiar?   

When everyone responsible for the success of a project has equal access to the same information – communication and collaboration ensues.  After all, two heads are always better than one, and the sense of collegiality that naturally flows from a process where everyone’s thoughts and opinions are considered builds buy-in and ownership – especially from those segments of the community where the bulk of operational funding will ultimately originate.

Unfortunately, in parochial systems dominated by elected and appointed officials who are more concerned about maintaining a perceived sense of “power” than relinquishing any measure of “control” or, God forbid, actually sharing success with others – inherently, the ‘powers that be’ will tenaciously hold on to the deadweight of a disastrously compromised project, even as it pulls them deeper into the depths of failure and suspicion.

It’s arrogance, I think.

Or base stupidity.

But aren’t those human frailties often one in the same?

During the meeting, even darker concerns arose when Holly Hill City Manager Joe Forte asked if the “value engineering” Daytona Beach seems so proud of is, in reality, bureaucratese for shifting costs to the First Step Shelter Board?

Damn good question.

The intrepid Mark Geallis, executive director of First Step Shelter, admitted he’s “blurry” on whether or not his organization will be left responsible for post-construction big ticket items – like the kitchen exhaust fan, running cables and wiring for computers and telephones – and other items critical to the operation of the shelter.

Again, Rev. Durham – the project’s long-identified ramrod – was unable to give Mr. Geallis and the board members a firm answer, asking the shelter’s executive director to “draw up a list of questions” and he’ll get back to him. . .

I don’t make this shit up, folks.

However, to make matters clear as mud, Rev. Durham did say, “The city’s responsibility is to build the building.  The city asset is the building.  Everything within the building will be the asset of First Step Shelter.”

 I think Mr. Forte and Director Geallis just got their answer. . .

In a pointed message to the City of Daytona Beach, Councilman Tramont voiced the very real concerns of many when he said, “I don’t want to be put in the position again (where) I’m being shocked by numbers I have never seen,” Tramont said. “Our reputation and the perception is the very thing that our success hinges on.”

Indeed.

Asshole:          Volusia County Council

In my view, reporter Dustin Wyatt of The Daytona Beach News-Journal has done yeoman’s work in digging for the facts after the revelation that our federal lobbyist – Jamie Pericola – tried desperately to alert our elected dullards on the Volusia County Council to serious internal dysfunction – including shocking allegations that senior officials were “filtering” and intentionally withholding critical information from elected policymakers.

In most places, where ethics, organizational transparency and accountability mean something, the mere suggestion of behind-the-scenes manipulation of public policy by politically unaccountable civil servants would have resulted in an immediate top-to-bottom investigation and housecleaning.

(So, don’t give me any happy horseshit about the County Council’s commitment to a “full-time internal auditor.”  Chairman Kelley has proven – by word and action – that he would rather take an ice water enema than open the books to outside scrutiny.)

Without any attempt to confirm the validity of Mr. Pericola’s claims – almost immediately, our doddering fool of a County Chair, Ed Kelley, and his narcoleptic cartoon sidekick, Councilman “Sleepy” Pat Patterson – regained their collective consciousness long enough to call Pericola’s credible accusations “sour grapes” – thus tripping the switch that initiates the County’s patented “Admit nothing.  Deny everything. Make counter-accusations” damage control strategy.

Now, the always arrogant Councilwoman Deb Denys has piled-on, labeling Pericola’s letter a “misrepresentation” that was (naturally) “blown out of proportion.”

Well, of course it was, Deb!

I mean, if Volusia County is known for anything – it’s crystal-clear pellucidity, it’s openness to constructive criticism and unwavering willingness to take swift, decisive action to ensure accountability.

Right?  Right. . .

Now the reign of former County Manager Jim Dinneen has come to an unceremonious end, Director of Public Protection Terry Sanders has retired from a stellar career in public service – and I hear unsubstantiated reports through the Barker’s View telegraph that things are now getting uncomfortable for Director of Beach Safety Ray Manchester as well.

Is this an internal purge of anyone in senior management seen as responsible for the series of debacles that ultimately led to Little Jimmy fleeing the Thomas C. Kelly Administrative Building like a diseased rat?  Or have our ‘powers that be’ been forced to implement the Council’s final solution of scapegoating a few high-profile senior staff members in an election year to save ol’ Deb’s political hide come November?

In Dustin Wyatt’s follow-up piece, we also learned that Mr. Pericola’s assertion that Volusia County bureaucrats could have done more to engage with federal officials to secure grant funding for a variety of needs – to include improving water quality in the Indian River lagoon –  has been independently confirmed by Edwin Benton, a professor at the University of South Florida.

“If you want the money, you have to jump through hoops,” Benton told the News-Journal.  “Any time a (federal) agency offers a chance to sit down and meet with you, it’s always to your advantage.”

“Turning down such an invitation, he added, would be a “huge, stupid missed opportunity.”

(Wow.  Now, I can’t wait for Old Ed to tell us what malicious motivation Professor Benton has up his sleeve. . .)

 According to the report, internal email records prove that Mr. Pericola has been “begging county officials” since early 2018 to meet with United States Department of Agriculture executives to “better position themselves for money” which could have assisted the City of Oak Hill with a water project beneficial to the health of the lagoon.

Apparently, John Booker – a staffer with former Congressman John Mica’s office who landed on his feet with a $90,000 annual “government relations” gig with Volusia County – couldn’t be bothered to get off his ass and call the USDA to even assess the potential.

According to Wyatt’s informative piece, Booker didn’t have the decency to return the reporter’s emails and phone calls seeking comment, either. . .  (Guess he caught on to that whole “transparency” thing pretty quick, eh?)

At the end of the day, no one – not one person employed by Volusia County who accepts public funds to serve in the public interest – met with federal officials to determine eligibility for federal grants or low interest loans which could have assisted the City of Oak Hill in transitioning from septic tanks to a municipal sewer system.

“So while Oak Hill got $61,000 from Volusia for its septic tanks, the city of Dunnellon in Marion County got $12 million in May for wastewater infrastructure from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.” 

My God.

Of course, not to let a little thing like independently confirmed facts stand in the way of besmirching the character and good reputation of yet another whistle-blower; Chairman Kelley, quickly took a swipe at Mr. Pericola – calling him a ‘one-man band’ and alluding that the county needs “an orchestra trumpeting Volusia County’s cause” in Washington.

“In my opinion, he never should have been hired,” Kelley crowed – even as “Sleepy” Pat tried to convince his colleagues on the dais of power that we no longer need a federal lobbyist at all.

Say what? 

In my view, regardless of the information provided – and irrespective of the qualifications or purity of the motivation, when anyone brings serious issues about county governance to light – the song remains the same.

If you can’t muzzle the whistle-blower: Marginalize the message – then personally destroy the messenger.

From former Volusia County Medical Examiner Dr. Sara Zydowicz and Sheriff Michael Chitwood to Councilwoman Heather Post and now Jamie Pericola – the ‘system’ will protect itself at all costs.

Quote of the Week:

“The cost to operate this facility (First Step Shelter) will increase incrementally and its success in reducing the street population will be minimal. The shelter’s remote location, five miles outside of Daytona Beach, dooms this project from the get-go.  The City Commission is right to stick with the hard-walled construction plan because at some point in the future the building will be re-purposed into something more useful.”

–Dave Byron, former director of community services and official spokesman for Volusia County government, writing in The Daytona Beach News-Journal’s Letters to the Editor column, “Think shelter angst is bad now, wait.” Tuesday, September 25, 2018

And Another Thing!

Earlier in the week, a harrowing snippet of body camera footage was released by the Daytona Beach Police Department which showed Officer Christopher Maher intervening as a subject – later identified as Derrick Goodin, 21 – violently threw a man off the Main Street bridge and into the water some 30-feet below.

As the video progressed, we see Officer Maher confronting Goodin at gunpoint, ordering the violent suspect to the ground – but not before Goodin turned his back to the officer and quickly reached into his front waistband.

My heart stopped.

Officer Maher demonstrated amazing restraint, and acted in the true spirt of the police service, when he captured the moment Goodin withdrew his hand and tossed what appeared to be a wallet off the bridge before assuming a prone position on the sidewalk.

In my view, thanks to Officer Maher’s extraordinary heroism, all citizens of the Halifax area got a momentary glimpse into the incredibly dangerous situations the men and women of law enforcement face everyday as they go in harms way to protect my family and yours.

Thank you, Officer Maher – and all the outstanding officers and staff of the Daytona Beach Police Department – for your incredible courage and dedication.

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!

 

 

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