Got MPG?

Fuel Economy vs. Fool’s Economy

As a Ford dealer, I should be thrilled that President Trump wants to roll back fuel economy requirements for auto manufacturers. He said he is making good on campaign promises to get rid of those pesky regulations that stymie economic growth.

It may be heresy on my part, but I believe easing up on those fuel economy standards will do more harm than good for both consumers and dealers. Also, Trump’s decision could have a devastating impact on the environment.

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards date back to the 1970s when Americans were still driving gas guzzlers but experienced serious sticker shock at the gas pumps during the OPEC oil embargo in 1976. The standards were meant to help America become less reliant on foreign oil. The Big Three auto manufacturers (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler) also started to feel the competition from foreign competitors, such as Honda, Toyota and Datsun, which brought their fuel efficient vehicles from oversees.

Fast forward to the Obama administration, which increased the CAFÉ goal to an average of 54.5 Miles-Per-Gallon (MPG) by 2025. The fuel economy requirements are based on size and weight of certain models, as well as the types of cars and trucks sold by individual manufacturers.

Over the past 40 plus years those CAFÉ requirements have meant consumers are now driving lighter vehicles, especially designed with better transmissions, power trains and engines to make them more fuel efficient. Ford now has an aluminum pickup truck, which is stronger and safer than the traditional steel truck, and gets up to 26 MPG. Compare that to the single-digit gas mileage in a Ford truck built pre- 1970s. Along with F-Series trucks, the Ford Focus gets up to 37 MPG, while the Fiesta gets 38 MPG and our two hybrids, the Fusion and CMax, get 40 MPG or more.

Indeed, those CAFÉ requirements have led to a whole new vocabulary of vehicles and options—EcoBoost engines, Advance Stop-Start Technology, 10-speed automatic transmissions, hybrids, electric, Tesla—the list goes on and on.

Ah, but the naysayers complain that those advanced features ultimately cost the consumer more and put an unnecessary burden on auto manufacturers. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates it costs an extra $875 to attain that extra fuel efficiency. Auto manufacturers contend the cost is $1,249 per vehicle. In either case, both figures are less than the estimated $1,620 customers are expected to save in gas over the lifetime of their vehicle.

The other question, are CAFÉ requirements job killers or job creators? I’ve got to believe that the engineering and new technologies as well as redesigning plants and equipment have meant more jobs. Ford CEO Mark Fields once estimated the company added thousands of employees, just in its engineering department , to come up with those new designs. More costs to manufacturers? Absolutely, but the last time I looked, the Big Three are doing just fine.

Sunrise Ford has been in business for 85 years. Of course there have been some tough times – depressions, recessions, local booms and busts – but most of that time we have turned a profit. I give Ford Motor Company much of the credit for coming up with innovative and gas saving products that have kept us competitive with other brands.

Finally, what have the CAFÉ requirements done for the environment? The EPA estimates that highway vehicles release 1.7 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year, with each gallon of gas burning 20 pounds of greenhouse gases. A recent New York Times article states that the United States has 4% of the world population but is responsible for 14% of the globe’s man-made greenhouse gases.

Now if you are a Global Warming denier, those statistics won’t mean much to you. However, if you agree with 95% of active climate researchers and the Academies of Scientists from 80 countries who believe man-made global warming is real, then CAFÉ does have an impact. The EPA says that fuel economy has increased 26% from 2004 to 2014. Furthermore, if the average fuel mileage were at 31 MPG, those greenhouse emissions would be decreased by 5%.

I know that all sounds pretty wonky, but those numbers mean less pollution and a more stable climate worldwide. That translates to fewer asthma attacks, allergies and other respiratory diseases. Decreasing greenhouse gases will also help prevent Vibrio Bacteria and algae toxins that are already popping up in our warmer waterways. Curtailing emissions will help to reduce the frequency and intensity of droughts, wildfires and floods that have become more prevalent in recent years.

So, is it worth it to relax these standards – as well as laws that govern coal mining, clean waters and other environmental measures – that have been in effect for decades? I am sure auto manufacturers – and many dealers – are happy about Trump’s decision, but I am not one of them. To me, this is not the time to be pandering to big business. There is just too much at stake.

Politics and the Press

When I recently purchased a gift in downtown Ft. Pierce, the salesperson asked how Sunrise Ford was doing. I replied that everything was fine and she said that she expected business to get even better if “they would just get out of the way and leave Donald Trump alone.” I knew the “they” to which she was referring was the press. Trump had just blasted the media, calling it the “enemy of the American people.”

Even though I am a former journalist, I decided not to press the issue. But as I left the store, I wondered how the media came to be so despised by so many people. In the past, most enjoyed their local newspaper, watched the nightly news and had no strong feelings one way or another about journalists.

When I began my journalism career, the Watergate hearings were in full swing, being broadcast live on the networks and making headlines in local papers and national magazines. Even though Richard Nixon had his “enemies list” and refused to answer questions from some members of the media, there was no massive outcry against the press and demands that those behind the news leaks be fired or prosecuted.

In fact, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two Washington Post reporters who tracked down who was behind the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s office in the Watergate building, were considered heroes. “All the President’s Men”, the 1976 movie about how a government official nicknamed “Deep Throat” helped the reporters link the burglary to the White House, was a big hit and won several Oscars.

I also used anonymous sources – and sometimes suffered the ramifications. My first job was at Today newspaper, based in Cocoa. I covered the city of Melbourne, including the police department. At one point rumors were swirling that the police chief was under investigation for mishandling public funds. A grand jury was called to investigate the chief and I was able to get someone involved with the panel to confirm exactly what was being investigated. I wrote the story and was promptly summoned by the prosecutor and a circuit court judge to appear in court and reveal my source.

I went to court but refused to name my source. Subsequently, I was found in contempt of court and was told I was going to spend the rest of the day in jail. Fortunately, my lawyer was able to convince the judge to release me until the Fourth District Court of Appeals heard the case. I also was lucky to have the support of my editors, the Gannett Organization,(which coughed up the $3,000 bail I needed) and journalists throughout the state.

The police chief was upset about his pending indictment, but showed no hard feelings toward me. “Just doing your job,” he said. The chief ended up getting off on a technicality. My case was eventually dismissed by the court of appeals because even if I would reveal the source, that grand jury was no longer in session to hear who leaked the information. The police chief kept his job and we got along until I left to attend grad school.

I eventually ended up back in Fort Pierce in the late 1970s, reporting on the city, county, and courts for the Palm Beach Post. Back then there were three very competitive newspapers covering the Treasure Coast. The “hot story” was the construction boom on Hutchinson Island with a string of high rise condominiums being approved by the county commission on beachfront property north of the Martin County line. Environmentalists were outraged. Martin County officials, fearful of the impact of the additional traffic on AIA, were also angry.

Eddie Enns, the only Republican on the St. Lucie County Commission, who was a strong proponent of the construction, especially felt the wrath. The newspapers were tough on him, with critical editorials about his votes, but he only complained to me once about the coverage. I was moderating a Saturday morning debate broadcast on a local radio station between Enns and then Martin County Commissioner, Maggy Hurchalla, an ardent environmentalist and a formidable opponent. The debate was contentious and often testy. When it was over, Enns said it was bad enough to have one woman beat up on him, but having two gang up on him was just too much. Then he suggested we get a Bloody Mary before heading home. He was able to shrug it off and we got along just fine until he died 11 years ago.

In the mid 1980s, I was working in the Fort Pierce bureau for the Miami Herald and drug smuggling was rampant. I got a tip that there were some questionable drug smuggler plea deals being arranged by then State Attorney Bob Stone, a Vero Beach criminal defense attorney, and the Indian River Sheriff’s Department. The Herald sent a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter to help me with the story. We spent weeks talking to many anonymous sources—lawyers, judges, an investigator and an attorney in the defense attorney’s office and deputies.

We wrote a series of stories about the arrangement we dubbed “Checkbook Justice” and Stone was not happy at all. But several weeks later one of his investigators arranged for Stone and myself to have lunch. It was cordial enough and I continued to have a good relationship with his office. Not much later he resigned and went into private practice. We recently served on a committee together and he couldn’t have been more friendly. I was glad to see, at the age of 80, Stone is well and still practicing law.

I quit my reporting job in the late 1980s when I had a daughter and began working at Sunrise Ford. The news business has changed radically since then, but the press still has the same basic job—being a government watchdog and holding public officials accountable. I am lucky that the officials I covered all those years ago realized that I had a job to do and they had thick skin. No one called me a “public enemy,” or threw me out of his or her office.

I was sad to hear Trump refuses to attend the White House Correspondence dinner. As I once learned, sometimes having a meal, or a Bloody Mary, can help smooth over some of those hard feelings. Perhaps someone at the White House should suggest to Trump to quit talking about “fake news” and “disgusting” reporters and get to the business at hand. The press is here to stay, and no matter how much badgering and name calling Trump continues to do, that will never change.

Obamacare In Action

As the talks ratchet up about repealing The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially referred to as Obamacare, I can’t help but think of Dave Feibelman, who was born and raised in Fort Pierce, worked in the car business for decades and nearly died two years ago when his heart, which was fragile from the time he was born 64 years ago, was about to give out.

When he was born, doctors told Feibelman’s parents that he would likely die within 30 days because of heart defects. But his mother, Violet, a registered nurse, was adamant that her only son would survive. With her care and vigilance, Dave not only survived, but led a mostly normal life, attending local schools, graduating from Dan McCarty High in 1970, attending Troy University in Alabama, and then following his dad, Herb, into the car business.

Dave was working at Sunrise Ford in 2014 when I noticed his color was off, he was unsteady on his feet, and had trouble concentrating on a car deal. He was also worried about Herb who had been suffering from dementia for quite a while. Dave was his sole caregiver and knew he had to work to help pay the bills and be home at night to keep an eye on him. But I was insistent he got medical attention right away. I knew he had open heart surgery in 2001 to try to mend the defects and was worried his heart could once again be the problem.

Dave was hospitalized locally for several weeks before his cardiologist decided that he needed to be transported to Shands Teaching Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville. There, the same cardiologist who performed the open heart surgery in 2001, decided Dave would need a new heart to keep him alive.

Dave remained on Sunrise Ford’s insurance plan during those first hospitalizations and we were relieved that his doctor had a game plan. But we were soon disappointed to hear there was a snag that would delay the transplant operation. While at Shands, Dave was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which needed to be addressed before doctors could proceed with the heart transplant.

It would take another six months of cancer treatments before doctors would consider going ahead with the transplant. Dave had already realized that he could not be on Sunrise Ford’s payroll or insurance plan indefinitely, so he signed up for Obamacare. His medical care was covered under a Florida Blue policy that was part of the Obamacare plan.

Dave underwent radiation for the cancer and was given the green light for the transplant six months later. He remained at Shands for another four months waiting for a matching heart. On September 2, 2015 he got the word the heart was available and he underwent surgery. “I was lucky,” he said recently. “They told me I would probably have to wait six months to a year.”

He remained in the hospital two weeks and stayed in Gainesville for follow-up care to complete his physical therapy and for his follow-up tests. Dave said his care was wonderful and the insurance covered most of his expenses.

He returned to Fort Pierce and says he feels like a new man. The ordeal did have financial consequences. The comfortable home he shared with his dad was sold and he now lives in a modest apartment. Herb is in an assisted living facility. Dave ended up getting disability and is now on Medicare. He returns to Gainesville every two or three months for tests to make sure his body is not rejecting the new heart.   But he said he is so very thankful for the friends who helped him through those tough times. He’s back playing golf a few times a week, takes his dad out to dinner regularly, and is looking for a part-time job. “A lot of angels,” he says of the people that oversaw his care.

Dave is not particularly political but realizes Obamacare also helped save his life. He’s grateful that Florida Blue could not deny him coverage for his pre-existing heart condition. Dave has always been a hard-working, responsible American who deserved the government’s safety net when he needed it.

Dave was one of the 20 million Americans who depended on Obamacare. And for all of its faults—increases in insurance premiums, problems getting the doctor you wanted, and sometimes dealing with bureaucratic red tape—it has been a lifesaver.

President-elect Donald Trump vows to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something that will “get healthcare taken care of in this country.” So far, no details of what that replacement will be have been released. In the meantime, insurance companies, hospitals, health care professionals, and the 20 million covered by Obamacare have no idea of what is next.

As for our friend, Dave Feibelman, I am just so glad Obamacare was there when he needed it.

Election Reflections

As we stood in line to vote this week, the woman in front of us said there was one silver lining with the election being over. “I never thought I would be glad to see car commercials again,” she told Mike Wetzel, Sunrise Ford’s own TV star.

Yes, the nasty, divisive, repetitive ads are history. The outcome stunned half of the electorate, while Trump supporters were elated their candidate managed to win in what has become one of the biggest upsets in American history.

His victory most likely helped the down ballot Florida candidates—including U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and newcomer Brian Mast, who took over the Treasure Coast congressional seat held by Patrick Murphy.  Mast, especially, was closely allied with Trump. Rubio, who indirectly questioned the size of Trump’s penis during the primary debates, has also pledged his support to Trump.

Those Republican victories could directly affect the Treasure Coast, especially when it comes to our fragile waterways. Rubio, who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Big Sugar, refuses to support a proposal to buy 60,000 acres of Big Sugar property to use to divert polluted Lake Okeechobee water through the Everglades. The plan, now being pushed by State Senator Joe Negron, needs federal approval and funding to pay for half of the $2.4 billion project.

Rubio defeated Democrat Patrick Murphy, a big proponent of cleaning up the lagoon, who pushed hard for it while serving as our congressman. Mast has said he will support the cleanup, but as a Congressional newcomer, one wonders how much clout he will have. Furthermore, Mast has said he strongly supports Trump and his policies. Trump has promised to cut federal regulations in half and I assume that includes environmental restrictions that now protect our rivers, lakes and streams. Trump touted  one of his first acts in office will be to repeal President Obama’s climate change initiatives—a signal that Trump will not be known as an environmental champion.

During her campaign, Hillary Clinton dispatched Carol Browner to the Treasure Coast to get a firsthand look at the algae that was choking the St. Lucie estuary. Browner, a University of Florida graduate, is the longest serving administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and well known for her common sense approach to solving environmental problems. No doubt, she would have had a major role in a Clinton administration, but I guarantee she won’t be on Trump’s short list for political appointees.

The struggling lagoon did not seem to affect local elections either. Gayle Harrell, the Stuart Republican, kept her state representative seat, defeating Democrat Crystal Lucas whose campaign centered on the river cleanup.

Trump pledged to bring back jobs, helping small business owners who feel disenfranchised. But the small business owners along the Treasure Coast—fishing charters, kayak franchises, hotels, restaurants, and real estate agencies—who depend on a clean Indian River for their livelihood may feel shortchanged this election cycle.

Many say they are just taking a “wait and see” attitude towards what happens next. As a political junkie myself, here are some suggestions on getting over the post election hangover.

First, turn off CNN, FOX and MSNBC. Watch some classic movies or catch up on some of the new shows on TV. Better yet, go to a movie theater and zone out for a few hours. Avoid the political rants on Facebook. Pick up a trashy novel instead. Listen to calming music while driving. No more talk radio on your AM dial. The weather is beautiful now. Go for a walk on the beach. Take a friend to lunch. Volunteer at a non-profit.

Thanksgiving will be here soon enough and you can begin the political rehashing around the dinner table then. In the meantime, enjoy the return of all of those TV car commercials—especially those from Sunrise Ford. Mike Wetzel promises no negative badmouthing from us.

Ford Foundation

Until this presidential campaign, charitable foundations were synonymous with good works. But that was before the Donald J. Trump foundation was caught illegally funneling money to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who days later decided against investigating fraud complaints against Trump University. His foundation was slammed again when it was reported that the Trump Foundation paid in excess of $200,000 to settle lawsuits filed against Trump’s businesses.

And although there is no evidence of such a blatant quid pro quo cases with the Clinton Foundation, Hillary Clinton has caught her fair share of flak for meeting with international leaders who donated money to her family foundation when she was secretary of state.

It’s enough to give the word “foundation” a bad name. But as a Ford dealer, I am very proud of the Ford Foundation, an 80-year-old organization that has given away billions of dollars to improve the lives of those in the United States and abroad. Started with a $25,000 endowment from Edsel Ford, son of Ford founder Henry Ford, the foundation now has more than $10 billion in assets and hands out more than $500 million a year.

Over the last eight decades, the foundation supported a myriad of anti-poverty and social justice programs around the globe. From pushing for civil rights in the U.S. to ending apartheid in Africa, the foundation has been at the forefront of fighting inequality. The NAACP, the Mexican Legal Defense and National Fund, the Native American Rights Fund and the Ms. Foundation are just a few of the groups that received foundation grants.

The foundation invested in urban projects such as public housing and transportation, rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina and it gave $125 million to Detroit when the embattled city was facing bankruptcy.

In Latin America, the foundation established the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program for poor families. In return for their monthly payments, families must abide to certain stipulations such as keeping their children in school and making sure they receive preventative health care. In South America, the foundation works with communities to make sure their land rights are protected, the poor are not exploited and they can continue to be good stewards of their property.

Closer to home, the foundation helped create Head Start, was an early investor in the Public Broadcast System and now wants to make sure high speed internet access is available and affordable for all Americans. The Foundation recently announced it will donate $2 million and a professional development staff to help raise money to build a memorial in downtown Montgomery Alabama that will commemorate the sites of 363 lynchings in that state. The names of lynching victims and the dates they were killed will be part of the $20 million museum and memorial.

Although I applaud the the Ford Foundation, as a Ford dealer I certainly can’t take any credit for what the foundation has done over the years. The foundation takes no outside money—not even from the Ford family or Ford dealers.

After the initial $25,000 investment from Edsel Ford, he and Henry Ford II continued to endow the foundation with substantial sums until the 1950s when they retired from the company and the foundation. Now a cadre of financial analysts occupies a floor of the landmark building that houses the Ford Foundation in downtown Manhattan. They make sure that the $10 billion plus endowment generates enough interest to pay out $500 million a year to worthy causes. An independent board—there are no longer Ford family members on it—oversees how and where the money will be disbursed.

Although Sunrise Ford is not affiliated with the foundation, I do hope that at one time the dealership may have contributed a very, very small share of the foundation’s initial investment.

Sunrise Ford was founded in 1932, probably around the time Edsel Ford started thinking about establishing a legacy in his family’s name. Hopefully some of the money from the sale of Ford cars and trucks in St. Lucie County during those early year trickled into the foundation.

During this contentious presidential race when the Trump and Clinton foundations are being barraged with insults from opposing sides, I’d like to think the Ford Foundation is an example of the right way to run a foundation—quietly, efficiently and scandal free. So the next time you hear the arrogant, fear mongering rants of a presidential candidate, try to ignore the rhetoric and think of something pleasant—like the Ford Foundation—an organization that really is in the business of doing good works.

After Being Gone Much of the Summer

After being away much of the summer, I was pleasantly surprised when I returned and saw all of the makeovers and new projects underway. On South Beach, the Square Grouper restaurant, with a beautiful view of the Fort Pierce Inlet, is almost complete. Across the street, the new Oculina Bank will open in mid-September.   And the city has installed a tastefully done new parking lot west of the Jetty Park that will accommodate businesses and beachgoers.

Across the bridge, along Indian River Drive, the Veterans Memorial Park is being redone with retention ponds, extensive landscaping ,a welcoming arch and attractive pavers. That project, with a drainage system that will divert runoff from the Indian River, will be completed in November. Nearby, the Backus Gallery is undergoing a significant expansion that is expected to be done by the season opening in mid-November.

And in Port St. Lucie, the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument has been erected and the dedication ceremony is scheduled for 3 pm September 25 at Veterans Park on SE Veterans Parkway. Sunrise Ford is proud to a sponsor of that project. With the controversy surrounding a Gold Star family in the presidential campaign, we are happy that in St. Lucie County, the community has shown an outpouring of support for this worthwhile memorial.

Of course, the big news this summer has been the algae bloom in the Indian River Lagoon and State Senator Joe Negron’s decision to finally do something about it. The Stuart Republican announced last month that he will push for the purchase of 60,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee so that the polluted water flows through the Everglades rather than being dumped in the Indian river Lagoon and Caloosahatchee estuary.

But Negron’s proposal may be too little too late. After all, Negron could have jumped on this bandwagon two years ago when an agreement with U.S. Sugar, owner of much of the land, had a set purchase price of $346.3 million for 46,000 acres. Negron along with other Republican legislators, let that deal, which was hammered out by former Gov. Charlie Crist, expire. So now taxpayers pay a total of $2.4 billion for an extra 14,000 acres? Certainly not the deal of the century. And Negron has to convince the federal government to pick up half of the tab. The plan calls for the state to pay its half using Amendment 1 money, which is earmarked for environmental and conservation projects. The feds will pay the rest.

But this is an election year and Negron had to make some type of move while beaches were being closed and riverfront businesses were suffering. Despite the strong name recognition, Negron’s wife, Rebecca, lost in the Republican District 18 congressional primary for the seat that was vacated by Democrat Patrick Murphy. Negron must recognize that not only his wife’s political future, but his own, now depends on doing something about the lagoon.

Unfortunately, Negron is already getting some pushback from his Republican cohorts in the Legislature who do not want most of the Amendment 1 money to be used on Everglades ‘restoration. Even Gov. Rick Scott has been low key on the project. After all, Scott and his administration preferred to use the Amendment 1 money for vehicle purchases and other items, totally unrelated to what voters intended.

Negron is not going to find an ally with U.S. Senator Mark Rubio, either. The former presidential candidate, who received a thumping in his own state from Donald Trump during the primary, says he won’t back Negron’s proposal. He says we should wait until all other Lake Okeechobee projects—which by all accounts amount to a band aid fix—are completed. I know Rubio is a first term senator—and he was absent from DC during much of his campaign—but he should know that getting a $2.4 billion project funded, permitted and implemented will take years, if not decades to be complete.

It’s not a stretch to believe that Rubio’s real motive for the delays may be to appease Big Sugar, which has contributed significantly to his campaigns. The longer the wait, the higher the price for Big Sugar’s land as can be seen by the latest $2.4 billion price tag.

Rubio’s challenger, Patrick Murphy, has been a big advocate of fixing the river, but the race is tight and at this writing Murphy is considered the underdog. If the Treasure Coast, which leans Republican, votes overwhelmingly for Murphy, it could help put him over the top. As a moderate Congressman for this area the past four years, Murphy certainly has appealed to environmentalists with his pro-active stand on Everglades’ restoration.

So the dog days of summer have been anything but quiet. Some of the local campaigns have been pretty heated—and candidates’ signs have littered the Treasure Coast. But it will be all over in a few months. The rants in the Letters to the Editor will tone down, the signs, hopefully, will be removed, the robo calls will end and our mailboxes will no longer be jammed with candidates’ brochures. Perhaps then we can all take a deep breath and enjoy the sunset while having a drink at the new Square Grouper.

Bring Home the Bacon

There was a time when it was a badge of honor for our state and federal representatives to “ bring home the bacon ” and get money for worthwhile projects in our district.  Indeed, members of Congress as well as those in the Florida Legislature boasted about what they could do for their constituents back home.

Roads and bridges were built, parks were established and new government buildings were constructed with the double purpose of providing jobs as well as improving the quality of life for Treasure Coast residents. But those days seem to be over.

The toxic algae which is spreading throughout the Indian River lagoon this summer is a prime example of what happens when politicians abandon that mission to “bring home the bacon.” Several weeks ago U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney wrote an opinion column for Treasure Coast newspapers which explained why he and other members of Congress are now prohibited getting money for much needed Treasure Coast projects—such as protecting the river.

The Republican faction of the House of Representatives in 2010 passed an earmark ban that prohibits Congress from funding local projects in conjunction with the federal government. Rooney said it was one of his first votes when he took office.

That is his explanation on why the feds can’t help pay for a long term solution to what is now a dire situation in the Indian River lagoon. Even if the money was available, Rooney pretty much dismissed the idea of buying Big Sugar property so Lake Okeechobee water can be diverted south through the Everglades. He refers to the project as a “costly federal land grab that disrupts my constituents ability to enter contracts to sell or lease their land.”

Never mind that the latest University of Florida report recommends what he refers to as a “costly federal land grab” is the only real viable fix for the river. He also fails to say that Gov. Charlie Crist had already negotiated a deal with Big Sugar (his “constituents”) to buy the land at a reasonable price.

And Rooney didn’t bother to address the negative economic impact the filthy river now has on real estate, businesses, recreation and tourism. Instead Rooney wants to look at a “less flashy option.”

Rooney admitted in the article that when  he and other Republicans voted for the bill “what we didn’t fully consider was the impact of the earmark ban on Congress’s ability to exert oversight and control over funding for inherently local programs  in conjunction with the federal government, like those funded by the Army Corps.” In other words, he won’t be bringing home any of the bacon.

And don’t count on U.S. Senator Marco Rubio either.  Even though he is now traveling to Stuart to look at the algae firsthand, he never showed much interest in the lagoon, even when he wasn’t running for president.  In a recent article published in Treasure Coast newspaper Rubio said now is not the time to consider such a comprehensive project. Now that he has flip flopped and decided to run for his U.S. Senate seat again, one can’t help but think Rubio’s trip is politically motivated.

So what about Gov. Rick Scott or our state legislature? Scott now declares the conditions in the river amount to a “state emergency.” But up until this point he and the Republican legislators didn’t to seem to care much about the billions of gallons of polluted Lake O water flowing into the river. Yes, there have been incremental steps to establish reservoirs and water farms to divert a small amount of the polluted water from the Indian River, but Charlie Crist’s deal with Big Sugar is history.

The state had also refused to spend Amendment 1 money—which voters approved for environmental projects– to help clean up the river. However, this being an election year, there is now a move by State Senator Joe Negron and State Rep. Gayle Harrell to set up a fund for Everglades restoration. But again, one wonders if this is too little too late.

I am betting that there are a fair number of residents—and businesses—along the Treasure Coast who send considerable amount money to Washington every year. Sunrise Ford’s federal tax bill was one of the highest in recent years. Of course I am happy that the car business is lucrative again and don’t mind paying my fair share of taxes. But I want a return on my investment. Some of that money needs to come back to clean up the river.

The same with the money we send to Tallahassee. Sunrise Ford paid about $2.5 million in state taxes last year. That money actually came from you, our customers. Six percent of every vehicle sale, repair bill or parts purchase was sent to the state. Multiply that amount by every other car dealer, grocery store, retail shop, hotel and restaurant along the Treasure Coast and, as the saying goes, you are talking about some real money. But apparently not enough to pay to fix our river.

The Indian River isn’t the only loser is this picture. Our Republican state legislature turned down federal money to help expand health insurance for the poor. And Scott’s administration recently rejected $250 million in federal money that would have helped struggling homeowners to pay their mortgages.

Of course, none of us wants to see federal or state money wasted on boondoggles and fraudulent projects. But we’d like to see a little bacon thrown our way.

In the not too distant past, a governor—or a member of congress or state legislator—wanted to establish a legacy—perhaps get his or her name on a bridge or a building or a park for a job well done. I can’t imagine a better legacy than returning our river to its pristine state.  It’s too bad that Scott, Rooney and the rest of the anti-earmark crowd don’t get that. To them, bringing home the bacon is a saying that just doesn’t mean much anymore.

Smack In The Middle

Right smack in the middle of Sunrise Ford’s property  is a culvert that drains polluted water from  the western part of the county into the Indian River Lagoon.   The culvert is part of the North St. Lucie River Water Control District that was established nearly a century ago to drain St. Lucie County’s swampland for farmers and future development.

For years, I was repulsed knowing that the filthy dark brown water that flowed through a good sized canal adjoining Sunrise Ford would eventually empty into the beleaguered river. While environmentalists —and most  Treasure Coast residents—rant about the billions of gallons of polluted water being diverted into the lagoon through Lake Okeechobee, we have our own homegrown pollution system that can be just as devastating to the  river.

The North St. Lucie River Water Control system is a made up of 200 miles of canals that spread from western St. Lucie County and head south through Port St. Lucie. The polluted water dumps into the St. Lucie Estuary and then flows under the Roosevelt Bridge and into the lagoon.

A similar system called Fort Pierce Farms Water Control District drains the agriculture lands and runoff from the northwest part of the county and dumps it into Taylor Creek which has a straight shot to the river.

Like the disgusting water that passes along Sunrise Ford, the water flowing through Taylor Creek leaves a large plume of pollution as it flows into the river and out the Fort Pierce Inlet.

So how much pollution monitoring is being conducted  in those water management districts? Not much as far as I can tell.

Ultimately the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is supposed to enforce water quality regulations.  But Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society,  said enforcement has been lax since Rick Scott became governor.

“The whole department is on the loose side of what the administration wants,” he said.

And some experts say the amount of polluted water in those two systems can cause just as much damage as the water coming from Lake Okeechobee.  During the “Lost Summer of 2013” when up to 3 billion gallons of Lake O water was pumped into the estuary a day, water managers said a similar amount of runoff was drained into the lagoon from St. Lucie County’s water control districts.

Unfortunately, our state legislators while promising to earmark money towards restoration of the Florida Everglades , took a giant step backward when it came to cleaning up St Lucie County’s  canal systems  as well as the rest of  the state’s waterways.    The new water bill passed quickly and early in the Legislative session allows agriculture to “self monitor”  its anti-pollution policies.

“It’s a travesty,”  said a researcher who keeps track of water quality along the Treasure Coast.

Critics said say besides reducing enforcement powers by the DEP,  farmers could claim they are practicing “best management practices,” when in reality they are not.

The DEP was hit hard when Scott took office and fired many of the long tenured scientists  as well as other  career staffers at the agency.  It was part of his policy to drastically scale down  government which has resulted in the loss of 27,300 government jobs since he took office while the state’s population has grown by 2 million. He also promised to curtail the power of regulators who could hinder jobs.

“There’s been a major brain drain here over the past five years,” said one frustrated DEP employee.

“I feel that everything we accomplished since I started working there is being undone,”  said a retired DEP manager. “And we were supposed to be the generation that would make a difference.”

Another former state employee was even more  skeptical. “They should call the DEP “Don’t Expect Protection,” he said.

The water bill does  provide money for eight employees to be hired by the Florida Department of Agriculture and  Consumer Affairs to oversee agriculture’s self monitoring practices. But I doubt very seriously that we will be seeing any heavy fines or enforcement from those new hires.   According to the DEP, Florida has 54,836 miles of rivers and streams as well as 49,128 miles of canals and 2,390 square miles of lakes, reservoirs and ponds. That’s a lot of ground for eight employees to cover.  And since they will be under the tutelage of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a big promotor of the water bill, I would not expect them to be too aggressive with fines and cease and desist orders.

By all accounts the two St, Lucie County water control districts have worked well over the past ninety plus years.   And Perry said that there are those in the agriculture who are compliant with pollution regulations using new and innovative techniques.

The complex construction of canals and pumps has stopped flooding while aiding farmers with irrigation. But when the system was planned in the early 20th century, no one really worried about the long term effects the water districts would have on the once pristine Indian River.

I would hope that the state and its water management agencies could come up with an equally ingenious solution to clean up our waterways—and enact those policies before the Indian River is officially declared dead.

But the outlook is not encouraging. Gov. Rick Scott’s tea party agenda appears to be going strong and many don’t expect any major changes in the state’s attitude toward agriculture and water policies. Word is that the state politician who has one of the best shots of being our next governor is none other than the controversial water bill’s biggest cheerleader—Adam Putnam.

The Summer Shake Down

For me, the summer of 2015 will be known as the summer of the “ shake downs. ”   In my previous blog I wrote about the Fort Pierce City Commission forcing Sunrise Ford, along with several other businesses along U.S.1 south of Midway Road, to annex into the city.   The annexation process included threats of cutting off water and paying off one business owner $13,000 to sign the documents needed  to get all of the businesses south of her into the city.

The morning after the final vote to approve the  annexation, I was served with a law suit alleging Sunrise Ford was not compliant with the American with Disabilities Act.   That act, passed in 1990, required businesses  to accommodate handicapped customers,  by providing easy access  in parking lots, stores, restrooms etc.    It is a law that I embrace and was surprised  Sunrise Ford was the defendant of such a law suit.

But the process server told me that the plaintiff David Poschmann had been suing businesses up and down the Treasure Coast.   He and his attorney were quick to slap a federal suit on any business they felt was not 100 percent compliant.  There were no calls, letters, emails, or meetings to discuss what improvements needed to be made—just a federal lawsuit.

A few weeks later   Poschmann’s attorney, Drew Levitt, arrived at the dealership with an “expert”  who would inspect Sunrise Ford and report any deficiencies.   He measured doorways, used a special gadget to determine the slope of the pavement at our entrances,  checked out the men’s restroom and took a lots of pictures of our handicapped parking, the ramps to doorways and door handles.

We then had to hire our own expert to determine if Poschmann had a case.   The dealership was built in 1990 and fortunately we had no major issues being ADA compliant. We did agree  to provide a special walkway from the main dealership to the Buy Here Pay Here building next door.   The men’s room has to be reconfigured and handicapped parking had to be rearranged  because  the slope of the pavement was a few percentage points more than allowed.   The handicapped counter in the service drive was off by three inches and a few door handles had to be switched out.

Sunrise Ford had to pay our expert $5,907, who came up with those recommendations so we could avoid a trip to federal court.

But the case didn’t end there.   A settlement would also mean a payoff to Poschmann’s attorney.  Without that payoff, there would be depositions, court hearings and then a trial.   If the federal judge found Sunrise Ford still had one ADA deficiency, the dealership would be on the hook to pay Poschmann’s attorneys who I am certain would have figured out how to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. And he was sure to let us know that is exactly what would happen if we didn’t settle quickly.

After a day of wrangling, we agreed to pay  $17,390.   Poschmann’s law firm got $15,000 and the rest went to his expert.  Poschmann allegedly receives nothing for doing his “civic duty.”  But if we had gone to trial I definitely would have wanted to check his bank records.

So this summer has turned out to be an expensive one.   Poschmann set me back $23,297, including the fee from Sunrise Ford’s expert.   No estimate yet on the making the agreed upon changes to the dealership.

The annexation into the city will mean  an additional $25,000 in property taxes.  And  what do I get for that money?   City commissioners promised extra police patrols.   But that was after they complained the police department was underpaid, understaffed and had a high turnover rate—one of the main reasons for the annexations and extra revenue.

Sunrise Ford actually did need the police department this summer.   We had our first break-in ever.One of the first officers on the scene had a recommendation on how we could prevent future break ins.

Just hire off duty cops to provide security, she said.  We didn’t bother to ask the going rate for off duty police protection.  I figured we already had enough shakedowns for one summer.

WE Love Fort Pierce

As a former reporter who used to cover politics on the Treasure Coast, I try to keep up on what is happening in both the city of Fort Pierce and St. Lucie County. But somehow I overlooked Fort Pierce’s recent moves to annex major commercial corridors into the city.

That is, until last week when Sunrise Ford received a letter saying the city plans to annex all the property along U.S. 1 between Midway and Ulrich roads. I headed right to City Hall and from the documents I received about the proposal, it was easy to figure out why Fort Piece wants to add those 112 acres. The taxable value of those parcels totals almost $34 million. The city will get an extra $223,371 next year in tax revenue if the annexation is approved. With the recent construction and improvements along the corridor, that figure is bound to go up significantly in subsequent years.

Sunrise Ford went before the Fort Pierce Planning board Tuesday to voice our concern about the annexation.  We wanted to make sure it complied with state law and the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan.  We were particularly interested in determining whether or not we would be receiving a better level of services from the city for the hundreds of thousands of dollars we will have to pay in city taxes over the next decade.

We were stunned when the board‘s chairman and assistant city attorney questioned Sunrise Ford’s allegiance to  Fort Pierce and its residents. Instead of addressing the services the city could provide to our dealership, as well as the other businesses along the corridor, those two city officials took umbrage that Sunrise Ford did not embrace the proposed annexation . They insinuated Sunrise Ford did not care about the city or its residents, which was just plain insulting.

Ever since Sunrise Ford was incorporated in downtown Fort Pierce in 1932, it has been one of Fort Pierce’s biggest boosters. Over the years it has sponsored  baseball teams, fishing and golf tournaments and many other city related events. Sunrise Ford was a major donor for the renovation of the Sunrise Theater, is an annual sponsor of the A.E. Backus Museum, consistently supports Main Street and was a main sponsor of  the Downtown Business Association’s monthly exhibits on Second Street.

Sunrise Ford donated more than $100,000 to Learn To Read, a Fort Pierce based adult literacy program that has helped thousands of Fort Pierce residents. The dealership has generously subsidized the purchase of vehicles for the Restoration House, Mustard Seed and many other Fort Pierce churches and charities. We are business owners who actually live in the city.

As a business, we have to weigh the economic benefits of paying substantially more in taxes for what appears to be no additional meaningful services. We did sign a contract with the city more than 10 years ago agreeing to annex should our property become contiguous with the city limits. But the city’s annexation strategy appears to be nothing more than a way to generate money for a financially strapped City Hall.

The Planning Board recommended by a vote of 7-3 that the annexation be approved by the City Commission when it meets on June 1. We don’t know what the final outcome will be, but want to assure our fellow Fort Pierce residents that despite those remarks made at the Planning Board meeting, we will continue to support the city’s worthwhile endeavors.

We would also suggest that the city look at other ways to put its house in financial order. During the boom years awhile back, the city had an opportunity to save some money for leaner times. Instead it went further into debt, buying property that it now finds difficult to unload.

So now the city is banking on the businesses along South U.S.1 which provide hundreds of jobs for its residents, to help bail it out of the mess it is in. And then we had to listen to city officials criticize Sunrise Ford for questioning its motives? It’s enough to make me want to go back to reporting about the shenanigans in local government.