What $200K for swim lessons says about Jax fiscal philosophy - Florida Politics

What $200K for swim lessons says about Jax fiscal philosophy

In May 2016, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and Councilman Garrett Dennis came together to announce a drowning prevention initiative.

Swim lessons for children in poorer areas of town were paid for by private grants, and at the time it was one of those stories that some observers didn’t even think was worthy of coverage.

Over a year later, and swim lessons are back in the news — this time, via a disagreement between Dennis and the Mayor’s Office over funding for more swim lessons.

The Mayor’s Office had its own bill to give 1,500 kids swimming lessons for two weeks, with $35,000 coming out of Council Contingency — that sailed through committee easily.

But that wasn’t the only piece of legislation related to swim lessons on Monday.

Dennis introduced a piece of emergency legislation (2017-442) in Jacksonville’s Neighborhoods, Community Investments, and Services Committee on Monday that seemed straightforward enough.

$200,000 — a sum less than that owed to the city of Jacksonville by the businesses of one City Council Finance Committee member — would be shifted from fund balance to the Parks and Recreation Department for swim lessons ($125,000), transportation ($50,000), and “education” ($25,000).

While $200,000 may seem like a trifling sum in a $1.1B budget, Curry’s Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa indicated last week in the Mayor’s Budget Review Committee that the administration did not support the bill — not because of objection to the concept, but objection to moving money out of the general fund.

Before NCIS Monday morning, we asked Dennis for his thoughts.

“If they don’t support my bill,” Dennis said, “they don’t support Bill Gulliford‘s bill.”

That bill, introduced last week via a normal legislative cycle, would devote almost $1.5M to a pilot opioid program, to stem the tide of overdoses that is wreaking havoc with Jacksonville lives and emergency services budgets.

“They are both crises … opioid epidemic and the drowning epidemic,” said Dennis, with funds from the “same pot of money.”

Dennis, who will chair the Finance Committee in July, and Gulliford, who won’t be on any committees for the next year, jousted over another bill (a $60K allocation) in committee before Dennis’ emergency legislation came up, with Dennis repeating statements about how much he’d learned from Gulliford — the “teacher”, to Dennis, “the student.”

This parrying suggested larger shifts to come in seemingly established paradigms, and provided a neat prelim bout to the main event.

In committee, Dennis presented the emergency as one of an “epidemic crisis”, with accidental drowning being the second biggest cause of death for children under 14.

The $200,000, Dennis said, will allow for more lessons, and would extend “swim season” past Labor Day.

Councilman Gulliford spoke up.

“Maybe the perceived teacher is being taught by the student, and I’ll just leave it at that,” Gulliford said.

Joey Grieve of the Finance Department from the Lenny Curry Administration spoke up “from a process standpoint,” saying that “an item that could potentially turn into a recurring expense over time” should be “processed in accordance with scoring and ranking … a prioritization process in the budget period” rather than an emergency expense.

Despite $97M in the unassigned general fund balance (8.8 percent of the budget), Grieve reiterated that money not be allocated from a savings account, but through the process.

Dennis pressed Grieve.

“What do you see as the priority? Do you come to Council, the policy making body? Or do you determine inside your silo?”

Grieve came back to process; Dennis noted that his bill is the same as Guilliford’s, in terms of taking money from fund balance, and wanted to ensure the Administration would be consistent regarding the two.

CFO Mike Weinstein backed Grieve up, but made the mistake of saying “ultimately it’s your decision,” which Dennis compelled him to repeat before finishing his remarks.

“The more you take out of fund balance, the less will roll over when we sit down and do the budget in a month or two,” Weinstein said.

Dennis pressed Weinstein to be consistent regarding the opioid bill; Weinstein said his objection was process, not the sentiment itself.

“We are opposed to the process, not the individual priorities you’re setting,” Weinstein said, saying Dennis’ pressing constituted an “unfair question.”

Gulliford noted, regarding his bill, that there would be cost savings from his opioid bill, and that he would not take money out of the fund balance lightly.

Questions emerged over exactly how the money would be used.

“If we are at a point where we cannot use all the dollars, I’d like to know how much we would need,” said Councilwoman Joyce Morgan.

Dennis noted he had questions about the Gulliford bill also in terms of specific allocations of the money.

Regardless of qualms, the bill passed 6-0.

The bill has two more committee stops: Rules on Tuesday, and Finance on Wednesday.

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