Even ahead of Tuesday’s Jacksonville City Council meeting, there was a hint that a taffy pull of a bill regarding additional afterschool program funding would go ugly.
Council members had questions, qualms, and quibbles that dominated the agenda meeting, setting up a querulous marathon discussion session of the bill that sprawled to the length of a blockbuster Hollywood shoot-em-up — but without a plot.
In the end, it was a political victory for Mayor Lenny Curry. And a setback for antagonists in prominent positions on the City Council, whose attempts to use emotional appeal to circumvent established norms in process and spending failed.
Agenda set the tone.
Councilman Greg Anderson referred to proposed floor amendments floated in a Monday evening public notice meeting as a “bombshell dropped on us at the last minute,” and wondered why the bill was a one-cycle emergency.
The numbers, presented orally to a panel of legislators unfamiliar with the details of fund transfers discussed in that meeting, seemed esoteric to some of them.
Councilman Tommy Hazouri called the presentation “mumbo jumbo.” And Councilwoman Lori Boyer, who only endured an hour of the meeting, said that sponsor Garrett Dennis was proposing “way more millions than we were talking about.”
Councilman John Crescimbeni, meanwhile, demanded an iron-clad commitment from President Anna Brosche that there would be a “discussion” on the floor of what the Mayor’s original proposal held and what the changes held.
Meanwhile, when he was asked by Dennis to speak about the allocations, Jacksonville CFO Mike Weinstein said he had a statement to read when the bill was on the floor.
Dennis proposed two floor amendments that would boost the Mayor’s proposed $1.071M allocation.
The first changed the total allocation amount to $1.408M, with all the money coming from reallocated funds from inside the Jacksonville Journey and Jacksonville Children’s Commission. 880 children would be added to the after-school programs with that new money.
The second floor amendment was even more ambitious, allocating $2.947M for 1,860 kids, with more money coming from unspent Jacksonville Journey funds, and $832,852 from the city’s general fund balance — a proposal at odds with the Lenny Curry administration’s approach to budgeting.
These amendments would fail, but in the grand tradition of the Jacksonville City Council, the failure would be slow and tortuous, the director’s cut of a movie no one wants to see twice.
Jacksonville Children’s Commission CEO Jon Heymann said that the JCC “did not introduce legislation on an emergency basis” on this matter, as part of an energetic clarification during discussion of the bill.
Councilman Matt Schellenberg pushed for a one-cycle deferral, especially in light of the general fund borrowing.
“We need to step back, approve the mayor’s bill as the original … or take a hard look at why we’re spending three times as much as the mayor’s proposes.”
Councilman Anderson likewise wanted the bill to be pushed back to committee given the new specs, so council members could understand the numbers.
“I’m just getting this information now,” Anderson said.
Councilman Bill Gulliford noted that, with school starting next week. there could be impacts for students.
“I abhor what we’re doing,” Gulliford said regarding process hiccups. “When you’re looking at kids, it’s not about the mechanics, it’s about what are you doing … this is the wrong way we’re doing it, but we’re already in.”
Gulliford vowed to vote for the emergency, though he didn’t commit to supporting the floor amendments.
Hazouri countered, saying that there is a “process,” and “we’ve undermined the process.”
“School starts Monday, but that doesn’t mean we have a hurry-up offense,” Hazouri said. “This is about the kids, not about cash flow” for vendors.
With calls coming from the audience, Hazouri noted that there was no request for audience participation.
Dennis then took the mike, pitching his amendments.
“It’s the first step in having safe and secure places for our children,” Dennis said. “It’s about the children. It’s about doing what’s right despite the opposition that may be against us.”
“We are about to fund 100 new police officers for $12M. Are we funding the police officers to have them trained to arrest the kids we aren’t giving a place to go?”
“I know that there’s opposition … but at the end of the day, it’s about children. Whatever decision you make tonight, remember: school starts Monday. Think about the children,” Dennis urged.
Councilman Reggie Brown pushed for more funding, given geographic gaps in service areas for these programs as currently funded.
“North Jacksonville – no programs. The Beaches – no programs,” Brown thundered. “You’re talking about moving from at-risk to at-hope. All of us here tonight will cut off the hope if you vote against this bill.”
The pushback began to manifest.
Finally, Councilwoman Lori Boyer noted that even if immediately approved, “transition time” would mean funding would be delayed through the contract process. At least one provider can offer services contingent on guaranteed funding, if the city authorizes it.
And Hazouri noted that “at some point, we’re going to have to say no to the process,” if after-school programs are ramped up in a unsustainable way.
Councilman Anderson, again, appealed for more time to review numbers and specs of the programs.
“If we do it on the fly, those questions will not be answered,” Anderson said.
CFO Mike Weinstein again teased reading his statement from the Mayor on the floor amendment … “if you ever get to the amendment,” he joked.
Mercifully, the question was called. The bill was moved on an emergency basis, 15-4, with Anderson, Schellenberg, Crescimbeni, and Wilson in opposition.
The amendments moved forward.
Finance Chair Dennis’ first amendment, totaling $1.408M, with all the money coming from reallocated funds from inside the Jacksonville Journey and Jacksonville Children’s Commission, would add 880 students.
Immediately after introduction of the first amendment, the Mayor’s Office had its say.
CFO Weinstein read Curry’s statement, which noted the agreement between Curry and Council President Brosche to fund an additional $1.07M. Weinstein noted that the Mayor, when presented with an additional $800,000 ask from Dennis, said he didn’t support it — but agreed to stay out of it.
“He said he didn’t support it, but he’d stay out of the debate,” Weinstein noted.
Curry said the additional appropriation would not be “prudent” and would send the wrong message to ratings agencies, and if the bill passed, “the mayor would evaluate it when it lands on his desk.”
“The Mayor supports the bill as originally filed … anything more than that he will review when it [hits] his desk.”
Schellenberg was the first Councilman to say that he’d support the bill, but not with either amendment. He wouldn’t be the last.
Councilman Danny Becton, in an interesting aside, said his district would derive no benefit from the bill as written as no new funding would come to his Southside Jacksonville district.
“I can’t support these two amendments for the reasons that have been stated … we do have limited resources … I’ll support what the mayor has in [the bill],” Becton said.
Councilman Hazouri likewise wanted to spike the amendments, vowing to vote against the bill if they passed.
Councilman Al Ferraro, whose district likewise does not benefit from this bill, likewise wanted to spike the amendments.
Gulliford noted that it’s easy for unaffected Councilmen to be brave, but it’s a different matter when “the phone lines are lighting up” from constituents.
Gulliford then offered an amendment of the first amendment, adding five sites in Morgan’s, Wilson’s, Love’s, and his own district, without borrowing any money. $637,000 in additional monies would come out of unspent Jax Journey programs, and 872 kids would be accommodated.
“I do have a real problem with taking fund balance money,” Gulliford said, decrying the potential “slippery slope.”
Council VP Aaron Bowman spoke up against all amendments, given that the expedited process circumvents the committee process, and that the Kids Hope Alliance should make decisions.
“I can’t support this [amendment] process,” Bowman said, noting his constituents would call and ask why this money is being spent and they get nothing.
Discussion continued, with Hazouri and Ferraro making the case for the Mayor’s bill, noting that any amendment goes against the original intent.
“I understand the Mayor’s bill, and anything else needs to go through committee,” Ferraro said.
Crescimbeni, comparing using the general fund to using the credit card, noted that there simply aren’t 13 votes for an amendment bill.
“If the amendment passes, I’m not supporting the bill,” Crescimbeni said.
“It’s safer to vote the Mayor’s bill out,” Councilman Anderson advised.
“If we pass the amendment,” Councilwoman Boyer said, “we defeat the bill. We’re too short of getting to two-thirds.”
Still, there was pushback.
“I don’t care about the reserve when it comes to a kid,” an emotional Councilwoman Joyce Morgan said.
The amended Gulliford/Dennis amendment failed, 9-10. Then the original floor amendment failed, 7-12.
Discussion moved into the third hour, and it was clear the amendments would stall before the pontification did.
“We’ve gone from talking about amendments to making it sound like people are going to die if we don’t vote for this,” Councilman Ferraro said. “I’m only going to support the Mayor’s bill.”
Councilman Crescimbeni noted that, last week at a press conference, 14 people raised their hands vowing to support the Mayor’s proposal — and reform to the current children’s programs.
“Whatever happens,” Crescimbeni said, “it’s got to be better than this.”
The bill passed, 19-0.
And it was abundantly clear, again, that Lenny Curry still runs City Hall.