Friday morning saw the Jacksonville City Council’s Finance Committee review the Mayor’s proposed capital budgets for JEA.
The discussion sprawled close to 90 minutes — double the allotted time — and was one in which budget line items were often directly related to equity in services throughout the city.
JEA was up first. The agency’s operating budget: $1.79B, with $1.26B in electric and $516M in water/sewer.
JEA’s capital budget for the year: $444M, including $153M in sewer projects; $205M of electric ($102M in electrical distribution projects, $27M in generation), and $75M in water projects.
75 percent of JEA’s capital budget goes to Duval County, with St. Johns and Nassau taking up most of the balance.
The first interesting discussion point: Councilwoman Lori Boyer asking about failed lift stations during Hurricane Matthew.
The problem, at least in theory, should not recur.
“We have inspected and evaluated all the electrical feeds to the 1,400 sewer lift stations. We have added backup generators; half of those are fixed,” said JEA CEO Paul McElroy, with portable generators available that weren’t before.
Boyer was also concerned about “overflows” related to flooding this summer, noting she was told that a report pending in September would address those flooding issues.
McElroy noted that some of the flood areas were low-lying, and that evaluation is ongoing. However, Boyer was chagrined that the capital budget did not include more detail regarding remedial efforts to address the flooding problems.
“Next time we have the same kind of storms, we’ll have the same kind of spills, and I don’t want to perpetuate this,” Boyer said, requesting more detail within the next week.
Councilman Reggie Brown pressed for detail on a lift station on New Kings Road, which Brown did not see in the FY 18 budget.
Councilwoman Katrina Brown brought discussion to the septic tank phaseout project, funded by the city and JEA with $30M over 5 years. Brown wanted that project expanded.
Councilwoman Brown also wanted to know about the JEA’s LED streetlight conversion. Major roadway lighting is complete; neighborhood lighting about halfway done. With 8,000 light changes a month, the project is on pace to wrap by 2019.
Councilman Brown tagged in from there, asking about pre-Consolidation neighborhoods and state funding; worth noting, Rep. Travis Cummings filed a bill for $15M of state money for this, but it didn’t clear last session.
Brown wanted more of a JEA contribution for septic phaseout; however, Boyer noted that the contribution formula was codified already.
Brown was still adamant that more needs to be done to address what he called “the area of broken promises.”
Councilman Reggie Gaffney was next to bless the mike, and his concern was old pipes in the Springfield neighborhood and beyond.
CEO McElroy noted there is an ongoing review of large pipes, to “evaluate the pipes’ health” and see what type of remediation or maintenance are required.
Older neighborhoods have older pipes, and JEA will formulate a plan to replace what needs to be replaced over the next five years, McElroy added.
McElroy went on to give happy talk about growth, but for Democrats representing older neighborhoods with shoddy, outdated infrastructure, growth doesn’t solve their problems.
“Some areas haven’t even come up to par with the standard,” Chair Garrett Dennis said. “Some segments of some areas have been left behind.”
McElroy cautioned him not to get his hopes up, noting that JEA lacks the “legal framework” to redistribute resources from affluent neighborhoods to those that lag behind, and any capital investment of that type would be done in conjunction with the city.
“We can do repairs,” McElroy said, but not “new connections.”
Vice-Chair Danny Becton encouraged JEA to find new products to sell, saying that the company would run out of customers in the decades ahead.
“I was trying to figure out how JEA could get more customers,” Becton said.
McElroy, noting that “we haven’t met the challenges presented in this meeting,” vowed to work further on getting resources for “initial capital costs” to connect unconnected neighborhoods.
The $30 million, he said, is just a start.
Other issues, including moving electric lines underground, will be held in abeyance beyond where they are already — as a full project would be $3-$5B.
“I don’t see us getting there anytime. We don’t have a plan to do that,” McElroy said, noting that while underground outages are fewer in number, they are much longer — with up to ten times the cost to go underground to repair.
As is the case with all of Jacksonville’s infrastructure, new construction neighborhoods get a better deal from JEA in terms of capital investment. And that’s not going to change.
McElroy also had to account for “miscommunication” in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, a storm in which he was out of state.