Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry rolled out on Monday his administration’s fourth budget, one continuing an upward trajectory of spending since 2015, without a tax increase.
As compared to the $1.19 billion general fund budget in FY 16-17, and the $1.27 billion budget last year, the general fund budget is up this year to $1.31 billion.
The stated reason: savings realized from pension reform, which the Mayor’s Office says contributes to $331 million of savings over two years.
“Without pension reform,” Curry said, “millions and millions of dollars would be diverted away from making our city better.”
A big part of the spend: capital improvements. FY 18-19 will see $161.4 million allocated to improvements, with big spends on Hart Bridge offramp removal ($12.5 million from the city matching the same sum from the state), a new fire station ($5 million), road resurfacing ($12 million), money for infrastructure at U.F. Health ($15 million, part of a $120 million commitment) and sidewalk projects (many of them delayed for years).
The Hart Bridge project is budgeted for the first phase, per Curry, who expressed confidence that — as he has demonstrated for the past three years — he “gets things done.”
“Without pension reform,” Curry reiterated in the media availability, “there would not be [this level of investment]” in capital projects.
Also, drainage rehab and septic tank phaseout continues, and over $60 million will be spent on the Emerald Necklace and McCoys Creek projects. And $10.8 million will be devoted, over three years, to remedy dilapidated African American cemetries ($2.5 million this year).
This was, said Curry, a “decade-long backlog” of needs.
The $161.4 million CIP — up more than double from Curry’s first $72 million CIP.
Public safety also is up.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office will get $30 million in new money, facilitating 180 new officers (even as the total employee cap goes down), and a new data center for crime fighting, Curry said.
Fire and Rescue gets an additional $17 million.
The Kids Hope Alliance will get $41 million, a big boost from previous spending on the Jacksonville Journey and Jacksonville Children’s Commission. 60 new therapists will be funded for public schools, Curry said, with a 10 percent bump in children accessing KHA services.
More money for downtown development is in the budget, with a $2.5 million boost to the trust fund. With that, the plans for Berkman II, Lot J at the Sports Complex and other initiatives, Curry is confident that downtown is about to boom.
Library hours and employees are boosted in the budget, which includes $850,000 for new materials and $2.5 million for a new library in Oceanway.
Friendship Fountain repairs will highlight robust park spending. Salaries are also up 9.2 percent, a reflection of raises promised in collective bargaining with unions to push through pension reform.
Curry noted that the budget demonstrates the “actions that keep the promises” he made on the campaign trail, with no tax raises, with further debt retirement ($292 million since he took over, though there are offsets in pension debt from the now-closed-to-new-entrants unfunded liability).
Despite this, Curry is confident that reserve funds will be enough to deal with even unforeseen challenges.
“Reserves are in good shape,” said Curry.
Curry’s budget should have an easier time than it did last year, when a Finance Committee stacked with Democrats (thanks to the previous council president) went beyond the numbers to ask epistemological questions about tactics in local policing.
Garrett Dennis, the former chair, is gone from that committee, marginalized in a way designed to end his political career. Two other committee Democrats, Reggie Brown and Katrina Brown, are suspended from Council pending a fraud case. And Reggie Gaffney, though a holdover, is very loyal to the mayor and donor class interests, which are his path to re-election.
This year sees Curry allies abound on the committee: Greg Anderson, Lori Boyer, and Bill Gulliford (all former Council Presidents) will dominate the proceedings.
Council President Aaron Bowman wants a focus on the numbers, rather than policy debates, he said in the Finance Committee meeting after Curry’s remarks.
Curry alluded to political opponents, calling them “cynics” pushing narratives of “fear.”
In the media avail, Curry wouldn’t name them, saying only they were the “same ones who showed up in [his] campaign, during pension reform.”
While stormclouds of a sort may be on the horizon, via a potential homestead exemption amendment that could reduce the city’s ad valorem collections by $26 million or so, even the timing for that won’t present a huge impact, bets the mayor’s office.
Ad valorem collections are expected to be up by $46 million to almost $642 million for FY 18-19, a 7.7 percent increase.
But that doesn’t reassure one prominent Finance Committee member.
“This may be the first year I’ve not heard the Council Auditor recommend we increase the millage,” remarked Lori Boyer, a seven-year veteran of the Council.
“Given that this is an election year, I know there’s no appetite for a millage increase,” Boyer said, adding “real concern” about the pending state constitution amendment.
Boyer lauded the “investment in the city’s future” in the budget, but wanted a hedge against an inevitable “reduction of revenue.”
Boyer also urged that those running for re-election this year avoid any No New Taxes style pledges, and expressed concern that next year’s budget vote will be tougher for those on the dais next summer because of the looming amendment.
She expanded on these remarks talking to media after the hearing, noting that during her first term, there was “real heartburn” over decisions to use reserve funds for operating expenses, and that without sufficient safeguards, it’s possible that decisions will have to be made to cut staff and police and project oversight if and when ad valorem revenues tank again.
Still, she knows the score: “You’re not going to see a bunch of people vote to raise millage.”
And she knows the reality of the capital backlog Jacksonville has, which happened when the city cut millage during boom times as other cities, like Tampa, maintained levels.
With a mill being around $60 million, a 1/2 mill raise would offer a safeguard. But there isn’t political appetite for such.
Outgoing Bill Gulliford agreed that it will be voted up, and that a “tough decision” may lay ahead for those on Council next year.
“You know what, Lori? Not going to be our problem, is it?”
Still, Council President Aaron Bowman is confident that the city can handle the amendment passing, with development and business relocation continuing to come to Jacksonville. New businesses, new housing starts, and other “exciting things” will, said Bowman, enhance Jacksonville’s position and protect it from the cuts politicians have recognized as an imminent reality.