The Thursday morning agenda for the Jacksonville City Council’s Finance Committee’s budget review was filled with an assortment of departments.
The Public Defender and the State Attorney. The Tax Collector. The Supervisor of Elections. All of these and a couple more besides.
Of the greatest interest: the PD and the SAO, both of those offices helmed by newly-elected officials in their first budget process.
The budget questions were secondary to those of policy, however, when it came to those departments. Council members wanted details on reform and progress after the shambolic eras of Matt Shirk and Angela Corey.
The mood as proceedings began was filled with frivolity: Finance Chair Garrett Dennis joked that he was surprised to see Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa.
“I thought you’d be on a one-way trip to an island,” Dennis joked, alluding to last week’s fractious discussion
And Vice-Chair Danny Becton urged the committee to expedite the process, given the pivotal second Jaguars’ pre-season game tonight.
Soon enough, the jokes stopped and the deliberation began.
Public Defender: Charles Cofer‘s budget had no recommended changes from the Council Auditor, but Cofer did get questions from Councilwoman Katrina Brown.
Cofer was asked to discuss changes in the office, which include “making sure we are doing well with our budget; we were in some bad ways in the budget.”
“We have restored respect in the system to our office … refocused the mission to our clients,” Cofer said.
Cofer eliminated 14 employees and replaced them with 7, allowing an increase in pay for lower and mid-level employees and facilitating keeping experienced barristers.
“The office historically has had … a 22 percent turnover rate for attorneys,” Cofer said, making the case for equitable pay.
“It’s a place where people are proud to work,” Cofer said. “We are emphasizing doing what good lawyers do.”
Brown quipped that “my colleague Mr. Hazouri wanted to know if you removed the shower”; the shower, made famous by Cofer’s predecessor’s peccadillos is still there.
Also there still: a case load backlog, which is roughly 250 cases per division.
“Generally, the case loads are manageable, but it’s tough,” Cofer said.
Cofer noted that he and State Attorney Melissa Nelson have a cordial adversarial relationship, which allows them to work more effectively than did their predecessors in their respective roles.
State Attorney: Melissa Nelson’s budget had no significant adjustments, but councilors had questions.
“The biggest question in the community,” said Councilwoman Brown, “is the prosecution of police officers.”
Nelson noted that officer infractions are treated “just as seriously” as they would be by “any civilian layperson,” with a timeframe for prosecution dependent on the complexity and time impact of the investigation.
Nelson noted her office is responsive to the community, including timely response to email requests and two hotlines to report crimes.
Nelson noted that intraoffice changes include improved efficiency in work flow, creation of a strategic prosecution unit, and a human rights division that reviews everything from human trafficking to police misconduct.
Councilman Reggie Gaffney wanted to know more about juvenile prosecution changes. These include expanded use of civil citation, with greater discretion to law enforcement and the SAO no longer obstructing use of this reform. An MOU is in place across the circuit, ensuring uniformity.
“All of the law enforcement agencies are increasing their usage,” Nelson said, with a six-month review of process set for December, and SAO serving as a “backstop” to educate law enforcement on opportunities to use civil citations as effectively and fully as possible.
A diversion program is on the verge of being implemented, and to that end outside consultation is being sought nationwide.
Councilwoman Lori Boyer lauded the positive changes in the offices of State Attorney and Public Defender, but had questions about supplementary officers — like Community Service Officers and School Resource Officers.
Boyer is interested in an “intermediate policing capacity” for these officers; Nelson noted discussions between the Sheriff and herself about expanding civil citations to adults.
“What you’ll see in the future months,” Nelson said, would be JSO expanding civil citations with the SAO support.
Tax Collector: The Tax Collector’s hearing was highlighted by a recommendation to boost projected delinquent sales tax revenue by $102,630 to $450,000; the idea, to reflect current year revenue. That recommendation would decrease a general fund transfer, and increase council contingency.
Tax Collector Michael Corrigan also noted that there simply aren’t enough employees to handle current business. E-Checks were encouraged as a potential solution.
“Anytime you’re processing paper, it takes more time,” Council Auditor Kyle Billy said.
Becton proposed letting the Tax Collector use $60,000 of the proposed $102,630 adjustment to “help give us more compliance on e-checks.”
Corrigan expressed the urgency of expanding services as the city grows, noting that he needs more employees.
A suggestion from the Council Auditor: carrying over $541,000 from a capital account for new hires.
Becton noted issues with “people in line, processing, and those kinds of things,” pushing for the e-payment expenditure, adding that he doesn’t care how it’s funded as long as it’s “logical.”
“I’m constantly trying to get enough people,” Corrigan said, urging that money not be moved from the capital fund.
CAO Mousa said that excess salary dollars could be transferred if there is an overage beyond $60,000, avoiding the capital transfer. And so it went.
Another talking point during the Tax Collector hearing had to do with diversity.
Corrigan maintained that his department follows mandates and executive orders, adding that of the 213 employees the department has, 46.9 percent are “minority.”
Dennis noted the city’s commitment to “Equal Opportunity/Equal Access” was an effort to “cast a broader net” in hiring, not a “quota system” or “affirmative action.”
Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan was next up, and the major budget recommendations from the Council Auditor had to do with part-time hours.
One such recommendation: moving 8,734 part-time hours to registration from elections.
“That was a request from the Mayor’s Office. They wanted to more correctly identify where those part-time hours were,” Hogan said.
The second recommendation: reducing part-time salaries by $30,800 given adjustments in site hours.
Chair Dennis wondered why budget was going up year over year for salaries.
“You have an increase in salaries … internal services … operating expenses,” Dennis said.
Hogan noted poll workers got their first raise in “many years” in November, with daily pay from $200 to $275.
Dennis said that was in the previous year’s budget, so the raise still didn’t make sense.
Noting that the SOE will come in half a million under the current budget, Dennis was surprised by a 2.5 percent increase year over year.
Councilwoman Lori Boyer wanted to know the specific line items that accounted for the increase.
“Last year’s election was unlike anything else in the state of Florida,” Hogan said, noting that “election fraud” and other variables required the department to “do things differently,” such as hiring more rovers to go from precinct to precinct, and using more poll workers.
Hogan pointed to cost-reduction measures: eliminated mailings and cutting down two FTEs are among them.
“As we look at the budget and note multiple needs,” Dennis said, “we just want to make sure we’re [not] giving you more money than you really need.”
The SOE budget, pending better information, will be moved below the line.