Jax Archives - Page 4 of 370 - Florida Politics

Developer: JEA a ‘total detriment’ to downtown Jax development

The Cowford Chophouse has been described as downtown Jacksonville’s “most anticipated restaurant.”

Its developer Jacques Klempf, however, has some sharp words for the JEA … whose board was radically reconfigured by Mayor Lenny Curry recently.

Klempf’s beef?

“The vault that JEA owns on Ocean Street is in need of a repair and has needed this repair for at least 10-years.  It caused the Bostwick building’s foundation to be compromised due to a pump in the vault pumping the silt from underneath the building into the storm drain.   The building had shifted 4.5 inches on the southwest corner and precariously being held up on that one corner by one of the Jaguar murals that was on the building,” Klempf wrote Mayor Lenny Curry.

“JEA says that they will not repair, but even more does not think there is anything wrong.  My frustration certainly has been enhanced by the length of time we have been trying to get a repair and now it is crunch time as we are about to put all of the hard scape back in place and the time to make this repair is now.  We did get JEA to say that we could repair and pay for the repair, but they would not indemnify us if something should go wrong in the future,” Klempf added.

“Now JEA will not even return emails or calls.  This repair should be JEA’s responsibility…. not ours?  JEA and FDOT in my opinion have been awful to work with at every level, even their newest hire Kerri Stewart [recent Chief of Staff of the city] whom I’ve know for sometime.  Whoever is calling the shots at JEA is a total detriment to downtown re-development.  The storm drains fill up very fast and flood in our area too.  We looked at a 48″ inch pipe in the middle of the road and it was half full of sand?”

“Our structural engineer has numerous reports that he has signed his name too that it will continue to cause problems if not repaired.  I have invested a substantial amount of money in renovating this 115-year old building back to its historical significance and very concerned about my investment,” Klempf added.

Marsha Oliver, the spokeswoman for Mayor Curry, noted that this issue was brought to his attention two days ago, and CAO Sam Mousa has been directed to convene a meeting to “discuss and resolve” these issues.

The meeting has yet to happen, however. This issue has been a long-standing issue, one that Klempf apparently knew about for 3 1/2 years, but brought to the administration’s attention this week. And our understanding is that Klempf thus far has not been inclined to solution-oriented dialogue with impacted parties on this, despite Mousa’s outreach.

Jax Sheriff discusses stressed officers making bad decisions

Jacksonville Sheriff’s Officers have been under a media microscope of late, with a number of adverse stories about them in the local press.

From DUI arrests to groping incidents in local bars and civil suits for shots in the line of duty, the news cycles have been brutal of late.

And even in the JSO budget hearing Thursday, conversation kept coming back to officer comportment and public perception of the embattled police department.

Multiple Council members wondered why Tyler Landreville was back on patrol, just months after killing Vernell Bing.

Meanwhile, Williams discussed the pressures faced by law enforcement, which wreck the lives of some officers: alcoholism, divorce, and other signals of stress are all-too-frequent companions of law enforcement.

With Williams seeking 100 new police officers, we asked him if the shortfall in officers on the street exacerbated that stress. And we asked him also about why Landreville is back on the beat — even though he’s in a different zone now than he was when he shot Bing.

“As the case unfolds initially, if there are some big factors that warrant us moving the [officer] off the street, we do that immediately,” Williams said.

“The decision about prosecution is always made by the State Attorney’s Office. If there’s no initial concern, then that individual is left on the street,” Williams added.

“This case is a little bit different obviously. You’ve got concern from the community,” Williams continued. “Our process has always been and for the current time will be that as you get cleared to come back to work, get your fit for duty, psych eval, as those things happen, pending the State Attorney’s review, you can come back to work.”

If the State Attorney were to press charges, Williams said, the JSO would remove that officer from the street, putting him in a “duty capacity that doesn’t have contact with the public.”

Williams discussed the mental and behavioral issues that cops experience in the context of a well-documented shortfall in staffing, one that creates pressures for those in the field.

“I think — universally, I won’t say yes, but could that be part of those issues? It sure can. We’re driving these guys to do the things that need to get done, we’re driving overtime. A lot of these guys are working extra assignments. So there is an overwork component to that,” Williams said.

While an overworked workforce is a potential contributing factor to what Williams has called officer “misconduct,” he doesn’t believe that they are the sole factor, and he stresses that people should look at how the JSO responds to them.

“When it happens, we have to respond. And we’re kind of put in the position to do that. We’ll always respond this way There’s no quarter for that. You’re not going to be able to do that and work for this organization,” Williams said.

“The relationship we have with the community and the trust we’ve built in this community is too important. We’ve made some great strides there, but you can lose it like that. The best way to lose it is to let people cut corners, and we’re not going to do that.”

Jacksonville to junk red light cameras in December

What a difference five years makes.

In 2012, Jacksonville contracted with Redflex, a global company that specializes in red light cameras and successfully lobbying governments from here to China to adopt them.

In 2017, the experiment is set to end. On Thursday, Sheriff Mike Williams announced that in December, the cameras would be removed from Jacksonville streets.

In this, he is breaking with a decision made by former Sheriff John Rutherford to bring them in.

Why now? Basically, the technology didn’t match the hype.

____

“That contract will end in December. We wanted to add crash avoidance to a number of intersections in Jacksonville,” Williams said, “but the technology just isn’t there yet.”

Back in 2015, one local outlet touted the technology as potentially saving lives. That apparently is not the case. And apparently the technology hyped in 2015 was not what it was billed as being.

That technology holds the other lights red after someone runs a light, Williams said.

“That was the appeal of having a red light camera to me. If we can’t do that, we know from the data that it’s not really reducing crashes in the intersections, maybe we just let this contract sunset and take a look at it years down the road,” Williams said.

We asked Williams, who became sheriff in 2015, why it took the department five years to concede the arguments that critics made contemporaneously.

“My position’s always been that we wanted to add the crash avoidance,” Williams said, noting that the program was “inherited” from his predecessor.

“We did analyze the data. While you do have a small decrease in crashes initially,” Williams said, “the driver behavior basically readjusts and you have crashes in those intersections.”

“They were still putting it into place for a little while. Now that it’s been here a little bit, it’s up and down, not working effectively, our research now into the industry tells us they don’t believe that technology is viable right now,” Williams added.

“If that technology’s not viable,” Williams added, “I’m ready to move on.”

Part of the problem, Williams added: a lack of technological cooperation between vendors and the Florida Department of Transportation.

There were intended to be five intersections equipped with crash-avoidance technology. Williams continued.

“The red light program five years ago — I wasn’t involved in that, it wasn’t my decision to bring it in,” Williams noted.

“I would have liked to have seen a more limited number of red light cameras with crash avoidance technology. Maybe 10 or 15 intersections in Jacksonville,” Williams said, “that we know are high-frequency crash locations.”

____

In a document last revised last year, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office sounded a different note about the technology.

Redflex was touted as a “leading provider of camera-enforcement technology.” And cameras as “24/7 deterrents to breaking the law,” which “spark a community conversation about mindful driving and the consequences of risky maneuvers.”

As of the end of the year, that spark will be extinguished.

Jax Councilors hammer Sheriff Mike Williams on policy, procedure

The first day of Jacksonville City Council review of Mayor Lenny Curry‘s proposed budget was highlighted by a deep dive into the Sheriff’s budget: 35 percent of the general fund.

Among the highlights of the proposed budget: 100 more cops, which would bring force levels within a few dozen of the peak of 1,800 officers years back.

80 would be in the current budget, with the employee cap increased to 100.

The requested hires led to questions about what the JSO is doing with resources. Finance Committee members hammered Sheriff Mike Williams with questions about how the department is doing business, following up on a vow to do so last week at a town hall meeting.

“I think we have to separate the staffing conversation from the misconduct conversation,” Williams said after a series of tough questions from committee members.

“98 percent of officers in this department do the right thing every day.”

After robust discussion, some items were moved “below the line” even after 2 1/2 hours of discussion: position increase, budget amounts associated with position increase, outsourcing of health benefits, and personnel and professional development.

What that means: Finance wasn’t sold by the discussion.

_____

Sheriff Mike Williams had met with most committee members already, yet there were questions and comments from council members.

Councilman Matt Schellenberg wanted to know how many training classes would be held to train new officers.

JSO trains 40 at a time, and also handles state-certification training in St. Johns County, decreasing the burden on training classes.

“At one point this summer, we had 1,000 people in the pipeline,” Williams said. “I don’t anticipate any problem finding people to fill positions.”

Williams also discussed pressures on law enforcement: stress, divorce, and alcoholism are among these, a “constant topic for conversation” for officers.

Williams also, in response to Schellenberg, said he’d be willing to move/replace the Police Memorial Building and the jail from prime real estate on Bay Street, which is being primed for redevelopment.

_____

Williams also addressed shortfalls in medical staffers in the jail, which is driving the $12M uptick in health costs.

“We’ve had legal challenges, accreditation challenges with corrections health care,” Williams said, leading to “substandard care” in those facilities and a potential “tremendous liability” to the city.

Councilman Reggie Gaffney also posed the question of a shortfall in diverse hires.

Williams noted that 51 percent of those he hired were women and minorities since he took office in July 2015.

Gaffney also asked why Tyler Landreville, the officer who shot Vernell Bing last year, is back on patrol.

“The State Attorney makes the determination as to whether the shooting hit the criminal threshold or not,” Williams said. Then, an internal adminstrative review comes.

“Sometimes the officer will go back to work based on what the review is,” Williams said, noting that there is a two-track investigation.

Gaffney was satisfied with the response, though it’s uncertain how satisfied his constituents will be.

______

Councilwoman Lori Boyer likewise noted the meme of $12 million added to the budget for 100 new cops. The actual hard cost: $4.41M this year as they are phased in.

Next FY, the cost would be just below $9M.

Boyer also had questions about cops on the beat, patrolling. Williams asserted that, of officers recently hired, 60 percent or more went on patrol.

Staff shortfalls have affected detective work, including homicide investigations, Williams said. However, patrol positions are more visible.

“If I’m increasing your budget, I want to make sure you’re part of the solution,” Boyer said. “My concern is that sitting in this meeting, we have all these vacancies in patrol.”

____

Councilwoman Katrina Brown was next up.

“I’ve been out in the community … what’s your plan to create increased trust between officers and citizens?”

Williams asserted that more officers allow for more community policing.

“Part of that is to expose them to 99 percent of the people in the city, good people,” Williams said, as officers move from call to call and only encounter the criminal element.

“When somebody calls the police,” Williams said, “we have to respond.”

“I hear the same things you do — all I see is the officers driving by. That’s because they’re going from one call to the next,” Williams said.

This leads to “frustration” for officers, but the goal is to “build relationships down in the neighborhoods to decrease crime.”

Williams added that officers who run afoul of guidelines are being properly trained, but that they are guilty of “misconduct.”

“It’s not that an officer isn’t trained … it’s that they are running contrary to what’s been taught,” Williams said.

Brown wanted to know how often policies are reviewed; Williams asserted that it’s an ongoing process, in accordance with a “very high expectation” from the community.

Brown also noted that in other jurisdictions, officers like the aforementioned Tyler Landreville are off the street through an FDLE investigation that JSO refrains from.

“My concern with FDLE is … these decisions should be made in Jacksonville,” Williams said. “I have got to have a comfort level that if I need to say something to the community to decrease the comfort level that it’s our investigation.”

“We are the fact gatherers,” Williams said. “Decisions are made in the State Attorney’s Office.”

Brown noted that “the community is looking for answers.”

It’s unclear if Williams’ explanation provides them, even with State Attorney Melissa Nelson giving a “fresh look” at these investigations, which can often sprawl over months.

“The 100 new officers, that’s been a very tough decision for me,” Councilwoman Brown added. “The perception is they’ll be in a certain area targeting a certain group of people.”

Williams observed that by the time they are phased in fully, needs can change in zones, meaning that it’s uncertain where the new hires will go.

Right now, resources are so scattered that reinforcements come in from other counties.

“That 100 officers isn’t extra … the bread and butter things that officers do … the necessity of providing coverage where we need to,” Williams said,

Councilman Danny Becton, meanwhile, said “there’s a perception you’re trying to hire an army.”

_____

Councilman Reggie Brown wanted to move more “seasoned officers” from headquarters to the street.

Williams noted that a massive departmental re-org is in planning.

“You look up one day and see things don’t make sense,” Williams said.

Today, Williams said, people aren’t getting those “cushy jobs in the building,” except for those injured, disabled, or otherwise restricted in duty.

Councilman Brown also brought up Tyler Landreville, urging that he not be on patrol.

_____

Williams continued to take questions on deployment of resources, with Councilwoman Boyer trying to ensure the new cops are used for community policing, including parks.

“To just give you the positions and have no idea how they’re going to be used,” Boyer said, doesn’t sit well.

“We need to be able to provide adequate service to the community, because we aren’t doing that today,” Williams said, calling it a “staffing issue.”

Councilwoman Katrina Brown likewise wanted a “layout” of what new officers would be used to do.

“I don’t think the news media’s been on your side,” Brown said, regarding the reporting on JSO misdeeds. “The community’s got a lot of questions. We should at least be able to answer the basics.”

______

In happier news, Sheriff Williams did note that red light cameras will be out of Jacksonville by the end of the year.

Turns out they don’t prevent crashes after all.

Jax City Council begins mulling Lenny Curry’s budget

The August ritual began anew Thursday morning in Jacksonville’s City Hall, with the City Council Finance Committee beginning its review of the Mayor’s proposed budget.

The day began with a romp through a presentation from the Curry administration, followed by the Council Auditor’s review of the budget.

The proposed $1.27B budget is up from the $1.2B budget the previous year, with highlighted adds including 100 new cops, 42 new fire and rescue workers, contingency accounts for raises, and augmented reserve levels.

There are caveats even in those employee adds: 80 new cops are funded for six months, and 20 are unfunded altogether.

Throughout the three-hour plus opening session, the budget was reviewed holistically, with some tweaks from the Council Auditor approved without discussion, and others occasioning much debate.

______

Finance Chair Garrett Dennis kicked off the meeting with props: a ruler and sharpened pencils, to facilitate a sharp review.

And his words were as sharp as those No. 2 pencils : Dennis said that all of Jacksonville needed to be represented in the budget, suggesting that last year’s $8M Council Contingency may not be so robust this year.

Dennis also suggested that there’s “new information” to consider as part of the budget process.

Tension erupted early with visiting Councilor John Crescimbeni questioning Dennis’ decision to not consider enhancements and adjustments as the process went on, rather than at the end.

“I’m specifically talking about enhancements,” Dennis said.

_____

Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa introduced Curry’s “thoughtful and conservative budget,” noting that the administration has been working with the Council Auditor.

Some recommendations from the auditor are fine, Mousa said. Others require “dialogue.”

Mousa noted that pension reform was key to solvency, including maintaining employee cap and fulfilling capital improvements.

“We are now able to look forward to enhancements and improvements, many of which have been overdue,” Mousa said.

Mousa noted the public safety enhancements, $60M set aside for pension allocation, and an enhanced emergency reserve to 6 percent. As well, $32M will be allocated to vehicle replacement, most of which will be paid for via cash.

“The CIP begins to address needed improvements,” Mousa said, throughout the city. Fire stations and equipment: in the CIP, as is a $50M “Safer Neighborhoods” program that includes $8.4M for Edward Waters College.

Mousa noted that any borrowing falls “well within our debt authority guidelines,” with current borrowing getting “positive ratings from bond agencies,” which in turn decreases borrowing costs.

Mousa also referenced Finance Chairman Garrett Dennis’s promise to press departments on equal opportunity provisions, noting that an ordinance went into effect this year, and other steps are being and have been taken to comply with that ordinance.

Mousa also noted that Better Jacksonville Plan paydown is going very well. Once BJP is retired, of course, the half-cent sales tax moves over to address the city’s unfunded pension liability of $2.7B.

“Better Jacksonville’s looking good,” Mousa said.

Also discussed: budgets for the Jacksonville Journey and Jacksonville Children’s Commission, which will both be phased out, with functions rolled into the Kids Hope Alliance proposal.

The Journey and JCC budgets are combined this year, a reflection of the re-org.

____

Some positives in ad valorem were discussed by the Council Auditor: an estimated $45M revenue increase, of a total expected revenue of $625M, a 6.45 percent increase that reflects the property bubble at the late-stage in the current cycle of economic expansion driven by monetary-supply manipulation.

This increase helps to drive the total increase of 166 employees, bringing the city to 7,310 total, in addition to the capital improvements.

“That’s mostly police and fire positions,” Council Auditor Kyle Billy noted.

Salaries are up, almost 8 percent ($28.331M). New public safety employees and collectively bargained wage hikes  drive most of the rise. Personnel costs are down $80M, $79M of that from decreased defined benefit pension contributions, offset by $4M to the defined contribution plan to new hires.

Group hospitalization costs: down nearly $10M, due to switches to self-insurance plans.

“The city’s had really good experience with self-insurance,” Billy said, and he proposed five contribution “holidays” to use up reserves.

A list of ten Council Auditor recommendations were considered, and most of them were approved without objection. These boost the council contingency by $1.332M.

As well, a talking point was the torpor of FEMA reimbursements post-Matthew, regarding $7M for an emergency incidents contingency.

“It can take years,” Billy said.

That didn’t mollify some committee members, who speculated about there perhaps being shortfalls in the city’s applications.

____

Discussion continued with concerns about loans to enterprise funds, including a $3M loan to Solid Waste. The Council Auditor suggested fee raises to offset these loans.

“Solid waste is in a state of flux,” Mousa said, noting the city’s recycling contract is ending and the city will no longer get paid for recycled waste.

Recycling isn’t paying off right now, Mousa said, because of an oil glut.

“We do not have a timeline of what the future of recycling will bring,” Mousa said.

Stormwater also needs a $2.3M loan, and a fee increase is not appropriate or timely, Mousa said.

The loans were approved, and the auditor recommendation was spiked.

____

In another bit of intrigue, Councilman John Crescimbeni noted that he may want to revisit the Cultural Council’s budget based on “some things [he] heard.”

He was told he’d be afforded the opportunity to do that, but the timing is still up in the air as of when.

_____

Discussion also ensued as to Council members’ salaries, which were reduced by 2 percent in FY 2010-11.

Councilman Matt Schellenberg motioned to bump the salaries up to pre-FY 2010-11 levels, and that motion was quickly adopted by the committee “to be in compliance with the state statute.”

_____

Borrowing money for capital offered controversy eventually, via: $9.7M for fire and rescue vehicles, as part of the Safe Neighborhoods plan.

The Council Auditor wanted to eliminate or reduce borrowing; CFO Mike Weinstein said that the Mayor’s Office agrees with the recommendation, conceptually.

Weinstein believes that the administration could move to 100 percent pay-go in three to five years.

Weinstein got pushback, with Matt Schellenberg noting that the homestead exemption hit could impact budgets.

The recommendation is conceptually approved; the trick will be, of course, finding the money in the budget to offset proposed borrowing.

Notable: the $9.7M is a hard cap without further legislation.

_____

Fee reviews: also a talking point, with the Council Auditor wanting waiver language to be consistent with the ordinance code.

Weinstein said there were too many fees and not enough time to get a handle on them before budget, with a promise to come back with an updated fee analysis in a few months.

Councilwoman Lori Boyer backed the play, seeking an amendment to give the administration a December 15 deadline, which would lock fees into the FY 16/17 level in the short term.

Weinstein believes the fee process is “outdated” and “can be improved greatly,” but it will take time — with over 100 fees to mull.

“Dec. 15 is not doable,” Mousa said. “The fee structure is messed up.”

Current ordinance doesn’t include all the fees, for one thing. The administration has finally listed and cataloged a “comprehensive” list of current fees, per Mousa.

An ordinance will be filed setting fees to the level they are on the city’s website, as municipal code on fees is outdated.

Mousa proposed bringing a more complete schematic to the Finance Committee later this year.

Boyer pushed back, saying that in previous years a list was provided, and she wanted a list to review.

“There’s hundreds of fees out there,” Councilman Matt Schellenberg said, urging a “complete review by the first quarter of next year.”

In total, there are 58 pages of fees.

“I don’t want to be in this position next year in the budget,” Boyer contended.

Chairman Dennis wants to ensure that fees cover costs, decreasing the need to borrow to cover shortfalls.

Fees will, for now, stay at current FY levels.

____

The magic and mystery continue Thursday afternoon with a romp through Jacksonville’s police and fire & rescue budgets.

Lenny Curry has no plans to hire new chief of staff

Three months ago, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry bid farewell to Chief of Staff Kerri Stewart.

Stewart resigned to take a position at JEA, and what’s been clear this summer is that there’s been no rush to fill the role.

On Wednesday, Mayor Curry addressed the situation; in short, no one should expect a new chief of staff anytime soon, if ever.

“At this point, we’ve realigned some duties and staff, and have been able to absorb those duties and responsibilities among ourselves,” Curry said.

“There’s really just been no discussion. There’s not an active search happening. We’ve just been so busy with doing what we do and creating this budget, and right now we’re getting along fine.”

Curry cited savings to taxpayers as one benefit of not backfilling Stewart’s position, which was paid nearly $200,000 per year.

Luckily for the Curry administration, the senior leadership team is proven and has almost universal credibility in City Hall.

Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa is a constant presence in the building, with an encyclopedic knowledge of city functions, processes, and historical long view.

If Mousa were to ever move on, the need for a chief of staff may be more pronounced. He does the work of two normal people — and making roughly $300,000 a year, he’s paid like two normal people.

But in the current context, the status quo works just fine for Mayor Curry and his team.

Lenny Curry, Jax City Council have ‘feelgood discussion’ ahead of budget review

Jacksonville City Councilors made the long walk from the Council suite to the Mayor’s Office Wednesday afternoon, for promised “refreshments” with Lenny Curry.

In a period of transition for the Council, the public notice meeting was worthy of notice; it was a conscious forging of camaraderie and unity, and one well-timed, with the Finance Committee taking up the city’s budget Thursday.

The mood was jolly — one reporter wondered if there was Xanax in the coffee. The meeting was all velvet glove and no iron fist.

In a sense, the meeting was a Halftime Show — midway through the term, a check-in point and an opportunity for policy and conceptual alignment between the executive and legislative branches.

In the house: most of the Council, including Council President Anna Brosche and Finance Chair Garrett Dennis, two Councilors who have broken with Curry on various policy issues in recent weeks.

Curry noted that when the group came together two years ago, the topic was pension reform.

“While we haven’t agreed on every path, we do agree on the destination,” Curry said, reminding Councilman Tommy Hazouri of the time Curry dissed him with a Jay-Z line.

“I said you wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight,” Curry said. “Boy, I got that wrong.”

This very much was a One City One Jacksonville meeting — unity was the watchword.

Councilwoman Katrina Brown lauded Curry for his honesty, calling him “very forward” and extolling his “taking on the tough challenges.”

Councilman Reggie Gaffney likewise extolled Curry, celebrating the Mayor’s strong team.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri was happy about the “major issues,” like the HRO, “put behind us.”

Curry quickly chimed in with “absolutely.”

“The next Council, the next Mayor,” Curry said, “will have a foundation … that was built by us.”

Councilman Reggie Brown took the long view, saying he’d “like to get back to a place where partisanship doesn’t have a place.”

“Absolutely,” said Curry.

“I like the way that we’re gelling. I like the direction,” Brown said, noting that he’s learned the priorities of the whole city as part of the “real holistic approach” taken by the Council.

“The public sees this,” Curry said. “They tell me ‘keep going.’ People believe in our city, believe we’re getting things done.”

Council President Anna Brosche suggested that “we can get together [socially] if we have a meeting that ends before 11:00.”

“The Mayor can stop watching us on TV and join us,” Brosche added.

Curry, discussing Bill Gulliford, noted that “his hip hop name is Billy G — he’s got it going on.”

On the matter of policy, Curry said priorities were education, public safety, and children’s issues.

“Education isn’t under our purview,” Curry said, but he is looking to influence the process going forward, and follow on the reform vision of Nikolai Vitti.

Curry also pitched his “100 new cops” proposal.

“It’s not about having 1,800 cops to go out and arrest people,” Curry said, noting it’s “about being able to go in the community and build relationships.”

Curry also discussed the Kids Hope Alliance reforms, saying the re-org is about accountability.

“We are going to fundamentally change the way we serve kids,” Curry said.

Curry also addressed downtown, noting the Laura Street Trio is in progress, and his downtown development trip.

“It’s about tying the riverfront into sports and entertainment … getting ideas and getting it right,” Curry said, citing transportation and other factors.

Residential development, Curry said, ties into retail and other development downtown.

“As we’ve done for two years, any deal we bring to you,” Curry said, “has got to be a win for everybody.”

Retail development, said Curry, can drive sales tax revenues in sports districts.

However, “for the record … I’m not proposing any new tax,” Curry said.

After the event wrapped, we asked Curry what he hoped to accomplish — especially regarding healing the rifts that have seemingly emerged on Council.

“When we had lunch together two years ago,” Curry said, “it was a statement to ourselves and to the public that the executive branch and the legislative branch were going to communicate and work together for the people of Jacksonville.”

“We haven’t agreed [sometimes]. There’s been a lot of one-on-one discussions with Council members about how we get to a certain goal. We’ve figured out how to get there,” Curry added.

The conversation Wednesday, Curry said, was a “feel good discussion,” to remind all parties of “where we’ve been and keep moving forward.”

Curry expressed confidence also in the current Council Finance committee’s ability to grasp the budget.

“They have a role. Their job — I respect their job and their role, and the budget process will have to play itself out,” Curry said.

“The budget I presented is thoughtful. It’s a clear statement of priorities. We’ll just have to get through the process. I stand by what I presented. It says a lot and means a lot to the people of Jacksonville.”

 

Melissa Nelson outlines reform path, accomplishments of State Attorney’s office

Wednesday saw 4th Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson address the Southside Business Men’s Club.

Nelson, who assumed office at the start of the year, is in the tail end of her honeymoon period. She’s been given a wide berth by many locals — media and otherwise — who remember the excesses of the Angela Corey era and who have been sympathetic to reforms introduced.

Nelson’s speech on Jacksonville’s heavily Republican Southside, offered minutes before Nelson embarked to a high-profile hearing, continued the era of good feeling as Nelson outlined her reform platform and accomplishments to a receptive crowd.

Nelson had spoken to this club during the campaign as a reform candidate and today she talked as an incumbent — and reformer, discussing the strategic prosecution unit and other reforms.

“In the beginning of the year, I said yes to every invitation to speak, constantly telling people what we were going to do.”

Nelson campaigned on building trust and transparency, and she asserted some achievements in that realm.

One such accomplishment: promulgating public safety as “foremost in our minds” at the SAO.

“We’ve begun to think of our role differently,” Nelson said, moving from a “reactionary” posture to something more holistic.

“We are trying to implement a two-prong approach,” Nelson said, incorporating prevention and strategic appropriation of prosecutorial resources.

Regarding the strategic prosecution unit, Nelson noted that Manhattan has a program like that.

Also key: technologies, such as ShotSpotter and NIBIN.

The goal: a “crime/gun intelligence center,” such as the one Denver has. There are six in the U.S. and Nelson hopes Jacksonville will have the seventh.

That center will allow prosecutors to be “embedded” with law enforcement, “sharing intelligence and information constantly about known offenders.”

Those offenders will be “plastered” in the center, and targets will be identified.

Even early on in this effort, Nelson says intelligence sharing is improving.

Regarding prevention, Nelson said diversion and treatment courts were integral to a “thoughtful and deliberate” resolution of cases.

Results are positive, Nelson said, especially regarding veterans and those with mental health issues.

“We know these treatment courts work, and in seven months we have increased our use,” Nelson said.

The felony case count: considerably down, year over year, with a planned closure of the felony criminal division amounting to $600,000 of budget savings.

Nelson attributes those cost savings, in part, to the reform vision being put into play.

Regarding juvenile civil citations, Nelson noted that Sheriff Mike Williams was “anxious” to get “greater latitude” toward using these.

“Across the board [in the 4th circuit], law enforcement wanted” this discretion, in cases like misdemeanor battery and other such infractions.

Juveniles in this program: diverted to teen court, and sent to a neighborhood accountability board.

“They are incredibly effective,” Nelson said about the NABs, with localized, community-based solutions that lower recidivism.

The previous state attorney had held up the process, delaying outcomes three to four weeks.

“We took the State Attorney’s office out of the process,” Nelson said, which is what law enforcement wanted.

Civil citations for juveniles were 24 percent a year ago; now, almost 50 percent, which Nelson saw as a “statistical positive trend.”

Nelson noted, that in cases like the Hemming Park process, the way the SAO announced its decision was an example of “transparency.”

“Once the cases are finished,” Nelson said, “you the public have the right to see our work.”

Public records, likewise, were delivered quickly — in the Hemming case, zip files with detailed case records were released to the press.

“We won’t play games with public records requests,” Nelson said, and the local newspaper has credited her with that improvement.

In the works: a community prosecution pilot program, which helps the SAO engage in the community and build trust.

“The concept of community prosecution is that prosecutors get to know their community,” Nelson said.

Interest in this concept has been robust, Nelson said.

“It sent a message to me that not only was the community interested,” Nelson said, but also people in the SAO, who are “ready and excited to do things differently than in the past.”

“If we can start thinking about our job holistically,” Nelson said, “we’ll all be better off for it.”

Nelson is excited about the trajectory of the office, as well as the energy in the building, and her “great team.”

Despite the reform agenda, Nelson is not soft on crime.

As an example, the SAO is seeking a life sentence for Joshua Phillips, the killer of Maddie Clifton who is now up for re-sentencing based on the Miller V Alabama case.

“No matter what happens this week,” Nelson said, “Phillips will be back in front of this court in six years.”

The SAO is dealing with numerous juvenile resentencing cases, Nelson said, and will handle all of them on a case by case basis.

An audience member lauded the synergy between the Sheriff’s Office, the SAO, and the Public Defender’s office.

Nelson’s response?

“You made my day.”

Public hearing on Jax dredge? Opinions vary in City Hall

The scene at the end of Tuesday night’s Jacksonville City Council meeting was interesting.

John Crescimbeni, who came within a few votes of being Jacksonville City Council President, was imploring the candidate who won — Anna Brosche — to hold public hearings on dredging the St. Johns River as JAXPORT wants.

Though no money has been needed from the city of Jacksonville yet, Councilors are bracing for an eventual impact to the city’s general fund. And the general feeling among many Councilors is that the port has been less than transparent.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri, who has been working behind the scenes to build a dialogue with more transparency, seconded Crescimbeni’s call.

Brosche didn’t commit to a position Tuesday evening, and on Wednesday she told us she was “considering” such a public hearing.

We asked for a more detailed accounting of the pros and cons regarding future budgets and potential ecological impacts, but did not get response as of an hour after texting the question.

Councilman Hazouri, in a conversation Wednesday that expanded on a previously-held conversation we had with him, urged Brosche to move forward with hearings — either in a special committee, or in Transportation, Energy, and Utilities — the committee that Hazouri believes is the most natural fit for such a discussion.

“I’ve been advocating this for months,” Hazouri told us. “Why wouldn’t [JAXPORT] want to come to Council?”

A pending lawsuit from the St. Johns Riverkeeper is one reason; Hazouri suggested that “they’re afraid their words will get twisted in court.’

Hazouri did get a commitment from JAXPORT CEO Eric Green for quarterly reports on the progress of the project, but that doesn’t satisfy the need for real dialogue on the issue.

Hazouri, noting the city’s commitment to waterway activation that includes everything from new docks to remediation, is “concerned about how all of this is going to be impacted” by the dredge.

“They said they’ve been transparent,” Hazouri said about JAXPORT, but the “public doesn’t know.”

“It’s incumbent on Council to know what’s going on,” Hazouri added.

Hazouri’s comments continue a drumbeat of concern from Council’s old guard, highlighted in the press earlier this week.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, meanwhile, thinks the time for debate is over and the time for decision is nigh.

“We’ve had eight years of debate, community discussion, port board meetings, public hearings,” Curry told us Wednesday morning, noting that the previous Mayor had a task force and the dredging debate was central two years ago when he ran for Mayor.

The time for “dialoguing” regarding the dredge, Curry said, is over.

“Are you for it or against it,” Curry asked regarding dredging. “I’m for it.”

There is, said Curry, a sense of urgency.

“Other ports have moved on,” Curry said, “while we debate.”

At stake: “an investment in the future and jobs.”

“We’re competing with the world,” Curry added.

Curry expressed confidence in the new team at JAXPORT, noting that they are now equipped with state and federal funding, and urged individual council members to spend time with the team to discuss their concerns.

 

Lenny Curry defeats Garrett Dennis in Jax after-school funding turf war

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.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons