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Jacksonville City Council passes big budget after robust discussion of small details

On Tuesday, the Jacksonville City Council passed a $1.18 billion budget that will add more and better-equipped police officers to city streets.

However, the big talkers were swimming lessons, travel budgets, and special events allocations … adding up to a picayune $115,000 out of the council contingency budget.

And another big talker: a failed but audacious thrust at the heart of the Lenny Curry administration’s major social program initiative, the reboot of the Jacksonville Journey program.

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In the budget passed Tuesday, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office got authorization to hire 40 more police officers and 40 more community service officers, as well as a new computer-aided dispatch system and a new fingerprinting system.

Additionally, there was an $83.3 million capital improvement plan (with $33.8 million in cash), with a focus on delayed drainage repairs: $6 million for countywide drainage rehab, $6.8 million for the Lower Eastside Drainage Project, and $2.1 million for the Trout River/Moncrief drainage projects.

And $11.5 million was earmarked for the Trail Ridge Landfill Expansion, along with $3 million for Jax Ash Site Pollution Remediation.

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But those weren’t the big topics of conversation. Those details had been worked out long before.

What hadn’t been worked out: a number of floor amendments introduced that ended up being sources of debate.

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Among them: courthouse furniture and equipment being funded with money from the mowing budget; moving $20,000 from council contingency for travel to events like the Florida and National Association of Counties and Florida and National Association of Cities; moving $25,000 from contingency to fund swim lessons for underprivileged youth; and carrying over $70,000 from the 2015-2016 contingency for “special events” for district council members.

And, the aforementioned big enchilada: the proposed removal of over $2 million from the Jacksonville Journey budget.

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After some discussion, $20,000 was moved from the right of way maintenance and mowing budget (surprising given the infrequency of mowing in the city) to $10,000 for furniture and $10,000 for “specialized equipment” for the courts.

Chief Judge Mark Mahon asserted that the Legislature dictated that the money, derived from $65 fines, cannot be used for technology and furniture, and there are “tremendous technology needs” in the courthouse, such as tablets for the courtroom and improving evidence presentation software.

There was $248,000 of a council contingency account moved into the mowing account, said Councilman John Crescimbeni, and the mowing account had been increased in the budget by almost a quarter-million dollars, which means that mowing and right-of-way maintenance are still ahead by over $400,000.

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This set the stage for Councilman Matt Schellenberg to make the case for a $20,000 travel budget for his association travel.

This was destined to be the most heated amendment of the budget, continuing the council’s habit of extended philosophical discussions over relative pittances.

“If you are not on the ground level discussing these issues,” Schellenberg said, “you basically are on the outside looking in.”

Schellenberg made an emphatic case for his work in these capacities, including recruiting vendors that could save serious money.

Currently, the travel budget for any given council member is $3,000.

Schellenberg also noted Jacksonville is at a “serious disadvantage” because of term limits relative to these associations.

Councilman Aaron Bowman noted the limits of the council contingency.

“On budget night, we’re already attacking half of our contingency fund,” Bowman said. “I’m struggling on beginning the fiscal year with potentially $55,000 of contingency money for the entire year.”

Schellenberg noted he is on the FAC charter revision committee, saying “I’m there to represent this council and this administration instead of sitting on the sidelines.”

“If we’re not going to participate,” Schellenberg said, “we shouldn’t be there.”

Councilman Greg Anderson supported Schellenberg conceptually, while raising questions about the expenditure itself.

Schellenberg noted that “the more you participate, the more you’re respected, the more Jacksonville’s respected going forward.”

Anderson still conceptually supported the measure, saying that Schellenberg needed to itemize travel expenses.

“Right now I just don’t have the detail to support it,” Anderson said, advising his colleague to introduce a bill after budget night.

Council President Lori Boyer wondered if the $20,000 was entirely necessary, saying it would perhaps be prudent to allocate a smaller amount at first and revisit the matter later in the year.

Councilwoman Joyce Morgan, who attends Florida League of Cities meetings, stressed the “huge opportunity” created by participation, citing the outsized influence of small municipalities in the FLC.

“We need to have more people there,” Morgan said, noting that some of the smaller places have six or seven people representing them.

“If they’re coming up with the resources,” Morgan said, Jacksonville should be able to also.

Councilman Bill Gulliford offered an amendment, taking out the reference to the various leagues, simply making it a generic travel amendment for council members.

Bowman still had qualms.

“We’re cutting our contingency almost in half. That’s the issue for me. I will support it, but I hope that later in the year I don’t have to say ‘I told you so’,” Bowman said.

The travel amendment, with reference to the various leagues omitted via the Gulliford amendment, carried 16 to 1, with Ferraro the sole no.

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The “swim lessons” amendment was next.

Councilman Garrett Dennis noted that of the 17 drownings in Duval County in 2016, five were children younger than 14.

“Education is the key to changing this reality,” Dennis said, noting a drowning in a retention pond that spurred Dennis and the mayor to work together to combat drowning via a program called the “Splash Squad.”

The $25,000 can pay for swimming lessons for 1,250 people, cutting down on emergency room costs.

Councilman Hazouri had questions, including whether this would be a “minority program.”

The program has economic qualifications; students who are on free or reduced lunch automatically qualify.

Hazouri mentioned the limits of the contingency account, noting that there is time before summer, and raising questions about which organizations will be involved with the lessons.

Dennis noted that “it’s not a minority issue; it’s a countywide issue.”

The city gave free lessons to 375 people last year; this increase would be “dramatic,” said Parks and Recreation head Daryl Joseph.

After more discussion, a potential compromise was reached: make the allocation contingent on securing matching funds.

Gulliford: “I hope you would encourage more participation,” with the potential of “2,000 or more” kids learning to swim if the matching funds were secured.

Dennis noted that the Rotary and the YMCA are having a “major press conference” in October in which “they’re going to come forth with something” regarding matching funds.

Crescimbeni and Gulliford contended civic clubs and the like could be driven to chip in, and with the city pools closed, there’s time to shake those money trees.

The goal the council set: swimming lessons for 10,000 kids.

That would require $200,000, meaning a lot of money trees would need a lot of heavy shakes.

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The final floor amendment: carrying over $70,000 for “special events” for council members.

Councilman Reggie Brown sought to have $5,000 for each council member for community education fairs, on subjects such as credit repair, a need in his Northwest Jacksonville district.

The actual carryover is $78,024. That was approved.

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Then, a new floor amendment was introduced.

Councilman Scott Wilson moved for de-appropriation of $2.1 million from the Jacksonville Journey program (50 percent of funding), due to a lack of crime data provided for the 10 zip codes targeted.

Wilson, with a catch in his voice, described the tortuous process of trying and failing to get the data.

Wilson noted that his district, excluded from the Journey because it is on the Southside, appears to have more violent crime than 32202.

This play — the most interesting of budget night, by far — was backed by Bill Gulliford, saying the true measure isn’t zip codes.

“You have to get more sophisticated than that,” Gulliford said.

Charles Moreland, director of Community Affairs, noted the revamp of the Journey program required a foundation, and those 10 zip codes were selected based on hard data, as they are “high violent crime areas.”

“I think the dollars are being well spent in those areas,” Moreland said.

Councilman Sam Newby noted killings in New Town and Moncrief happen regularly, and that he can’t support Wilson’s play.

Wilson noted that the courthouse, EverBank Field, and other public facilities provide a disproportionate amount of arrests.

There is “more violent crime in 32246 and 32216,” Wilson said, than in 32202 — a Journey zip code.

The goal of the conditional removal of allocation, Wilson said, is to “give us more time to evaluate it.”

Councilwoman Anna Brosche noted that Wilson wanted those stats, asking Moreland if Wilson got them.

Moreland’s answer: he wasn’t sure.

“This data that Councilman Wilson is requesting,” said Moreland, “has some serious flaws within it.”

However, said Moreland, the conclusion was reached in the beginning that those 10 zip codes were the initial focus.

Discussion continued, with Wilson noting that the crime data he was provided was on a district level, and could not be directly compared with the zip code data used by the Journey.

Wilson’s initial request for data was made in March.

Council President Boyer wanted to know when useful information could be provided.

“We don’t want a generic ‘we’ll work on it.’ Give me a time frame … how did you select the 10 zip codes,” Boyer said, noting that Journey zip codes include affluent neighborhoods, like Avondale and Ortega, that “shouldn’t be included.”

“When are you going to come back and get more granular?”

Boyer extended a 30-day grace period to Moreland.

Moreland vowed to make relevant information “readily available,” saying that “we can get more granular.”

Councilman Greg Anderson said to Wilson “message heard,” but “I’m not going to be able to support your motion tonight.”

Wilson reframed the discussion as “not de-funding anything,” but “putting the money below the line,” pending more substantial detail.

The measure failed 5-12.

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The budget was the highlight of a packed agenda, which saw the five-year capital improvement and information technology plans approved, as well as the allocation for UF Health, maintaining the funding level at $26.275 million for fiscal year 16-17.

There was $6 million for disproportionate care allocated to the state pool, giving UF Health $14 million.

The other $20 million will be dispersed conditionally to the state when the city confirms “adequate participation” by the rest of the state, to ensure Jacksonville gets back what it puts in.

As well, the council appropriated $5.5 million of HHS HIV/AIDS grant money, with no city match, to be spent for HIV treatment and prevention services between March 2017 and February 2018.

Council also approved another 90-day moratorium on taxicab medallion renewal, a consequence of its inability to agree on rideshare legislation.

Also approved: a millage rate for the city itself of 11.15 mills, 9.63 mills for Baldwin, and 8.15 mills for the beaches communities.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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