Jax Council bad blood spills over into fractious Finance Committee meeting

Gulliford Reggie Brown

After committee stops for the legislation that seemed, at times, like outtakes from an Edward Albee script with all the personal attacks, Councilman Bill Gulliford‘s bill to slot $1.5M into a 6 month pilot program to treat opioid addiction cleared its final committee Wednesday.

Less successful: Councilman Garrett Dennis’ bill to allocate $200,000 for swim lessons for underprivileged youth, despite it being the middle of summer, the end of the budget year, and no clear plan to deploy the funds.

He withdrew the measure, after acrimonious discussion.

In both cases, the road to outcome was rocky and showed further fissures on the council. As if more evidence were needed.

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In the Neighborhoods, Community Investments, and Services committee, Garrett Dennis — who will be Finance Chair starting next month — mocked Gulliford through a hearing dominated by snarky invective on Dennis’ part. And in the Rules Committee, Danny Becton — the next Finance Vice-Chair, defeated in a 2011 election by Gulliford — likewise put Gulliford through the ringer.

Dennis’ bill had a similarly interesting track, with discussion in Rules becoming very heated, leading to Dennis questioning the motivations of certain critics.

The question going into Wednesday’s Finance meeting was whether or not the third committee would be more tranquil.

By the end of the agenda meeting, it was clear that the bad blood from previous days had gotten worse.

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In agenda meeting, Councilman Reggie Brown brought up unanswered questions regarding Gulliford’s bill, saying that no rehab agency has been asked how they are addressing the problem, their goals, grant applications, and so on.

Brown asserted that federal money, via a state pass through, could be available.

“There’s no record that we’ve applied for any grants through Duval County,” Brown said, noting that Gov. Rick Scott is just a phone call away, and that Pres. Donald Trump has put forth a plan to deal with these issues.

Regarding Dennis’ bill, while “drowning is a real issue,” there should be no last-minute pressure on Parks to fulfill the ordinance.

“We should align ourselves with the state, align ourselves with the federal government,” Brown said.

Gulliford snapped back with a point of order, saying agenda meeting was not the venue for debate, but Brown wasn’t finished.

After agenda wrapped, Brown spoke to us, very animated about the failure of locals to pursue moneys and techniques already advanced in Washington and Tallahassee.

He noted that out of $27M in federal grant dollars for the opioid crisis, Jacksonville should be positioned to get one million at least — and the failure to do so was troubling, given that Trump came through on the federal end, but some would rather spend out of the general fund instead of pursuing the grants available.

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With agenda meeting as heated as possible, the committee moved into the actual meat of the meeting.

A separate swim lesson bill, allocating $25,000 that had been earmarked last September in budget to swim lessons (with $10,000 of grant money) for roughly 1,500 youth, brought up heated discussion before passing without objection — an appetizer before the surf and turf special at the end of the meeting.

Councilman Matt Schellenberg peppered the Parks and Rec director with questions about how youth would be taught to swim, including questions about background checks and training for teachers.

Unlike with the Dennis bill, which was ad hoc in introduction, Parks and Rec Director Daryl Joseph actually has a plan and programming in place for the $35,000, he said.

Schellenberg said the classes were too big and the 45 minute lessons were too long.

“Break up the classes because you have seven people in there and they get antsies in their pantsies,” Schellenberg counseled.

Councilwoman Katrina Brown advised that the program could be scaled up with more money, such as the Dennis bill (which would serve 6,000 children) suggested.

However, said Parks and Rec director Daryl Joseph, there would not be staff to accommodate the expenditure.

Councilman Reggie Brown said the $10,000 grant component was a “drop in the bucket,” and the goal should be year-round instruction. Jacksonville CFO Mike Weinstein said there would be year-round swim instruction as a “major piece in the budget” this summer.

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Gulliford’s opioid treatment bill came up soon thereafter.

Gulliford noted the 51 percent increase in overdose deaths in Duval added up to two deaths a day — compared to four drowning deaths over the last year.

Transport costs: up $1.4M for rescue since 2014, with taxpayers bearing the burden for multiple ER trips for the same overdose patient even in the same day.

“Is there an emergency? You bet there is,” Gulliford said, exhausted from having to explain the bill for days against such personal resistance.

The program — a “unique” one — may be a new model, Gulliford said, and could be scalable to every emergency room in the city if it works (though with private-sector philanthropy).

It appears that St. Vincent’s Hospital would be the ER venue for the pilot, with UF Health declining the opportunity to be the ER — though UF Health would collect data.

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Things got messy soon enough.

Councilman Brown asked about flakka, wondering how first responders knew the difference between a flakka overdose and a fentanyl overdose.

“I’m not familiar,” said a rep from JFRD.

Brown said that lack of familiarity indicated an absence of “true data” from responders, before asking the doctor supporting Gulliford’s bill.

The doctor supporting the bill (Dr. Raymond Pomm, medical director at Gateway Community Services and River Region Human Services) said “not much” usage of flakka was in Jacksonville; Brown countered that flakka was big in LaVilla.

Brown continued on this vein, asking how many grants have been applied to. The response was that grants weren’t available until recently, save $100,000 from the state.

Brown also pilloried the doctor for not asking for support from state legislators or DCF.

“There’s truly an emergency here. But I don’t think … we’ve applied all efforts,” Brown said, adding that those who don’t want help can’t be helped.

Councilman Garrett Dennis had questions about the funding source (collective bargaining contingency), before calling the UF Health CEO (Russ Armistead) to the stand to discuss the plan in which UF Health is listed.

Armistead noted UF Health’s support of the initiative, but that the safety-net hospital’s ER lacks capacity.

“We can’t do it alone,” Armistead said, “this is a capacity issue.”

Gulliford noted the $27M of federal money (“that some people are talking about like manna from heaven”) was dispersed to Lutheran Social Services on the state level, which has not been putting money in to programs like Jacksonville’s.

Dennis suggested scaling the program down to three months; Pomm urged that experts say six months should be the minimum.

“This drug is killing people today,” Pomm said, noting that “100 percent of the heroin use today [has] fentanyl in it.”

Gulliford, in wrapping, said he wouldn’t “beat this dead horse,” but reiterated the death of two people a day to this epidemic, adding that some may be committing suicide from these drugs.

“This stuff is so addictive that it’s not their choice anymore,” Gulliford said.

Councilman Brown wasn’t completely sold, deeming this a “crisis, not an emergency,” and saying that Gulliford is “wrong” about the $27M, while pointing out his belief that “false data” could result from the methodology of ER treatment at one hospital and data collection at another.

“You talk about slippery slopes,” Brown — a visitor to the committee — said using a Gulliford phrase.

The bill carried 5-1, with Katrina Brown as the no vote, saying that she wanted to be “consistent” with her voting process.

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Dennis’ $200,000 allocation for Swim Lessons was next, and CFO Weinstein wanted it to drown.

“We’re opposed to the process, we’re opposed to the bill,” Weinstein said, saying the bill was a “surprise” to the mayor’s office and the process was “not the right way to do things.”

“People drown all the time doing goofy things,” added CM Schellenberg, casting doubts on the emergency and the plan to spend money, which could lead to a “tremendous amount of waste.”

Councilman Dennis had a reaction: a compare and contrast with Gulliford’s bill.

“The bills come from the same funding source; the administration found $2M of additional money … my bill will run 15 months, Councilman Gulliford’s bill was only 6 months … we don’t know the outcome [for Gulliford’s bill], but we do know the outcome of drowning prevention….”

Dennis also deemed Gulliford’s bill to “not be well thought out,” given the lack of stakeholder contact. And that outside money may not come in for opioid treatment, but would come in for drowning prevention.

“We’re so stuck in the process and do not want to help with the crisis,” Dennis lamented.

Councilman Anderson urged withdrawal, noting the previous swim lesson bill expands the program from last year, and the Mayor’s proposal would expand the program further.

Councilwoman Brown also balked, in light of the budget process in the mayor’s office, urging collaboration between Dennis and Mayor Lenny Curry to fine-tune the program.

Dennis wasn’t ready to pull the bill, saying saving lives is more important.

“The money is carryover,” Dennis said, “so the mayor doesn’t have to use that money July 17 when he brings out the budget … one less thing the administration needs to do.”

Dennis also said that a “slippery slope” would be created if the mayor had to approve of things “near and dear” to the hearts of council members.

Dennis proposed that his and Gulliford’s bill both be removed from emergency.

Gulliford gave Dennis an “absolute no.”

“I’ve been trying to find a way to support your bill,” Gulliford said, “but you keep throwing up roadblocks.”

“I don’t see the parallel between the two,” Gulliford added.

Dennis lost the battle. But as Finance Chair starting next month, he won the war.

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has written for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. He is based in Northeast Florida. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @AGGancarski



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