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Expect aggressive second-term agenda from Lenny Curry

The time is now for Jacksonville on the Rise.

While it’s certain that newly re-elected Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry will “engage” in certain City Council races, expect his administration to push forward on policy priorities sooner than that.

Exhibit A is on the Council’s agenda Tuesday night: the move toward final resolution of the problem posed by the Jacksonville Landing.

The $18 million spend, multiples of the riverfront mall’s book value, has been called everything from bad business to a political payout by critics.

However, those critics aren’t in policymaking roles. The only reason it’s not on the Consent Agenda Tuesday night is because Garrett Dennis no-voted it in Committee.

Of the 19 people on Council, 11 voted for it in committees last week. It’s all over but the crosstalk and a failed floor amendment or two.

What’s next for the space? Building demolition, along with marketing the new greenspace.

Over the last four years, the Curry administration has aggressively worked to manufacture consensus, and the payoff, as Curry said Tuesday night at the victory party, is downtown revitalization.

Much of the waterfront will have been shed of buildings that had outlived their purpose, and the Jacksonville Landing is the latest iteration.

Time will be of the essence in working out deals for these properties, similar to the hotel revamp proposed of the long-dormant Berkman II project.

“I’ve always said it’s not about the game,” said Curry last year. “It’s not about just developing one part of downtown. You know when you go from east to west to the middle of the core, this is a long-term plan. This is making sure that developers and investors know that Jacksonville is open for business.”

Business needs to move quickly.

The larger economy is slowing. Whenever a turn comes, it will put a damper on capital projects.

One of the arguments mitigating for “exploring the value” of JEA last year was that Jacksonville has unmet needs: including big-ticket infrastructure projects such as the septic phaseout.

Curry supporter Tom Petway, a board appointee who replaced one of Alvin Brown‘s picks soon after Curry took office, was the primary pusher of the sale option last year.

A JEA-commissioned valuation report of the utility urged exploration of a sale, given a combination of flat electrical revenues and a trend of industry consolidation.

Proceeds, the report said, could be between $2.9 billion and $6.4 billion after the retirement of debt. Values range from $7.5 billion up to $11 billion, based on cash flow, price/earnings ratios, and other metrics, per the JEA commissioned report.

The Jacksonville City Council Auditor subsequently issued his own report.

The 2018 Council Auditor report was more conservative in estimates than the one JEA commissioned.

It contended “the net proceeds to the City from selling JEA could range from a low of $1,702,795,000 to a high of $5,202,795,000.”

While a JEA sale is, at least for now, a political non-starter, the utility and the city are yoked to the Plant Vogtle deal. Courts have sided with the Georgia power companies over JEA, and the Vogtle project scored $414.7 million in federal loan guarantees Friday.

JEA’s credit took some hits as a result of trying to get out of the project also.

Jacksonville, at present, is relatively well-positioned financially. But it wouldn’t be if the city hadn’t worked through a pension reform process in 2016.

Then-CFO Mike Weinstein said savings add up to “$1.4B less out of the general fund over the next 15 years,” and “without that revenue” from the half-cent sales tax, the city would have “difficulty matching revenue to expenses.”

Those savings, per projections ahead of the vote, were frontloaded in the reform process, which included putting new hires on defined contribution plans and reamortizing what is now over $3 billion in unfunded liabilities to a 30-year paydown tied to a future sales tax.

While Jacksonville is “open for business,” the goal clearly is to do business sooner than later.

If the larger economy turns, and the real estate market dries up, the city has proven in the recent past to be vulnerable to dips in ad valorem collections.

That’s not a problem currently, or in the next couple of quarters. However, with issues like that and returns on the pension fund contingent on factors beyond this administration’s control, expect that they will press forward on matters they can control.

Expect an aggressive timetable. And expect that, if necessary, the political operation could “engage” to make that happen.

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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