Laudatory words about the plan, described unironically by Finance Chair Aaron Bowman as a “perfect budget,” preceded a 17-2 vote for the spending plan, with only Danny Becton and Rory Diamond opposed.
“We are one city, we are one Jacksonville, and this budget is a reflection of it,” said Council President Terrance Freeman.
The $1.55 billion general fund budget is the largest in city history, with a capital budget approved separately of more than $480 million, a function of population growth and the rising tides of federal investment boosting budgets around the country. Over $100 million of that will be dedicated to downtown projects.
The budget includes $108 million for parks, $26 million for road resurfacing, and $10 million toward resiliency efforts.
Tens of millions of dollars are also included for drainage and bulkhead upgrades, along with big spends on the Baseball Grounds and the Jaguars’ performance center, as well as increased funding for the Kids Hope Alliance organization dedicated to children’s services.
The budget discussion proceeded with the requisite “budget night” drama on the Council floor, with floor amendments designed to make a point with sums of money that are small compared to the overall budget.
One such amendment that ultimately wasn’t voted on addressed potential utility insecurity for thousands of residents. Democrat Brenda Priestly Jackson urged to move up to $2.5 million from Council contingency to pay off debts for JEA customers facing disconnection.
The utility paused disconnections over the summer, and while they are paused again ahead of Hurricane Ian’s impacts on the region, they were set to resume once the storm passes the area.
She thought 3,348 people were subject to disconnection, but she said an agreement was made not to disconnect those parties through Oct. 9, with a pathway to private funding and emergency funding if needed past that date. Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes affirmed her read, adding that the budget would “recharge the coffers of the social service division.”
Other points of budget controversy were ratified separately from the overall budget, a function of larger politics and the competitive race to succeed Curry next year.
A move to discharge a bill stuck in committee proved controversial even before the formal budget was taken up. A $150,000 appropriation for the Fire Watch, an initiative targeting veteran suicide, was challenged by mayoral candidate Al Ferraro, who claimed veterans in his district opposed it.
The bill was moved over his objections, but that didn’t squelch debate. Randy Defoor challenged the program as a “boondoggle” and wondered why data backing up ROI couldn’t be provided at the Council meeting. Despite these and similar objections, the bill passed 17-1, with Matt Carlucci the only opposition.
Controversy over a $750,000 appropriation to the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce also didn’t matter in the end, as the bill passed Council by a vote of 16-2.
Mayoral candidate LeAnna Gutierrez Cumber’s concern is that the money, an increase from the current fiscal year’s $450,000 threshold, would effectively subsidize the mayoral campaign of Chamber CEO Daniel Davis. However, her arguments that the money wasn’t needed fell on deaf ears.
“Great talking points,” snarked Council President Freeman (an alum of the Jax Chamber political operation himself) after Cumber’s speech closing on her bill.
Cumber and Ferraro were the two “no” votes.
The money, per the bill summary, is earmarked exclusively for “advertising, target industry marketing to brand our region’s key sub-clusters and outreach to site selectors and corporate decision makers.”