Jacksonville Bold for 2.28.24: Tax trouble

Main Street Bridge at Sunset, Jacksonville, Florida.
Is Tallahassee doing away with the Jacksonville “pension tax?”

Is the Jacksonville “pension tax” in peril?

Language in the House tax package suggests that may be the case. But there is a path to blunt it.

“A provision in a wide-ranging tax bill put forward in the Statehouse would dramatically change that schedule by ending the sales tax when the city’s pensions are fully funded or 10 years after the voter referendum that approved it, whichever comes first. Then voters would have to keep going back every 10 years to renew the tax,” notes the Florida Times-Union.

However, there may be reason for optimism.

Florida Politics’ Tallahassee reporter Gray Rohrer notes that such language isn’t in the Senate version. This condition suggests a path for the status quo, as the Senate didn’t contemplate such a condition in Committees and therefore, it could be a tougher sell on the floor. There could also be a carve-out for Jacksonville’s discretionary sales surtax, which is integral to the city’s budget through 2060, given that it’s a key finance mechanism for paying off billions of dollars of unfunded pension liability.

Meanwhile, questions abound about how the language got into the House bill in a seeming bid to embarrass the Mayor’s Office. Speculation about the ultimate source is wild, including former statewide candidates for office and former senior-level city staffers.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, whose Ballard Partners was iced out of city lobbying contracts amid acrimony with the Mayor’s Office, said he will help.

Can Lenny Curry save Jacksonville’s ‘pension tax?’

“This would destroy our budget. Thank you, Wyman Duggan, for being all over handling this. Appreciate our conversation on this issue earlier this week,” Curry posted to social media last week.

Meanwhile, some suggest Curry and the alums of his administration don’t have stroke with Speaker Paul Renner.

Is all this much ado about nothing? At this writing, it feels like the language is more optics than anything else, given that it’s a contentious issue that the Senate doesn’t care about.

Sources say city lobbyists from The Fiorentino Group have engaged on this issue, contrary to the impression some rival lobbyists may have created. The Mayor’s Office has also been engaged in this effort to protect the Curry-era re-amortization of legacy pension debt financed with a sales tax starting in the next few years and extending potentially into the late 2050s.

This mechanism closed the defined benefit pension plan to new entrants but did not end the obligations to people hired and worked under those generous terms.

A lot more will be known in the coming days. If you know how the language got into the House proposal, please reach out!

Campbell soup

Will the U.S. Senate Primary be competitive in Jacksonville? At the very least, some veteran politicos are exploring options beyond former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel Powell.

Consider last Thursday’s “prayer brunch” supporting Stanley Campbell, which former City Council member Reggie Gaffney Sr. and former state Sen. Tony Hill hosted.

Stanley Campbell hopes to make a dent in the Democratic Primary.

Gaffney (the elder) tells us his son, his brother Johnny, and other pols are backing Campbell, along with 30 preachers.

It’s an excellent start, to be sure.

Gaffney mentioned other politicians endorsing Campbell to us. Still, we aren’t repeating their names here, as one told us they’d only had an “introductory meeting” with the candidate, and the other couldn’t stop laughing.

Democrats tried in 2022 to essentially coronate Val Demings as the nominee in the race against Marco Rubio. There were no debates and little engagement in the Primary, and that may have had a hangover in the lopsided General Election results.

It remains to be seen if 2024 will notice a more contested process. But at least some Jaxsons want it.

Chaplain conundrum

A discussion in the Florida House about legislation bringing volunteer school chaplains to Florida school districts and charters that want them led to some interesting floor discussion.

In presenting her suggested change to the legislation requiring student consent, Rep. Angie Nixon argued that chaplains are a suspect concept because “the chaplain may be trying to ‘groom’ the student.”

Angie Nixon raises alarm about chaplains ‘grooming’ schoolchildren.

The Jacksonville Democrat mentioned “children in the church, the Catholic Church that get groomed” and said her worry was a move that would “open that up to public schools.”

“I was saying there were findings,” Nixon explained after the meeting. “I also stated other places of faith later.”

HB 931 would “authorize volunteer school chaplains to provide support, services, and programs to students as assigned by the district school board or charter school governing board” with parental consent for the counseling.

The bill passed the next day, an 89-25 vote boosted with a memorable close from Rep. Kim Daniels, a minister by trade and co-sponsor of the bill.

“I am the opponent of this bill’s worst nightmare. I cast out devils, I pray in tongues, I’m a Holy Roller. But nobody on this floor can ever say I tried to convert you. Jesus is too good to push down anybody’s throats,” she said to applause from Republicans.

School Boards will have until the end of the year to decide their policy on this issue if this bill becomes law.

Patriot games

After the unanimous passage of legislation Thursday in the House, K-12 students are one step closer to getting lessons from designated “patriotic” groups.

Rep. Wyman Duggan’s bill (HB 1317) would allow representatives of so-called “patriotic organizations” time to meet with students and distribute recruitment materials, with schools providing designated time for these groups to pitch their attendees.

Wyman Duggan seeks to promote patriotism in public schools.

Six organizations made the cut: Big Brothers-Big Sisters of America, the Boy Scouts of America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Civil Air Patrol, the National FFA Organization, and the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.

The bill also clarifies that these groups can use school buildings even after the instructional day ends and stipulates that other groups don’t have the legal right to “equal time.” It also requires that schools set a time and date for the group to speak to students after “reasonable notice” was provided by one of these organizations.

Republican Sen. Tom Wright is carrying similar legislation (SB 1016). It has one committee stop to go.

Matter of time

When it comes to school shootings, it’s not if — but when.

That’s the chilling message the Duval County School Board heard from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri last week.

“Active assailant events, mass casualty events, attacks on schools could happen anywhere, anytime, anyplace to anybody,” Gualtieri told the board, as reported by Jacksonville Today’s Will Brown.

When it comes to school shootings, Bob Gualtieri says it’s not if — but when.

“If you look at the history of this and the objective evidence, it probably happens in places where people think it’s not going to happen more than in places where people think it is going to happen.”

The Sheriff chaired the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, created after a brutal mass murder by a former student in Parkland in February 2018. This event brought global scrutiny to Florida and compelled Gov. Rick Scott to sign off on bipartisan gun reforms, including banning sales of firearms to people under 21.

Worthy projects

In a conference between the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee and Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, legislators found common ground on The Boselli Foundation’s Mentorship Program.

In both cases, the House offer matches the Senate position. And in both cases, the goal is to help young people at risk of criminal recidivism.

Both chambers agree on funding for Tony Boselli’s mentorship program.

The Boselli project is fully funded at $308,800, fulfilling the ask of Republican Sen. Clay Yarborough.

The Jacksonville Republican’s request notes that former Jaguars’ offensive tackle Tony Boselli’s program “enables mentors to utilize story work, skill building and peer-to-peer interactions in a safe environment.”

“This would include salaries for additional mentors, a program administrator, and supplies to support young men who are currently or recently incarcerated to become functional leaders through empowerment and mentorship in the Jacksonville community,” the request adds.

Though the funding is nonrecurring, Yarborough expects that asks for $300,000 are to be expected in subsequent years to help anywhere from 25 to 50 “young men of 13 to 22 years old who are currently or formerly incarcerated” and are at risk for recidivism.

Karis Beach Lockhart of the Southern Group is the lobbyist of record on this project.

Museum money

Senate and House Budget Committees are agreeing to a $250,000 appropriation for a museum in St. Augustine, with the House request being pared down to match the Senate position.

The Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center is poised to get that quarter-million dollars in the offer sheet from the Conference Committee, including the House Infrastructure & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee and the Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Committee.

The Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center is set to receive a quarter-million dollars.

The museum’s history reflects that of St. Augustine itself, a place that was a flashpoint for battles in the Civil Rights movement and described by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as “the most lawless place he’d ever seen.”

King was in the city in 1964 as 400th-anniversary celebrations were commencing, an event he questioned federal funding for. Domestic terrorists shot up the house where he stayed within weeks of his arrival. Still, he was undeterred, continuing civil disobedience, such as trying to get served at a segregated restaurant and getting arrested for his trouble.

By June, a grand jury ordered King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to leave the city, saying they had breached “racial harmony.” King noted that ask was “immoral” and went on to say that St. Augustine had to “bear the cross” that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, illustrating in sharp relief the malignancy of White supremacists and the violence they embraced for their nefarious ends.

The museum is in the Excelsior School Building, the first public Black high school in St. Johns County from 1925 until the end of segregation. From there, it housed government offices for a while before nearly being demolished, then saved by former students of the same school and community members.

The $250,000 is half what the House sponsor of the appropriations request, termed out St. Johns County Republican Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, wanted. The money will go to capital needs for the facility.

On the Senate side, the request was sponsored by Sen. Tracie Davis, a Democrat from Jacksonville.

The lobbyist of record on this project is Joe Mobley of The Fiorentino Group.

Get connected

This week, a new website and mobile app were unveiled to increase civic engagement in St. Johns County.

The Northeast Florida county launched the website and app designed to “showcase a more open, efficient and digitally connected effort,” a county news release said about “SJC Connect,” a platform that provides a communications outlet for residents to make service requests and complaints to the county from their mobile devices.

St. Johns County launched a new website and app hoping to spur more civic interaction with residents.

“This marks a significant milestone in our commitment to open governance and efficiency,” said Joy Andrews, County Administrator. “The new website and SJC Connect app reflect a new era of digital communication for St. Johns County with the public, providing dynamic and transparent opportunities for interaction and engagement with the community we serve.”

The app and website also allow communication on public and private property issues with direct access to code enforcement and the county’s Public Request Inquiry Data Exchange (PRIDE). The county will also send regular government email newsletters to users.

Beach bucks

Major beach restoration projects are about to get underway in St. Johns County.

Two substantial portions of the shoreline will undergo restoration work nearly simultaneously beginning in March. One of those will be a $38.6-million project paid for by mostly state funds in the county’s northern areas in the Ponte Vedra Beach area.

Another beach restoration project will be launched next month on the shoreline of the main St. Augustine Beach area, running from near Anastasia State Park through St. Augustine Beach to A Street. That is just south of the St. Augustine Beach Pier. The project will require $33 million in federal funds.

Beach nourishment will soon take place at St. Augustine Beach.

The Ponte Vedra Beach restoration project will run a nine-mile distance from the northern reaches of St. Johns from the Duval County Line south through Ponte Vedra residential and resort areas into the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The northern St. Johns County beach renourishment project was approved for contractor Weeks Marine. It will involve placing more than 2 million cubic yards of new sand dredge onto the beaches and dune replenishment. The project is expected to be completed in October.

An electric performance

Over the weekend, electric line workers across Florida flocked to Jacksonville’s Metropolitan Park to show off their skills and craft knowledge during the 2024 Florida Lineman Competition Rodeo.

Team JEA, which played host this year, ensured most of the hardware stayed in Jax.

The municipal utility earned top honors in three events: Apprentice Hunter Thomas earned first place in the Horizontal Hurtman Rescue; Noah Sapp was No. 1 in Loadbust Tool Operation; and journeymen Cody Stokes, Caleb Macabitas and Davey Hicken also won first place in the Mystery Event.

The 2024 Florida Lineman Competition Rodeo highlights a certain set of skills.

JEA also touted apprentice Ryan Kornegay’s No. 3 finish in the overall competition — he’ll have to move up to journeyman eventually. Still, Kornegay has been dominant in the apprentice class, taking the No. 1 spot in the 2023 competition. Co-worker Sapp followed him in the No. 4 overall.

The annual event, established in 2001 by the Florida Municipal Electric Association, sees journeymen and apprentices compete for professional recognition, attend training courses and practice essential skills in a safe environment.

Beyond the friendly competition, FMEA’s event featured a Saturday evening award banquet. The guest list included former JEA line worker J.D. Thompson.

Thompson is something of a legend in power pro circles thanks to the “Kiss of Light” — shorthand for the heroism he displayed in 1967 when he scrambled up an electric pole to deliver CPR to one of his brothers in ohms, Randall Champion, who had touched a still-active 4,000-kilovolt line.

The event was one of the catalysts that resulted in nationwide line worker training reforms, including developing the Horizontal Hurtman Rescue curriculum.

The banquet crowd was introduced to the retiree via a video documenting the rescue. Now 82 years old, he was greeted with a standing ovation when he entered the room.

FMEA represents the unified interests of 33 public utilities in the Sunshine State, which collectively provide electricity to more than 3 million Florida residential and business consumers. JEA is the largest of the set — and largest public utility in the state — providing service to more than 500,000 customers.

Football footsie

Could soccer be part of the ongoing cultural exchange between Jacksonville and the United Kingdom?

That’s the seeming hope of local stakeholders.

Jacksonville’s “Piataks have owned Carlisle United since November, and while things on the pitch are difficult right now, the future looks bright — and varied. Among the plans are new links between Jacksonville and Carlisle, something those involved believe can have great benefits both on a football footing and beyond,” reports the Cumberland News.

Football may help bring Jacksonville and the U.K. a bit closer.

Plans are to bring the Carlisle side to Duval to train and play, which Visit Jacksonville’s Michael Corrigan says would be a “big deal.”

“We would love to look at opportunities for Carlisle United to come over and do some training, and also an opportunity to have a friendly match at some point in the not-too-distant future … that would really be exciting for Jacksonville,” Corrigan says.

Jaguars’ brain trust speaks at NFL Combine

“We’re going to continue to look to improve.”

That’s what Jaguars’ head coach Doug Pederson said Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

“We always talk about competition; we want to bring in players to add value and depth at every position,” Pederson said. “And then we have to coach it better.”

The 2024 NFL Combine is a chance to see what players bring to the table.

There are three ways in which NFL teams improve in the offseason: existing players improve their skills or health by adding better players to the roster and by coaching those players better.

In the Jaguars’ case, all three will be expected by the time the 2024 season kicks off in September.

Let’s start with the coaching.

After the season, Pederson opted to overhaul his coaching staff, in particular on the defensive side of the ball. New defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen replaced Mike Caldwell.

“We’re going to get the most out of our players,” Pederson said.” The scheme may change just a little bit. The look of it is going to change the most, what you see.”

What those scheme changes will be is yet to be revealed but expect Travon Walker to be used in more ways than he was under Caldwell when he mostly played as an outside linebacker. He could be moved to the defensive line more in 2024.

Pederson pointed out that the Jaguars’ current player’s ability to improve can come with offensive line health.

Cam (Robinson), Ezra (Cleveland), Luke (Fortner), Brandon (Scherff), Anton (Harrison) played one game together. Last game in the regular season,” Pederson said.

Cleveland is set to become a free agent, but general manager Trent Baalke mentioned the Jaguars’ desire to bring back all of the team’s front-line players.

“We want all of our players back,” Baalke said. “We’re meeting with (Cleveland’s agent); we’ll sit down and talk. We traded for him for a reason. We think he’s an awfully good football player. We’re going to work hard and talk with his agent and talk with Ezra a little bit and see if we can come to an agreement.”

That may not be welcome news to many Jaguars fans who rightly identified offensive line struggles as one of the big reasons for the team’s late-season collapse.

The Jaguars can also expect existing players to improve. No player is more important than the quarterback.

After a stellar second half of the 2022 season, Lawrence battled injuries and turnovers in the second half of the 2023 season.

“I just think continuing to understand our offense and get better with the scheme,” Pederson said. “Still put more of an impact to his voice in our offense because he’s the one out there executing and calling the play. I want him to speak up and really take ownership (of) that with us.

“The situational part of football, to just understanding game situations, managing the game in a certain way at certain times throughout the course of the game. And, you know, these are all areas that we can continue as a staff to assist him and help him get to where we want to be.”

Then there is bringing in more talent to the roster. While Baalke wasn’t ready to discuss the Jaguars’ focus in the offseason in detail, he did mention addressing depth at cornerback beyond starters Tyson Campbell and Darious Williams.

“That’s a good question; who’s going to be the third? We’ve got to add to that group,” Baalke said. “I think Coach Neilsen spoke on it; Coach Pederson has probably spoken on it. Now I’m speaking out; it’s a group that we needed to address. We feel good about the group we have; we feel like we have got some good young guys to work with. We got some guys, some veterans in there. But we’re definitely going to look to add to that group.”

Those additions could start as early as March 13, when free agency opens, or April 25, when the draft begins.

Staff Reports


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