Is the City of Jacksonville’s budget a political football? Stay tuned

September 23, 2014 in Uncategorized by admin

Mayor sees politics playing role in budget; positions appear reversed from last year’s budget battle

Re-printed from The Florida Times Union Posted: September 21, 2014 – 11:34pm  |  Updated: September 22, 2014 – 12:03am 
Bob.Self@jacksonville.com--1/17/14--Jacksonville mayor Alvin Brown announces his new youth Youth Initiative during Friday morning's MLK breakfast.  The 27th. Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast was held Friday morning, January 17, 2014 at the Prime F. Osborn Convention Center in Jacksonville, FL.  Among those in attendance were keynote speaker Journalist Soledad O'Brien.  (The Florida Times-Union/Bob Self)  The Florida Times-Union

The Florida Times-Union
Bob.Self@jacksonville.com–1/17/14–Jacksonville mayor Alvin Brown announces his new youth Youth Initiative during Friday morning’s MLK breakfast. The 27th. Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast was held Friday morning, January 17, 2014 at the Prime F. Osborn Convention Center in Jacksonville, FL. Among those in attendance were keynote speaker Journalist Soledad O’Brien. (The Florida Times-Union/Bob Self)

Headed toward a final vote Tuesday, Mayor Alvin Brown has seen his “City of Opportunity” budget proposal stripped to the bone by the City Council’s Finance Committee, and he says the opposition seems to stem from an effort by some council members to block his initiatives in advance of the spring 2015 election.

“A lot of people feel that way — that it’s orchestrated and it’s all about 2015, and no matter what I do, they will continue to deny everything, no matter what,” Brown said. “I think that’s a disservice to the city.

“It’s not going to hurt the council members, but it hurts the community,” Brown said. “It hurts the senior who is depending on us. It hurts the veterans who are looking to us. It hurts the whole city.”

City Council Finance Committee Chairman Richard Clark called Brown’s assertion “patently false” and said Brown tried to use the budget — with dozens of spending increases — as political chess pieces.

“I think his budget was the biggest piece of election-year budgeting I’ve ever witnessed, and as a result, the council has no decision but to take that action,” he said. “There’s absolutely nothing to do with elections from the council’s side.”

Brown, a Democrat, is running for re-election in March 2015, and he has drawn two well-known Republican challengers — former Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry and City Councilman Bill Bishop.

After weeks of pressure-cooker budget hearings, the full City Council will vote Tuesday on the budget put forward by the Finance Committee, and there figure to be lots of floor amendments seeking to restore funding before the night is done.

Brown and the City Council have differed sharply on budgets.

He delivered a plan last year that called for cuts in a host of city services and said enacting his pension reform proposal would plug the holes.

Council members rejected the pension deal by saying it didn’t go far enough. They approved a 14 percent property tax rate increase to prevent police layoffs and the closure of fire stations, libraries and park facilities.

This year, Brown declared the time had come to make investments in the city, unveiling a “City of Opportunity” spending plan that would have borrowed $235 million and used $38 million in one-time money to balance the bottom line.

The City Council’s Finance Committee bucked the mayor again, stripping out the lion’s share of new spending items and going a step further with a 2 percent across-the-board cut that would hit public safety, libraries, parks and other parts of city government.

Brown said council members criticized his budget last year for cuts in city services, and this year, the Finance Committee’s budget does exactly that.

“You can always have a policy debate, but when you literally coordinate an effort to say ‘no’ and throw bombs and demean staff people, it’s just going in the wrong direction,” he said. “I’ve provided strong leadership when it comes to living within our means, protecting taxpayer dollars, and we’ve made the right investments.”

He said “to play politics and orchestrate an effort is wrong. It’s counterproductive. We have a long time for 2015 [elections]. It’s not until March.”

Clark said there was no way the city could have absorbed the 14 percent cut last year. This year, however, Clark said he and other council members felt they needed to create a budget that doesn’t rely on one-time spending money, like the reserves, even if it means making some cuts.

“I think we realized that the city is financially crippled, and we’re at the breaking point,” Clark said.

That role reversal played out in other ways during the summer’s budget sessions.

After Brown presented a budget last year that used 14 percent cuts in various departments without saying exactly what spending should go, the City Council reacted with scathing criticism and passed a new rule limiting the use of such unspecific cuts.

This year, the Finance Committee’s version of the budget would waive that very restriction in order to impose the 2 percent across-the-board cuts.

In another case of trading places, Brown used to be the one objecting when the City Council dipped into savings to balance the budget. Two years ago, the City Council allowed the Sheriff’s Office to carry over about $10 million from one budget year to the next. Brown raised concerns about using “one-time money” instead of “necessary budget tightening.”

This time, the Finance Committee drew a hard line against using $38 million in one-time money consisting of about $17 million from reserves, $7.5 in carryover money for the Sheriff’s Office and $13.4 million recovered from the former developer of The Shipyards property in downtown.

But other council members are open to that option.

Council members Warren Jones, Robin Lumb, Jim Love and Reggie Brown — who is on the Finance Committee — are scheduled to meet Monday about restoring budget cuts by using reserves.

Jones said next spring’s elections explain the council’s unwillingness to avoid budget cuts by raising taxes, particularly two years in a row.

“The political reality is council didn’t want to do that, so they’ve have to take a hard turn,” he said.

He said he thinks there could be some council members using the budget as a political weapon against the mayor’s re-election attempt, but most of the ill will directed at the administration was born out of the frustration of dealing with another difficult budget.

Brown said while he disagrees strongly with the Finance Committee’s budget he wants to see what happens Tuesday.

“The whole council has to vote on it, so let’s see what happens,” he said. “I’m very confident that at the end of the day, no matter what City Council is going to do, I’m going to continue to provide the strong, visionary leadership that says opportunity for all, but with opportunity comes responsibility and accountability.”

david.bauerlein@jacksonville.com,

(904) 359-4581

christopher.hong@jacksonville.com,
(904) 359-4272

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