I hated to miss the release event yesterday, but with Jenni in town, it just wasn’t going to work out. JCCI released the results of the 9 month “Our Money, Our City” study. For about 5 of those months, I went to JCCI every Tuesday at noon, sans lunch, and listened to people talk about our city and others, and then participated in the consensus building process that arrived at the conclusions in the report.
It was an eye-opening process. I enjoyed it immensely. But I can’t tell you how difficult it was to not write about the process while it was going on. But it was verboten. Now, it’s fair game.
It was my first experience as part of one of JCCI’s consensus-building studies. I joined the study after losing my job at WJCT as a way to stay connected with an issue that is going to be extraordinarily important in the coming campaign season. Whether for Mayor or City Council, the issues discussed in this study are going to be at the forefront of local races, and police, fire, corrections, and general city pensions are among the most pressing. More on that later.
But before we go there, it’s worth pointing out that this is the third time JCCI has studied the city budget. “Local Government Finance” in 1977, and 15 years later, “Long-Term Financial Health of the City of Jacksonville” in 1992. Now, after another 15 years, study number 3. The issues haven’t really changed a great deal.
It was the consensus of the group that the city is facing a financial crisis. We debated for half an hour over the use of that word, and there was no other to describe how the people in the room felt about the situation we’re in … though not entirely of our own doing. The group was diverse. Strong conservatives and liberals, city management and union representatives, current and former elected officials, all ages, all ethnicities, all economic strata, and “crisis” was the only word we could manage that adequately described our situation. So, a crisis it is, and I’m still good with that description. The city is obligated to do certain things, and given our tax structure, it’s going to be very difficult to make the income match the obligations. If you’ve got a better description for it, please leave it in the comments.
We debated over a lot of things. When it came time to compare Jacksonville and Duval County to other government entities, it quickly became apparent that, due to consolidation, we are unique in the state of Florida. Getting an apples-to-apples comparison on expenditures for various services and amenities when there are no other large consolidated city-county governments in the state was challenging. We looked at the counties that contained the largest cities in the state, and compared Jacksonville to an aggregate of overall county and largest-city spending in those various counties. I think we got close, but it’s a difficult comparison to make. Still, it was illuminating enough to give us the information we needed to draw reasonable conclusions.
But in those conclusions, we found we spend the least per capita on public safety of any large metro area in the state. The least per capita on fire protection, the least per capita on public works, and the least per capita on recreation. We dedicate the least amount of tax money to children under 17. We have the most park land by far, but we spend the lease on upkeep and maintenance.
And that doesn’t even touch the pension issue. I won’t try to describe that here, because it takes up an entire section of the report. But by plan, the unfunded liabilities were:
General Employees Pension Plan (GEPP): $568 million
Corrections Officers Pension Plan (COPP): $ 66 million
Police and Fire Pension Fund (PFPF): $789 million
That’s how much additional money the plans would need if everyone decided to retire tomorrow. Not very likely, to be sure, but it points to some funding inadequacies. You should read the section on why unfunded liabilities exist. The city is independently studying the pension issue, and it will be interesting to see how their conclusions compare with ours.
There was also consensus among the group that government does not operate very transparently, at least as far as the budget process is concerned. There are three separate budget documents, different funds, different ways to count what goes where, and there is very little opportunity for public comments on the budget early enough in the process to make a difference. And there are no performance benchmarks to let us know how we’re doing.
The conclusions are fairly dire, but then we called it a “crisis” at the beginning of the report. But the bottom line is …
Jacksonville is experiencing a financial crisis, fueled by:
Delaying payment of financial obligations, pension debt, and long term capital debt; costly unfunded federal and state mandates; and State restrictions on local revenue; all aggravated by the national recession. Consequently, the City of Jacksonville faces a difficult choice: cut services or raise revenues.
The consensus of the committee is that the city must find the political will to find new revenue, or cut services that are already underfunded. There’s more, but there’s an entire report for you to read should you be so inclined. I’m not one to endorse raising taxes … UNLESS … and that’s a big unless, it is an absolute last resort. Bush 41 taught us all a lesson about “Read My Lips” statements. Meanwhile, I’ve volunteered to be part of the group that works on implementation of recommendations.
In for a penny, in for a pound.