“I ran for office to help make Jacksonville better,” Mayor John Peyton said Friday. “I never thought in a million years I’d increase taxes.”
And yet, Mayor Peyton has proposed an increase in the property tax millage rate. 1.2 mils, or about 14 percent. A mil, just in case you’re interested, is a dollar per thousand dollars of assessed valuation, so the new millage rate of 9.6 mils a $100,000 property (and those are difficult to find) would be assessed an annual property tax of $960. Mayor Peyton says the tax increase will cost the average homeowner $115 a year.
One of the things the JCCI Report on the city budget said in its analysis was that for years, Jacksonville had bought government on the cheap. I don’t recall who it was that came up with that phrase. It came from one of the tables in a breakout session on a sticky note, no doubt. But its a phrase that the Mayor has adopted for selling the idea of a property tax increase to the public. On the “FIX IT NOW!” website, Mayor Peyton says:
I want to live in a city that prioritizes public safety, economic development and the St. Johns River. I do not want to close fire stations, libraries, community and senior centers. I do not want to end the city’s recycling efforts. I do not want to eliminate programs for children, cultural and social services or assistance for crime victims.
- With a simple majority vote (10 out of 19 Council members), the Jacksonville City Council can adjust the millage rate to the rolled-back rate (“no tax increase”), plus changes in per capita Florida income.
- With a two-thirds majority (13 out of 19 Council members), the Jacksonville City Council can raise the millage rate to 10 percent above the majority vote maximum rate.
- With a three-quarters majority vote (15 out of 19 council members), the Jacksonville City Council can raise the millage rate up to its statutory cap – 20 mills.
Now, since this is a 14 percent increase, it looks like the threshold is 15 votes, and that’s going to be a steep hill to climb. There will be a lot of opposition to a tax increase, and rightly so. For those of us here at the beach, we have the rare privilege of paying double property taxes … from Jacksonville and from our local municipality. In our case, Neptune Beach. Because of the size of our little town, and the relatively low (for the beach) property values, ours is the highest of the beach communities, so I’m not tremendously enthusiastic about an additional $115 in property taxes. Particularly because our income situation has pretty much gone south this past year.
But I digress.
Mayor Peyton is pulling out all the stops, as you might expect. He talks about cuts to police and fire, children’s services, cultural grants, parks, and the like. Things that are in some cases necessary, and in some add a great deal to the quality of life in Jacksonville. He’s talked a lot about reducing the staff at city hall through attrition, mandatory furloughs, and a salary freeze. There is also finally a good deal of discussion about re-structuring the police, fire, and city pensions. Most likely it will be a two-tiered system. Current employees will keep the benefits they were promised, but newer employees would come under a different plan. The federal government did this years ago with the federal retirement program, and it’s fairly common in the corporate world. Corporate America, as you know, has been shedding employees and changing benefits for months. Many have stopped their retirement matching programs. Public sector employees may face those same realities.
Nelson Cuba, head of the Police Union, was quoted in the paper this morning as saying he wanted to hire a “forensic accountant” to go over the city budget with a fine-tooth comb before any changes are made in the pensions programs. I’m OK with that, as long as taxpayers aren’t footing the bill. I do want government to be as efficient as it can possibly be, and we’ve been hearing for years, even in what now look like very good times, that the budgets were lean. Something else that the JCCI report recommended was more transparency in the budget process. But after sitting through a couple of presentations with Mickey Miller during the JCCI meetings, I don’t know how much the average citizen (and I include myself) can really understand unless you can be really steeped in it. It will be challenging no matter what.
Mayor Delaney managed to convince voters to pass a sales tax increase to pay for The Better Jacksonville Plan. But raising property taxes for the purpose of just balancing the budget may be a bit of a harder sell. It will be a politically difficult thing for the council to do, with no guarantee that the results will be positive. Cutting taxes year after year was a good idea while property values were climbing. That dynamic has changed, and possibly for the long term. And from almost any objective vantage point, we can’t do nothing.