Category Archives: City Budget

Preserve The St. Johns River Ferry

It’s amazing, sometimes, how you can find yourself in the center of something that can really make a difference in your community. Such is the case with the task force to save, and then preserve, the St. Johns River Ferry Service.

Ferry Task Force Beaches WatchThe ferry, often referred to as the Mayport ferry, is in danger of being permanently docked. And as 13th district councilman Bill Guliford said at Wednesday night’s Beaches Watch meeting, if the service ends, it will be very difficult to resurrect it. So, led by former council president Elaine Brown, long a champion of beach community issues and beaches businesses, we are embarked on a mission to see that it is not allowed to come to that end.

Jacksonville Port Authority spokesperson Nancy Rubin says that the ferry carries an annual operating deficit of some $600,000 to $700,000, and is in immediate need of about $4 million in repairs and upgrades to the berths at either end of the short trip across the river. JPA executive director Paul Anderson has said that the continued operations of the ferry is not consistent with the port’s business model, and is not sustainable in its present form. At a meeting on February 27th, he will ask the board for guidance as to how to proceed, but he has been very clear that he hopes to return the ferry, and the associated land, to the city. The city has been reluctant at best to agree to consider re-assuming responsibility for the service. The state, which most believe should be the entity operating the ferry, washed its hands of the service several years ago. Basically, it’s like they determined that they were no longer going to pay to maintain a bridge over a waterway that connects a state highway … which the ferry does.

Ferry DockingAll of that to say that, I’ve been asked by Elaine to lead the media and PR efforts for the task force. We will have a website, Facebook presence, and other social media components to the effort. If you ride the ferry, occasionally or regularly, you can expect to see very shortly volunteers at both landings asking you to take a brief survey and sign a petition. I’ll be posting about the issue here, and producing some video pieces to illustrate the issue.

If you care about the ferry, and there are a multitude of reasons for you to do so, from its historic significance to the economic impact is has on Mayport, the beaches communities, and many other businesses that line A1A between St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach, consider signing a petition, making a donation, contacting the Mayor’s office and your representative of the City Council to make your opinion known. Do keep in mind that all e-mails sent to the Mayor and City Council are public records. If … I probably should say when … we go to the city for funding for the ferry, it will require the votes of 10 council members to get it back in the budget.

But most importantly, tell your friends. I can’t imagine the First Coast without the ferry. Let’s see that it doesn’t happen. (Pictured L-R Elaine Brown, Task Force Chair; Val Bostwick, President, Friends of the St. Johns River Ferry; Nancy Rubin, Jacksonville Port Authority spokesperson; Sam Floyd, Mayport Waterfront Partnership Chairman; Councilman Bill Guliford presenting at Beaches Watch)

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Filed under Atlantic Beach, Beach Living, City Budget, City Council, Florida Budget, Jacksonville Beach, Jacksonville City Council, Mayport, Mayport Ferry, Neptune Beach

Political Cover

They tried. But it appears that rather than slash the city budget, the city council will raise the property tax millage rate to 9.27 mils, the maximum allowed. That means for every $1000 dollars of assessed value, after homestead exemption, homeowners in Duval county will pay $9.27 in taxes. The current millage rate is 8.48 mills, so that’s less than a dollar per thousand.

Special events will be restored, and Sheriff John Rutherford says he will not have to lay off the community service officers. But Mayor Peyton wants to restore about $1 million for the General Counsels office, and also to be discussed is three quarters of a million to restore library hours. It would appear that when the cuts really started to take shape, even the most strident budget cutters on the council decided maybe they had cut just a bit too far.

For those of us in Neptune Beach, that means that a 0.79 millage increase will be added to the 0.25 mil hike approved by the school board, and 0.27 proposed for the local municipality. That’s a total tax increase for this little community of $1.31 for every $1,000 of assessed value for my home.

In a year when our family income is less than half what it was last year. I never thought I’d be rooting for lower property values, but right now, in a very bizarre way, it’s the only way we can stay even.

The Jacksonville City Council from the outset left its self a loophole when they sent Mayor Peyton budget legislation that he vetoed. Council President Richard Clark had said taxes would be raised as a last resort, only if the savings could not be found in the city budget. It would seem that those savings were not to be found.

But now we have to brace ourselves for a fairly substantial tax increase. Mayor Peyton said “The average homeowner will pay less than 100 dollars more” for the city increase, which sounds affordable unless your income is substantially less than a year ago. But adding in the Neptune Beach tax and the School Board tax and suddenly we’re looking at something that could really matter.

So what do you do? Suck it up and pay, I suppose. I don’t see a lot of options, and hope that things improve enough in a timely fashion to make it OK.

What else is there to do?

Sig

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Filed under Beach Living, City Budget, City Council, City Government, Property Taxes, Taxes

First Vote

And the City Council finance committee has said “No” to Mayor Peyton’s 1.02 mil property tax increase. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but it’s a good sense of the mood of the council.

Their mood seems to be that they don’t want to increase taxes. At least not yet.

The vote sets the maximum tax rate, which the council decided should be the same as it is this year. It can still change, but coming out of committee with a recommendation to not raise the millage is a strong message.

The TU reports that a parade of business people has come out in favor of the increase. “We support a millage increase at the vote on July 28, which will allow the council the opportunity to fully debate the mayor’s priorities for the budget,” they said in a letter to the council. “This is responsible leadership.”

But having listened to Richard Clark, the council president, a couple of times last week, he’s convinced that there is %50 million in savings to be found in the budget. A review of every department begins next month, with most charged with finding a 5 percent across the board cut. Police and fire are exempt so far, at least as far as the Mayor is concerned, but others may insist that those budgets be looked at as well.

At the end of the day, the council can say that it couldn’t find the cuts, and raise the millage anyway. Taxpayers will have to be notified that the ‘rollback’ rate, which would actually be an increase, to the tune of some $200,000. But the council seems willing to take that risk.

Here at the beach, we’ve got a bit of a double whammy on the horizon. If there’s a City of Jacksonville tax increase, and that’s certainly not a sure thing, it will be piled on a possible increase here as well. Property values here in Neptune Beach have fallen 4 to 5 percent, and that is a big bite in the budget for our little town. We might be in for a double gouge on the tax front.

I guess that, since I can’t just make more money, or increase taxes on my own, I’ll have to find some way to 1) make more money or 2) cut spending. Neither one is easy, but it’s the choice lot’s of us are being required to make.

Either way, it’s going to be a lean budget year all the way around.

Sig

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Filed under Beach Living, City Budget, City Council, Thoughts

A Smaller Property Tax Bump

Peyton The numbers are in, and Mayor John Peyton will be proposing a smaller property tax increase than originally thought. Why? It seem that the tax rolls came rolling in, and while our property values have gone down, they haven’t decreased as much as originally expected.

This is a good thing in so many ways.

First the official numbers from the Mayor’s Office. A hat tip to whomever it was that got my e-mail to Misty Skipper, who sends out such things. (Shameless plug alert) It’ll come in handy as I host the new Jacksonville Observer Radio Show on WBOB beginning next Wednesday at 5:00. </SP>

Property values in Duval County have dropped $3.5 billion when compared to last year, according to the Mayor’s office news release. That’s a pretty healthy drop, but not as much as originally expected. In fact, it’s less than had been originally forecast when the Mayor went before the public and media and said he’d have to propose a 1.2 mil property tax increase which would have cost the “average” Duval County homeowner $115 a year.

With today’s announced revisions in the property assessments, Mayor John Peyton will propose to the Jacksonville City Council a 9.50 millage rate for the upcoming fiscal year, an increase over the current year of 1.02 mills. This increase is estimated to cost the average Duval County homeowner $97 next year.

The news release goes on to say;

All budget planning to date has been based upon previous estimates and projections by the property appraiser. The receipt of the certified tax roll allows for final determination of revenue lost to the city’s general fund and the setting of the mayor’s proposed millage rate for fiscal year 2009/2010.

Based on the final numbers, the city has an estimated $170 million budget challenge in the upcoming fiscal year.  Of that total, $100 million is driven by Tallahassee-forced property tax reform, $40 million by increased pension costs and $30 million by the global economic collapse.

Downtown River 1 Mayor Peyton still has a steep hill to climb getting the council to sign off on the increase, but after having watched “Pitchmen” all season, getting under that $100 price point may be critical. And with the lower numbers, it might require only 13 votes rather than 15.

We’re lucky in our little corner of the world that things have held pretty steady here in Neptune Beach, at least according to Realty Track. Looking at the Property Appraisers website, I find for tax purposes my little castle has apparently lost about $20,000 in value over the past year, which I suppose isn’t too bad, considering. It’s still well ahead of what we owe, which is a good thing. But that $97 is pretty meaningless out here, as those of us who live in communities with interlocal agreements are double taxed anyway. We have to pay for our own police force and other city services. and we’ve paid garbage fees for years.

So, the debate may have gotten a little quieter with this new assessment. There is a camp out there that says any tax increase is bad. I can’t say I’m solidly in the camp, but tax increases need to have a solid foundation in fact to be the least bit palatable. A city without the amenities to which we’ve become accustomed wouldn’t be all that great either, nor would one that’s bankrupt. City government does not have a choice as to whether to balance the budget, and it’s a sure bet that cutting the $4,000 or so that was spent for the Mayor to go to the Paris Air Show isn’t going to close the $170 million dollar “challenge” that the city faces.

This could be a critical turning point in Jacksonville’s history. But as former President Bush learned with his famous “Read My Lips” line, one should never say never.

Sig

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Filed under City Budget, City Council, City Government, Politics, Property Taxes, Thoughts

The Debate Begins Tomorrow

Peyton Mayor Peyton has floated the idea of a property tax increase. And a pretty healthy one. 8.4 to 9.6 mils, or about 14%. The impetus is a $60 million gap in the city budget. City, police, and fire pensions have an enormous unfunded liability, and and we spend less per capita on almost every major service than any other major metropolitan area in the state.

The millage rate has steadily declined since 1992, and has only increased in three years since 1972. The rest of the time, it’s either declined or remained flat. Mayor Delaney was famous for his long string of millage rate cuts. As property values rose, the millage could be cut and revenues would still increase. Add to that the (non binding) referendum that passed in 1991 that capped property tax increases at 3 percent. Coincidentally (?) 1992 was the last year that property taxes actually went up, and then only .09 mil. So the 1.2 mil increase proposed would be the largest property tax increase since Jake Godbold bumped taxes 1.75 mils in 1983 … and the rate had dropped 2 mils the previous year. Not surprisingly, property tax revenues peaked in 2007, after the huge run-up in property values in 2006, and even then Mayor Peyton was telling us how tight the budget was going to be. The past two years, the decline in property values, and by extension revenues, has be steep.

The JCCI budget study said very clearly that revenues had to increase, or spending had to be cut. Since we are required to have a balanced budget, those are the choices. Property taxes were not specifically mentioned, but given the headroom that’s available in our millage rate, the state allows up to 20 mils, and the fact that property taxes can be used to replenish the general fund where fees often have strings attached, that’s most likely the easiest place to go.

There are so many factors to be considered. Unfunded mandates from the state are also and issue, and it doesn’t even touch the levy for schools. It is a very deep, complex, and frankly ugly issue. When they talk about watching the sausage being made … welcome to the meat grinder.

Interestingly, The Florida Times-Union is reporting that it interviewed 18 of 19 council members, and they all said that while a property tax increase was not their first choice, they could be convinced. There will be enormous political pressure to not raise property taxes.  And with a campaign coming up, not only for Mayor but for the council seats as well, the debate should be spirited. Particularly since there are two or three members of the council who are eyeing the office at the other end of the 4th floor at City Hall. DSC_5938

Property owners are understandably concerned. Adding a tax during a recession, when people are struggling to pay their bills anyway, makes people who own property nervous. In an unscientific poll in “The Jacksonville Observer”, the responses are overwhelmingly in favor of cutting spending rather than raising taxes, or a combination of both cuts and revenue increases. On the other side of that coin, many of the local non-profit organizations who depend on money from the city to survive and provide a certain level of service are breathing a cautious sigh of relief.

There are no easy answers, nor even particularly politically palatable ones. There’s an old saying about a rock and a hard place. After sitting through most of the JCCI meetings, I’d have to say we’re pretty much there. The quote from JCCI’s Ben Warner in the T-U pretty much sums it up. “Business as usual won’t work and doing nothing is not an option,” he told the paper. “There are no non-painful choices.”

Mayor Peyton holds a news conference on the topic tomorrow morning at 10 at the T-U Center downtown. I have to be here in the morning, but I’m hoping I can get away in enough time to get down there for some of the news conference. Whether I’m able to get there or not, the debate begins tomorrow, and the Mayor’s budget is due in a couple of weeks.

Everyone who owns property, and probably those who rent (because landlords WILL pass along a tax increase to their renters eventually) should be watching.

Sig

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Filed under Budgets, City Budget, City Council, City Government, Jacksonville City Council, Local Elections, Local Government, Politics, Thoughts

Financing Jacksonville’s Future

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.

JCCI

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.

The study results, which are available on the JCCI Website, are somewhat surprising.

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.

jaxflag 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.

Sig

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Filed under Budgets, City Budget, City Government, JCCI, Thoughts