- 2005 - October - 5th -

Council questions Cecil deal

Bradley Parsons

The City Council took a tough first look Monday at the mayor’s proposal to reopen Cecil Field as a Navy master jet base.

The Council’s Finance Committee questioned Mayor John Peyton’s representatives about the reliability of the cost projections associated with reopening the base, the City’s cost sharing agreement with the state, and the effect of the costs on the City’s debt load. Now, the City Council’s decision on Cecil could ultimately rest on how convincing the answers sound.

To clear the former air base for the military’s return, Peyton is asking for the Council to sign off on a $50 million bond issuance to help the state pay to relocate Cecil Field’s current tenants. The state has pledged to match City dollars three to one up to $200 million to clear out Cecil.

Several of the Finance Committee members said they needed to know more about the deal before they could vote on it, much less approve it.

The big question concerns the $200 million estimate offered by Peyton and the state for the relocation of businesses operating in and around Cecil. Adam Hollingsworth, the mayor’s policy chief, said that the number represented the best estimate from the City’s Finance Division and the Jacksonville Aviation Authority. But several Council members said they wanted more detail given the City’s recent history with cost overruns on the Main Library and Courthouse projects. Council member Warren Alvarez said the City shouldn’t be subsidizing the Navy’s move at all.

“I’m having heartburn about paying the Navy when they’ve got more money than God. Fifty-million dollars won’t buy one jet plane,” said Alvarez. “By the time this thing is done, $200 million isn’t even going to touch what we’re going to have to spend.”

Other Council members suggested that hidden costs might come from lawsuits from residents or business owners who don’t want to be moved. In addition to clearing out the businesses currently operating inside Cecil, bringing the jet base to Jacksonville’s Westside would likely require surrounding homes and businesses to be either moved out of high-risk crash zones or else fitted with sound-dampening insulation.

Hollingsworth said the $200 million estimate also didn’t include the cost of relocating homes around Cecil. He said the number would be repeatedly checked at all levels of local and state government as the proposal works its way through the Council and the state Senate.

Council member Michael Corrigan questioned what would happen to the City’s cost-sharing arrangement with the state if the price tag on the relocation exceeds $200 million. The state has pledged to pay $3 for every dollar the City spends on the move. But responding to Corrigan’s question, Hollingsworth said that arrangement could only be guaranteed up to $200 million.

“Our deal with the state needs to be written as 75/25 (percent) no matter how high the cost,” said Corrigan.

Council member Suzanne Jenkins said the City should set a maximum price on how much it was willing to spend to reopen Cecil.

“Every business does that,” she said. “Heck, you do that at a garage sale.” She also worried about the effect of the bond issue on the City’s bond rating. Paying higher interest rates could force the City to cut in other areas, she said.

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