- 2012 - September - 25th -

by David Chapman, Staff Writer

City Council will finalize the fiscal 2012-13 budget tonight after close to 55 hours of committee work reviewing and altering Mayor Alvin Brown’s proposed spending plan.

The Council Finance Committee spent numerous days in August sorting through Brown’s proposal, with several members looking back at their work with mixed feelings on how it went.

“Based on what we were dealt, I thought the committee did a pretty phenomenal job,” said Council member John Crescimbeni, Finance Committee chairman.

The “what we were dealt with” mantra was echoed by several other committee members who referenced a budget hole of close to $5 million found within the first 15 minutes of review and acknowledged by administration officials.

“They didn’t give us a balanced budget,” said Council member Bill Gulliford, also a committee member. “It’s the responsibility of the administration to start with it balanced. And it didn’t get any better.”

Council member Stephen Joost said that no finance committee has had to endure such an initial deficit, one that rose to about $13 million because of accounting and posting errors.

Several committee members said the deficit was compounded by a lack of communication from the administration and others when questions were asked.

Council and committee member Johnny Gaffney called communications “atrocious,” which he said made the committee members’ jobs difficult.

Council member Clay Yarborough, also on the committee, said that monetary errors can happen — especially with new City officials in their first budget process — with a budget the size of the City’s, and that he expected the committee’s questions to be answered more clearly and more timely.

“Typically all hands should be on deck,” Crescimbeni said. “That was one of the sources of frustration.”

Like Yarborough, several members said the turnover rate within City departments and the administration likely led to a loss of institutional knowledge that contributed to Brown’s first budget proposal last year.

Several said they were willing to provide the administration some leniency because of the learning curve, but that it could have been done more efficiently.

Outside of the communications, the numbers presented just as much of a challenge, each committee member said.

“It was one of the worst budgets in the history of Jacksonville,” Gaffney said. “Where do you want to cut?”

Declining property tax revenue, along with escalated pension contributions, caused the shortfall and tough cuts, Joost said.

Cuts in services and layoffs resulted.

Yet, even as the hearings proceeded through August, new issues, such as built-in revenues through contract savings, could not be counted and a rise in health care claims led to more fiscal shortfalls.

“We put out one fire and another just keeps popping up,” Gaffney said.

Several members did say there were some successes in the budget, mainly in terms of keeping police officers from being laid off and saving a drug rehabilitation center. Gulliford was one, though he said he was not satisfied in the way it happened — by letting the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office keep $10.5 million of its savings through the year.

Crescimbeni was opposed to the amendment that allowed it, citing unfairness to other departments that were asked to reduce spending and not receiving the same allowance.

Asked what he thought were some successes, Gulliford also was more blunt.

“We got through the damn year,” he said.

As for what each expected during tonight’s full Council meeting, Finance Committee members said they expected some floor amendments to fund areas such as rights-of-way mowing — but not as many in years past.

There is no extra money within a special Council contingency fund, which means that any Council member who wants to fund one item will also have to offer an amendment to take funding away from another area.

“It’s always easy to say you want to fund something, but now you have to say where it’s coming from. I think that’s going to be a little more difficult this year,” Crescimbeni said.

Brown’s administration said it was thankful for the committee’s work given the financial circumstances.

“We really appreciate the hard work and dedication by City Council and the Finance Committee,” David DeCamp, Brown’s communications director said. “The challenges posed by falling revenue and an unexpected, large increase in pension costs made this year’s proposed budget difficult.”

DeCamp said the committee and Crescimbeni worked “tirelessly” during the process on a spending plan that “protects our taxpayers,” which is something Brown has sought.

Council and committee members Lori Boyer and Greg Anderson were unavailable for comment.

The Council meeting begins at 5 p.m. at City Hall.



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