‘Miserable’ budget process over
It wasn't easy – and sometimes it wasn't pretty – but the City Council finally approved a budget Wednesday.
The result: A property tax rate increase of about 14 percent for most Duval County residents, with the additional revenue applied mostly toward maintaining levels in areas such as public safety and quality-of-life services.
For 80 hours over several weeks, they said no to cuts, then restored many of them.
They debated for more than 12 hours the past two days, including until 2 a.m. Wednesday.
In the end, council President Bill Gulliford called it a "miserable" experience.
He said after the meeting that next year will be different. He will soon form a budget review committee led by council Vice President Clay Yarborough to review the work the council did while also diving into a comprehensive review of each department and division to better prepare the budget.
Despite the dozens of hours put in by the Finance Committee, Gulliford said the budget process tends to be "pretty shallow" and that this year much of the time was spent remedying Mayor Alvin Brown's "poor, crummy" budget.
He and others have been critical of Brown's proposal that had about $65 million in service and program reductions and millions more in "extraordinary lapses," or unidentified cuts, that took up the committee's time.
"Next year we're going to be better prepared," he said.
The council established an 11.44 millage rate for Jacksonville, an 8.15 rate for the Beaches and a 9.57 rate for Baldwin. It left about $4 million of potential revenue on the table before lowering it to those levels.
For a homesteaded house in Jacksonville valued at $150,000 and a taxable value of $100,000, owners will pay $1,144 – an increase of $140 per year.
On Wednesday evening, the council members continued to add back to the reductions. They almost unanimously voted to create a fund of nearly $2 million to combat blight and maintain abandoned properties.
Likewise, they unanimously approved $200,000 in seed money for Hemming Plaza programming and maintenance. Author Denise Lee said it would clean up the "front door" to City Hall and "side door" to restaurants and other surrounding establishments.
Council further restored amenities and children's programs by keeping almost $675,000 for pool hours and the Summer Night Lights program and $660,000 in early literacy funding.
All were on the heels of Tuesday votes to restore $450,000 to keep the Main Library open Saturdays, one of the closer and more contentious votes. And, it kept the Bob Hayes Track Meet funded at $85,000, which half a dozen people pushed for in public comment. Community centers also will stay open for the price of $240,000.
Yet, despite all the restorations that meant more spending, council members resisted temptation to lower the millage rate more than $20 million.
A proposal to allow the Police and Fire Pension Fund to use the investment policy of the state system and another to transfer the Water Street Parking Garage to the fund were denied. The change would have netted about $11 million, while the garage transfer would have provided more than $9 million.
Council member Stephen Joost lauded both concepts after the meeting, but said they were ones that ultimately couldn't be decided in haste. As for the overall budget, he said the process went well in that essential services remained funded, but there were sacrifices.
"I didn't get everything I wanted in this budget, but the other 18 people didn't either," he said.
One action he said was wrong was setting the millage rate cap too high, which meant council members had more leeway to keep adding amendments seeking funding.
While Joost said the council raised the tax rate too high, Brown opposed raising it at all.
It's a stance he has taken since running for mayor and echoed Wednesday through a statement from the administration shortly after council approved the budget.
"While the City Charter does not allow Mayor Brown to veto the City Council's tax increase, the Mayor has consistently opposed raising taxes," David DeCamp, Brown's spokesman said in the statement.
The attention now turns to Brown, who will "carefully review the Council-approved budget to determine whether he will use his line-item veto authority," according to the statement.
Council has called for a public meeting at 2 p.m. Friday for the purpose of overturning any such veto. Gulliford said council members also should plan for a similar meeting 5 p.m. Monday and remain "on call" to negate such action.
Gulliford said he didn't want to speculate on what Brown could veto.
"I'll be interested to see what he does and why he does it," Gulliford said.