- 2014 - January - 1st -

2013 in review: City Council rewrites Mayor Alvin Brown's budget; U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown gets involved in fight over elections office

By David Chapman, Staff Writer

A millage increase, the budget. A Supervisor of Elections bidding war waged through City Council and jobs, jobs, jobs.

The past year wasn't atypical within the walls of City Hall, but there were several issues that stood out, with some taking longer to resolve.

When Mayor Alvin Brown gave council his budget for fiscal 2013-14, it called for more than $60 million in budget cuts, most of which were unidentified.

Revenue from property taxes was down and the cuts meant closing half a dozen libraries, several fire stations and community centers and hundreds of public safety jobs.

To possibly offset those cuts, Brown pitched his pension reform agreement that would save more than $40 million for the year.

Council rejected that option and in the months that followed decided to raise the millage rate to restore service level cuts. It increased the Jacksonville rate to 11.44 mills, the Beaches rate to 8.15 mills and the Baldwin rate to 9.57 mills — overall a 14 percent property tax increase for most of Duval County. For a Jacksonville home valued at $150,000 and a taxable value of $100,000, owners will pay $1,144 for the year, an increase of $140.

In all, it brought in about $61 million in additional revenue. Brown publicly opposed the move, but did not use his line-item veto power on any individual part of the budget. He could not veto the budget nor the tax increase.

During that budget, council also took a chunk of the $11 million Brown pledged for Downtown and economic development. It was found through refinancing the city's debts, with $9 million dedicated for Downtown. After council was done with the budget, about $4.1 million remained for Downtown.

The search for a new Supervisor of Elections warehouse started in 2012 and took a good part of 2013 to be resolved, Instead of requests for proposal being issued, three suitors had legislation filed on their behalf seeking to secure the warehouse lease with the city.

And, with the proposals issued through legislation, the numbers kept changing, extending the process.

The center had been at the Gateway Shopping Center 2006, costing the city about $51,000 a month in rent.

Gateway's owners were one of the groups vying for the center, but it was a group representing One Imeson in North Jacksonville that the council approved. The competition lowered rent costs by more than half of what the city was paying for Gateway

Brown's administration favored Gateway.

The debate lasted months and turned political, with council members taking sides and arguing for their proposal on the floor.

Even U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown entered the fray advocating for Gateway, telling council members the night of the vote she had "no partners in the room." After the vote, she said council members could "lose my number" if they needed support on projects.

The One Imeson decision then went to court through lawsuits, first by Gateway's owners, then by a citizens' group.

Both were dropped when the city reached an agreement to keep an early voting center at Gateway's Tax Collector's Office branch, also extending that lease.

The administration and council weren't at odds all the time, though.

Combined, the city worked on and council approved economic development deals that pledged almost 1,900 new and retained jobs and millions of dollars in capital improvement for 2013. For those jobs and investment, the city and state combined to provide $25 million in taxpayer dollars.

EverBank Field enhancements that include new video scoreboards were announced in June, but it wasn't until near the end of the budget discussions when leaders began hammering down how the city would pay for its $43 million obligation. Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan agreed to fund the other $20 million of the $63 million improvements.

In October, Brown announced the funds would come from a portion of Duval County's 6-cent bed tax. Council approved the funding source and the work is scheduled to be complete by the start of the 2014 season.

The chickens also came home to roost this year. Legislation to allow a backyard hens pilot program was approved in November after months of deliberations and tweaks, with passionate hen owners taking to public comment and meetings as a way to get their point across.

The next year should be a pivotal one for the leaders in the council seats and the mayor's chair.

At least nine spots are up for grabs in the 2015 election, as is the city's top executive office. Brown filed for re-election some time ago but does not yet have a big-name opponent.

Several council members eligible for re-election have yet to file, while a mix of new and familiar faces have jumped into races for those seats that will be term-limited.


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