- 2014 - January - 27th -

Brown, Gulliford set stage for major showdown

From the publisher: James F. Bailey Jr.

Where's Gordon Solie when we need him?

For any young man growing up in Florida in the '60s, it would be near impossible to not know the names Eddie Graham, Don Curtis or Haystack Calhoun.

And it was Solie, a young sports announcer out of the Tampa Bay area, who brought the "sport" of professional wrestling into our homes each week.

He built his career by getting to know the athletes personally and announcing the matches with minute detail and intimate personal experience.

It was about exposure of cable and these athletes were part of the plan to popularize the sport. As they became better known, they lived on the stage. They even avoided each other in public so fans didn't think it was an act.

The whole setup was strategic.

Solie used to refer to some of the matches as "human chess."

In City Hall, the plot is thickening for what promises to be epic battles, not of wrestling and ratings, but of politics and policy.

The stars are political rivals Mayor Alvin Brown and City Council President Bill Gulliford, who squared off against each other in previous match ups.

The new clashes will be a continuation of the confrontations that began in the summer when newly crowned council President Gulliford dumped both Brown's budget and his pension reform proposal.

To set the stage for the latest battle, Gulliford filed legislation to extend the city's 6-cent gas tax, which is opposed by the mayor.

And last week, Brown's proposal to take $40 million a year more from the JEA for 14 years to help fix the city's pension crisis was quickly body slammed by Gulliford as an attempt by the mayor to "create magic out of thin air."

Gulliford taunted Brown by referring to his idea as "voodoo."

What happens with the gas tax and the pension crisis will have a major impact on Jacksonville's future economic development, quality of life and financial stability.

It's been a long time since a council president and the mayor have openly been at such obvious and public odds.

In the past when there were differing opinions, more often than not, discussions would be held in private and public utterances of opposition were not so blunt.

Most council presidents have worked with previous mayors to enact mutually agreed upon policy without the open bitterness.

But, Gulliford has made it clear that he isn't intimidated, nor is he timid when it comes to criticizing Brown's policies or his leadership.

As an intriguing backdrop, it's no secret that Gulliford is weighing whether to run against Brown in 2015.

That might cause many to wonder if his strong and vocal opposition to Brown's positions have as much to do with politics as it does policy. Whether he runs or not, I think Gulliford would be doing the same thing.

With the JEA proposal, it looks like Brown is once again throwing out a concept and letting it just hang there, waiting for someone else to make it happen.

That's what Brown did last summer when he presented a budget to the council with no

tax increase and more than $60 million in mostly unidentified cuts.

He left it to council members, who spent nearly 80 hours to break it down and do the right thing.

That's also what Brown did with his original pension proposal that Gulliford and the council quickly killed because they said it did not do enough to solve the massive problem. In this case, the Civic Council and the JAX Chamber agreed with Gulliford.

And now it looks as if we are at it again.

Last week, when presenting his proposal to siphon $40 million more from the JEA, it became apparent that Brown never had prior substantive discussions about the dollar figure needed with JEA executives, board

members or members of the council to determine if his plan had viability.

Former council president Bill Bishop, who is the council's liaison with the JEA, was quick to comment, "I think there is a lot of wishful thinking in it."

Brown's surprise announcement prompted a predictable response by JEA Chair Mike Hightower that the mayor was asking the authority to raise electric rates to fund Brown's proposal.

In a letter to the Times-Union, former authority board member and chair Ashton Hudson said if the utility complies with Brown's suggestion, it would mean higher electric rates, have a negative impact on the JEA's credit rating, harm economic development and have a disproportionate impact on low-income and fixed-income families.

If $40 million a year was available, Hudson said, the JEA "would have considered lowering rates for its customers."

Gulliford echoed Hudson, saying if the JEA had an extra $40 million it would pay down debt, lower rates and improve services.

I have to wonder why Brown is proposing something that may force electric rate hikes when he has been so adamant about his own unwillingness to support any tax increases.

Caught in the middle of all of this is mayoral-appointed Bill Scheu and his 16-member Retirement Reform Task Force.

The group has been working diligently for several months and is expected to make its recommendations to the mayor and council within the next few weeks.

It makes sense that Brown's $40 million JEA proposal, "voodoo" or not, will end up on a list of suggestions from the task force, as will an increase in property taxes.

Like I said, whether it's wrestling and ratings or politics and policy — along with some very disagreeing personalities — we may be on a collision course, setting up some exciting public matches this spring.

I'm no Gordon Solie, but I'll do my best to keep you engaged.


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