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- 2014 - August - 5th -

Council: Millage bump, no; sales tax, maybe

By David Chapman, Staff Writer

Richard Clark and Bill Gulliford often see eye-to-eye on City Council matters.

When it came to possibly raising property taxes, they didn’t.

The disagreement played out Monday, the last day council had to set a tentative millage rate to send homeowners for the coming year.

Clark was for it. Gulliford wasn’t.

Clark made a last-minute proposal to his colleagues to raise the rate by 0.8826 mills, which would be enough to raise about $40 million a year. That’s the same annual amount a pension deal on the table would make the city pay, above and beyond what it owes each year.

He also wanted the pension board to give the city $61 million from reserves slated to pay down the liability over the next couple of years. Instead, it could be used to pay off the $55 million or so Clark has said the budget should not spend from reserves, as Mayor Alvin Brown’s budget seeks.

Raising revenue is the only way to help the city’s daunting pension situation, he said.

“Nobody wants to do it, I don’t want to do it … but where else do we go?” said Clark, this year’s Finance Committee chairman.

Gulliford, though, wasn’t on board.

Just after Clark’s proposal, the Rules Committee chairman pitched his own.

Reading a prepared statement, he criticized Brown’s budget as “irresponsible” and didn’t want just property owners to bear the costs of paying down liability. Instead, he said he’s directed the Office of General Counsel to draft a local bill for the Legislature to place a 15-year half-cent sales tax on the ballot. If passed, the money would come from a wider range of sources, not just homeowners, and could be limited to paying down the pension.

“I know this will be longer and harder, but if we achieve it, we can say we did it right and not for the sake of expediency,” said Gulliford.

After, sides publicly starting forming.

Council member Warren Jones favored Clark’s idea, saying it could help support anti-crime initiatives at a time when they’re needed.

Others, including Lori Boyer, Doyle Carter and John Crescimbeni, didn’t like it as much, instead favoring a sales-tax avenue.

Clark offered to remove the $61 million part of his idea, but ultimately he couldn’t convince enough of his colleagues — his amendment failed by a 12-6 vote.

He said afterward he was “obviously disappointed” with the outcome and thought “we just took a step backward.”

If council should later decide it needs to raise the rate above what is advertised to homeowners, it would costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to resend. Lowering the amount wouldn’t trigger the same requirement.

As for the sales-tax idea, it will be pursued further starting today. Gulliford has scheduled a 4 p.m. meeting today on the topic.

The property-tax vote comes days before the Finance Committee begins its lengthy review of Brown’s budget. It also served as a forum, of sorts, for council members to talk about options.

One idea is to use last year’s budget as a starting point for discussion, meaning departmental increases Brown pitched wouldn’t be included.

Another, coming from Gulliford, is to pass Brown’s budget as is with one key exception: replace his reserves-spending with extraordinary lapses. Almost $65 million of the unidentified cuts were part of Brown’s proposal last year, with council members raising the millage rate to help offset costs.

Bill Bishop, a candidate opposing Brown in the 2015 mayoral election, said the idea had merit and sends a strong message of “do your job.”

The first review starts at 9 a.m. Thursday and includes an overview, Public Service Grants, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department.

dchapman@baileypub.com

(904) 356-2466

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