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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Jul. 16, 201412:00 PM EST

Council questions Mayor Alvin Brown's use of banking fund and reserves in budget

by: David Chapman

Mayor Alvin Brown’s budget would allow borrowing up to $230 million from the city’s banking fund and, depending on how it’s calculated, pulling $17 million to $38 million in city reserves.

Is it too much?

It’s one of the early questions and concerns City Council members are wrestling, a day after Brown presented his $1 billion budget.

“We are spending a lot of money,” said council member John Crescimbeni. “It would be great to spend all the money … but I don’t know if I want to put that on the city’s credit card to make that happen.”

The banking fund typically has been associated with the “credit card” reference when it comes to spending because it’s borrowing, mostly for infrastructure projects.

Brown’s budget has plenty of those — his Capital Improvement Plan for fiscal 2014-15 was pitched at $112 million and contemplates $100 million coming from the fund. Some of those projects include remediation of ash sites ($12.3 million), infrastructure improvements to the Jacksonville Landing ($11.8 million) and roadway widening and resurfacing ($9.9 million), according to a breakdown of spending provided Tuesday by the council auditor’s office.

Combined with the banking fund being used for other large spending areas — $50 million for solid waste and $8 million for stormwater, among others — the total proposed spending is $230 million.

“It seems like Christmas in July with this budget,” said council member Matt Schellenberg.

Additionally, Brown is seeking to pull $17 million from reserves for investments, referring to it Monday as a “modest share” of such available funds.

Council Auditor Kirk Sherman told Finance Committee members Tuesday the $17 million figure actually is higher — it doesn’t contemplate the $13.4 million from the Shipyards settlement and $7.5 million of savings from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. That would push it up to $38 million. And when taken from a general fund reserves account that last had $65 million — instead of a larger overall account Brown uses in the budget — it would put in jeopardy the legally mandated 5-7 percent amount needed in reserves.

Chris Hand, Brown’s chief of staff, in an email said there’s a difference between current reserves — where the $17 million would come — and the Shipyards and sheriff’s office money, which are “anticipated reserves.” Hand said the administration met with Sherman’s team on the issue Tuesday afternoon and expects to meet again later this week.

Upon hearing Sherman’s explanation during Finance, council member Bill Gulliford wanted clarification in the form of a legal opinion from the Office of General Counsel. If Brown’s plan doesn’t leave enough in reserves, Gulliford wanted to know it was considered a legally balanced budget.

The concerns over the borrowing and taking from reserves were common early themes among several council members interviewed Tuesday.

“I think we need to live within our means,” said council member Lori Boyer.

Likewise, Schellenberg said borrowing as much as is being proposed for a slew of projects is not doing so.

That means council members could be in the position where they have to analyze each project to determine if the projects, as council member Greg Anderson described it, “meet the standard” of adding enough value to borrow so much.

One way to possibly help pay for such spending didn’t gain momentum Tuesday.

Sherman suggested council members set a tentative higher millage notice of 1 mill to provide homeowners. That notice needs to be set by Aug. 4. Setting a higher tentative rate would mean council come back and lower it any time, but raising it would require sending out additional notifications.

Four Finance members went on record against the idea.

“I can’t see that being conceivable when we have had an increase in revenue,” Boyer said.

The city’s property tax revenue increased almost $19 million this year. Council approved a millage rate increase last year to cover budget shortfalls.

Despite the overall concern, council members did say there were some positive ideas.

Anderson mentioned the investment in the sheriff’s office and public safety. Crescimbeni likewise has been a proponent of the community service officer program, which could have 40 members return because of Brown’s budget.

Schellenberg said included improvements to sidewalks and infrastructure in Mandarin have been something he’s pushed for some time.

But, like other council members, such positives come with the caveat of the source of the funding.

Borrowing so much, several said, isn’t feasible.

The Finance Committee is scheduled to have a special meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday to further discuss the capital improvement plan, which has a majority of such spending.

The group begins its in-depth budget review Aug. 7.

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