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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Apr. 1, 202103:16 PM EST

Curry: Gas tax could free money for projects beyond septic tank removal

The Jacksonville mayor told a business group March 30 he wants City Council members to propose additional projects in need of funding.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry says city general revenue money freed by a proposed gas tax increase could pay for projects in addition to septic tank removal. 

At a March 30 meeting with the Southside Business Men’s Club, Curry said he wants to hear from City Council members where the unencumbered money should be spent.

“The big proposal is septic tanks. We have neglected septic tanks for decades because the problem is too big. It’s a multibillion project. We’re going to take a bite out of the apple,” Curry said. 

“But also we can maybe set aside some other dollars to do some other projects as well and collaborate with City Council members,” he said.

“Because they’re in touch with their constituents about what those problems might be.”

The city and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority want Council to approve a 10-year extension of the Duval County gas tax to 2046 and increase it from 6 cents to 12 cents per gallon.

JTA and the city will propose advancing a combined $930.2 million in roadway, drainage and transportation improvements with the revenue.

The city and JTA would split the money equally.

Curry and Council leaders expect the tax will result in $1 billion in revenue over 25 years. That could free up $300 million to $400 million in the city general fund that the mayor said in a March 18 news conference would be put toward Duval County’s estimated $2 billion failing septic tank problem.

After the Southside Business Men’s Club meeting, Curry said he doesn’t have a specific plan where dollars remaining after his septic tank plan should be spent. 

“My focus is going to be recommending septic tank (phaseout). I really want to work with Council members to think of things they may think they need in their districts,” he said.

Curry has been meeting with Jacksonville-area civic groups to gain public support for the gas tax increase since the city and JTA’s announcement March 18 of what they have branded the “Jobs for Jax” plan.

He told the Southside business group his fiscal year 2020-21 Capital Improvement Plan, at $239 million, is not enough to care for Jacksonville’s backlog of infrastructure needs. 

“We’ve had decades of neglect on infrastructure. So, I don’t want to raise property taxes,” he said. 

“I think that the gas tax is the best way forward. It will give us $1 billion-plus and the ability to do infrastructure.” 

Jacksonville Transportation Authority wants to spend $371.96 million to expand the Skyway.

Council support and oversight 

Administration officials need to convince a majority of Council members to support the tax increase and extension. 

Curry said March 30 he doesn’t know when the gas tax legislation will be filed, but he already is facing opposition from Council members of his own party. 

Council member LeAnna Cumber, a District 5 Republican from San Marco, said March 29 that the JTA’s plan to use $371.96 million from the tax revenue to modernize and expand the Downtown Skyway is a “non-starter” for her. 

JTA leaders want to extend the Skyway’s service to Riverside and Five Points, Springfield, UF Health Jacksonville and Jacksonville’s Southside medical complex corridor. 

The transportation authority plans to replace the elevated monorail system with automated vehicles in its Ultimate Urban Circulator program.

Cumber said a broader discussion is worth having on how to fund transportation infrastructure locally.

“I can’t even comment on the other projects that might be funded with it because I can’t support anything that’s dedicating almost $400 million to a system that should have been torn down in the ’90s,” she said. 

JTA began operating the system in 1989 after it received $23 million in federal funds in 1985 to build what was then called the Automated Skyway Express. Construction began in 1987.

In an April 1 text message, District 13 GOP council member Rory Diamond called the proposed Skyway upgrades a “massive waste of money.” 

Diamond says he won’t support any tax increase for Duval County. 

“While I commend Mayor Curry for taking on our aging infrastructure, I’ve never voted for a tax or fee increase, and I’m not going to start today,” he said. 

Curry does have support from Council leadership on the tax extension with caveats. 

Finance Committee Vice Chair and frequent Curry critic Garrett Dennis says he supports the gas tax in concept, but will need protections for the septic tank dollars written into the legislation to gain his support.

“If we’re using the 6 cent tax to fund infrastructure to free up the CIP money for septic tanks, it’s going to be used for that,” Dennis said. “Not a shell game to really fund some entertainment zone under the guise of a 6 cent tax hike.”

In separate interviews this week, Council President Tommy Hazouri and Finance Committee Chair Matt Carlucci said they are working with the mayor’s office to build a citizens oversight committee into the tax legislation.

Carlucci said he wants the committee to have 12 members — six to monitor financial appropriations and six to vet the gas tax projects. 

Under Carlucci’s proposed structure, Curry, Council and the JTA each would appoint four committee members. 

Hazouri and Carlucci are asking the administration to prioritize citizen input.

Carlucci said administration officials have agreed to hold five large town meetings.

The meetings will be in the five at-large Council districts, according to Hazouri. 

Curry said he has not discussed a citizens review committee but would not rule out the proposal.  

“No one has sat and talked to me about that. I’ll get debriefed with my staff, but I’m open to ideas. We’re working through it,” Curry said. 

“We’re making the sausage, if you will, right now.”

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