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Jax Daily Record Monday, Sep. 2, 201312:00 PM EST

Downtown fund loses millions

by: David Chapman

An $11 million fund primarily dedicated for Downtown economic development stands at $3.66 million after a City Council panel approved shifting money to help public safety vehicle and technological needs.

The Council Finance Committee approved transfers of $5.5 million and $447,000 from the fund Friday morning to purchases for the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department. The panel later approved another $1.4 million transfer for other vehicle replacements.  

Mayor Alvin Brown proposed a $9 million fund for Downtown revitalization and $2 million for countywide development in January. The funds were garnered from savings on refinancing city bonds.

Council approved the move in March, but in recent months several members began questioning whether the funds should be used as part of the fiscal 2013-14 budget.

Council member Richard Clark led the push to do just that during the Aug. 9 budget review, placing the funds into a council-controlled capital projects fund.

After that move, council member Don Redman told the Downtown Investment Authority during an Aug. 15 meeting that discussion around City Hall was that the board was losing its ability to operate independently when Brown's administration took over negotiating several Downtown projects.

The citywide projects plan, where the funds were moved, was reviewed Friday.

Clark made the motion to allocate the funds for the vehicles and computers, which was approved but not unanimously.

Council member John Crescimbeni told the committee he thought the money was allocated to the authority for a specific purpose and he viewed it as capital money for Downtown.

"We're taking money that was set aside by a council vote to invest in Downtown and now we have taken it back to buy depreciating assets," Crescimbeni said after the meeting.

"Depreciating assets ought to be bought with general fund dollars," he said.

During the meeting, the council sought an opinion from the authority about the potential move, which brought Jim Bailey, publisher of the Financial News & Daily Record, to the podium.

"Downtown has grown up screwed up," said Bailey, who sits on the authority board. "The mayor gave us $9 million to do what we needed to do Downtown."

He said it was "imperative" to show citizens a return-on-investment. Bailey said the recent hiring of CEO Aundra Wallace was positive momentum toward the authority setting and achieving its goals.

"I think it's an easy fix, but we have got to have this money to do that," Bailey said.

Council member Clay Yarborough voted for the transfer and said afterward that despite the takeaway, the fund still leaves a "significant amount" for the authority to do its business.

"What I believe the council still needs to see is detail on how we would like to move forward in using the dollars," Yarborough said.

Wallace said after the meeting that he was new to the budget process but understood the decisions the Finance Committee has to make when establishing the city budget.

He said he would continue to advocate with council members to restore the funds.

David DeCamp, Brown's spokesman, said the administration would continue to work with council members during the budget review, but that the mayor backs the authority and it needs resources to help revitalize Downtown.


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