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Jax Daily Record Friday, Aug. 11, 201706:00 AM EST

Mayor Curry's city budget: Police, fees start debate

Residents have expressed concerns about hiring additional officers; sheriff says it will help JSO spend more time in the community
by: David Cawton Associate Editor

City Council’s review of Mayor Lenny Curry’s 2017-18 budget began Thursday with a daylong meeting of the Finance Committee at City Hall, headlined by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office budget and the Council Auditor’s review.

It was the first of at least seven meetings scheduled over the next three weeks in which the seven-member committee will review more than $5.4 billion in proposed spending, including general revenue funds, budgets for the city’s independent agencies and other general government spending.  

One of the controversies leading up to budget talks was Curry’s request for 100 new police officers, increasing their number to 1,768.

Sheriff Mike Williams said 80 officers would be funded through six months of the year, since that would be the number of officers they could move through the academy. The rest are unfunded.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is asking for a $12.3 million overall increase in salaries to include the new officers.

According to the council auditor, the cost of another 80 officers, including salaries, equipment, and vehicles, would be $4.41 million.

In 2018-19, Williams said a full year with 100 new officers would cost the department $8.44 million.  

During the public comment portion of the last few council meetings, several residents expressed concern about adding more officers, saying it would cause more tension between the force and the community.

“We want enough officers working in neighborhoods to have the time to meet and work with them,” Williams said.

Current employment numbers, he said, don’t allow that.

“Right now, we’re just going from call to call to call,” Williams said.

If approved, Williams said the addition of new officers would be staggered throughout the year, “as fast as we can get them into the academy,” a training process he said takes up to 11 months.

Williams said officers in training are paid at 95 percent of their annual salary.

Another area of concern was the pending outsourcing of health services and its 66 JSO positions, which would take effect in November.

A new contract would be budgeted at $12 million, up from $8.3 million this year.

Williams said the benefits of having a stronger outsourced program would make up for the additional costs.

The committee agreed to move forward with most of the JSO budget, although the added police, changes to health services, and increases for professional and contractual services all will be taken up during the Aug. 25 session.

Council Auditor review

During the first three hours, Council Auditor Kyle Billy presented the Council Auditor’s Office’s budget review.

Two early points of contention dealt with fees the city charges for services, the first focusing on what was described as “loans” from the general fund to enterprise funds.

Enterprise funds represent the money the city collects from fees residents pay for services. Those fees are supposed to cover the costs of those services, without making a profit.

When those fees don’t cover operational costs, the chief financial officer can either raise fees or council can transfer money from another source of revenue, like the general fund, to make up the difference.

The proposed budget shows transfers, or “loans” of $5.38 million from the general fund to make up for the loss in revenue from solid waste and stormwater fees.

Billy recommended a fee increase so the city doesn’t have to use money from the general fund.

When asked why fees couldn’t cover the cost of solid waste services, Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa said it was because of increases in bulk waste pickup costs and the fluctuations in the recycling industry.

“There’s no value for recycling,” Mousa said, explaining that the demand for recycled products isn’t high.

He said the cost difference also is because of a new contract for recycling pickup. The city now receives about $40 for every ton of recycling that’s picked up. Mousa said a new contract could cost the city $2.6 million a year for the pickup starting Sept. 30.

Committee members declined Billy’s recommendation.

Another discussion centered on a recommendation to waive temporarily the annual review of fees, which is required by ordinance.

According to the municipal code, the chief financial officer must complete an annual review of fees, and can increase those that don’t cover at least 85 percent of the cost of providing the service they pay for, but only up to 85 percent.

To make up for a loss in revenue, city CFO Mike Weinstein said he would like the ability to raise fees to cover 100 percent of the cost to provide services, which would require changing the code.

The committee adopted the waiver recommendation, with an amendment that leaves 2016-17 fee levels in place, while the finance department begins a review of the overall policy.  

Weinstein said the administration plans to introduce legislation by the first finance committee meeting in January.

Fire and Rescue

The Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department is trying to hire an additional 42 firefighters. Chief Kurt Wilson said the increase is needed if the department is going to open two new fire stations and a temporary station in the next two years.

The department’s $217 million budget moved through without change.

The committee also reviewed budgets for the Property Appraiser, General Counsel and Tourist Development Council but there was little discussion.

Friday’s meeting will include emergency contingency funds, an area Curry wants to increase by more than $52 million.

That meeting starts at 9 a.m. at City Hall.

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