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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Jul. 22, 201412:00 PM EST

Questions about the budget, bungling the water-taxi issue and whether $385 an hour is too much for ex-general counsel

by: James F. Bailey Jr.

You may remember at this time last year, it was City Council Finance Committee member Richard Clark who stepped forward and first proposed raising the property tax rate to restore a gap of more than $60 million in city services that Mayor Alvin Brown had eliminated in his 2013-14 budget.

Clark, who is a conservative voice on the 19-member council, caught a lot of folks by surprise with his bold recommendation.

But, it also sparked a discussion that concluded with council members voting to raise the tax rate 1.4 mills above what Brown had proposed. The mayor protested but let the budget become law without his signature.

When Brown submitted his 2014-15 budget to council last week, instead of proposing a roll back of the tax rate, he submitted a spending plan that uses all of the money from last year’s higher rate, while also dipping into city’s rainy-day fund.

This year it’s Clark who chairs the Finance Committee.

On Tuesday, the committee will recommend a tax rate for the 2014-15 budget as required by state law. The proposal will not be binding, but it will give residents a good idea of what they may have to pay next year.

I don’t expect we will see a repeat of Clark or others stepping up to push for another tax hike.

There seems to be no interest among council members for raising taxes again this year, considering the cold reception at the suggestion by Council Auditor Kirk Sherman that the committee increase the rate by one mill to give it “flexibility” during the budget process.

A lot of members are waiting to see if Sherman labels Brown’s proposed budget “balanced,” since it has faced some criticism for using a portion of the city’s reserves.

Plus, some members like John Crescimbeni are uncomfortable that Brown wants to borrow up to $230 million from the city’s banking fund.

“I don’t know if I want to put that on the city’s credit card,” Crescimbeni said.

Former council President Bill Gulliford has suggested that if Sherman says the mayor’s budget is unbalanced the council should return it and tell Brown to fix it.

While there might be some sentiment for that, this council already has shown that it is not timid about taking things out of Brown’s hands — and doing its own things.

Water taxi issue remains a dilemma

Well, council member Don Redman’s prediction that vendors would be “lined up” to bid on the water-taxi

service for Downtown didn’t exactly come true.

Instead, the city received only two bids to restore the service.

The companies making proposals are A Marine Express LLC, headed by Daniel Dunkley, and Lakeshore Marine, headed by Frank Surface, both based locally.

It could be mid-August before the public learns what’s in the proposals.

There is no guarantee that when the two bids are analyzed they will be any more acceptable to the city than the sole bid in response to the city’s first request for proposals that was tossed out.

In the meantime, the city is trying to complete a deal with Multi Marine Services of Atlantic Beach to use the two boats purchased by businessman Harry Frisch to provide temporary service for six months.

Before that happens, the city and Frisch need to finalize the deal for the two boats, which then need to be inspected by the Coast Guard.

This whole water-taxigate may be one of the clumsiest bureaucratic bungles of the Brown administration.

Instead of solving the problem, I think the city’s latest RFP complicated things even further because it makes it incredibly difficult for any water-taxi company to make money.

That’s evidenced by just two responses from companies that have no water-taxi experience.

Conservatively, with a licensed captain, a deckhand and fuel, it costs a water taxi operator close to $1,000 a day to run the vessels. You do the math.

That means the taxis must take in $365,000 a year before the operator makes a nickel.

Add to the fact that whoever operates the water taxi must do so seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. A lot of those days — in fact on many of those days when there aren’t special events going on Downtown — ridership is far from its peak.

In addition to running every day, there are additional expenses for docking the taxis at night, maintenance and repairs, not to mention the investment that runs close to $2,000 per seat to buy the boats.

Did I mention the Southbank Riverwalk is under construction, meaning the water taxi has fewer productive stops on its route?

And, finally, to make matters worse, the city has said that on those occasions when there are big events like Jaguars games at EverBank Field, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival or the Florida Country Superfest, it reserves the right to bring in outside vendors to carry passengers.

That means that the operator who has to provide service every day of the year and to places where there are no passengers, must either share or lose out on the days when there is the best opportunity to make a profit.

With a majority of the service running a regular route throughout Downtown, most days, a small 30-passenger vessel can accommodate the riders. I’m not sure how the 100-passenger vessel purchased by the city fit into the business plan.

It seems it will spend a lot of time sitting on the dock waiting for those special events.

The service is considered a loss leader in many communities because of its importance in providing a reliable and positive experience for citizens and visitors.

It should fall within the responsibility of economic development and/or the auspices of the tourist and development group.

It seems the city is cold to the idea of subsidizing the service, but isn’t giving a vendor the boat for six months at no charge a subsidy?

We offer incentives for redevelopment, retail enhancement or business that we want to operate in our Downtown.

Something must give, and I hope it’s city officials who will finally realize that providing water-taxi service Downtown is an economic and quality-of-life amenity that we need and a public service we cannot afford to lose.

Laquidara may be best option for cases

There is one issue coming up that many council members would probably like to duck.

At its meeting Tuesday, the council could decide if it is going to pay outside counsel up to $385 an hour to represent the city in ongoing lawsuits.

The rub may be that the lawyer is Cindy Laquidara, who recently retired as general counsel.

And, the council must make its decision as an emergency, since acting General Counsel Jason Gabriel says the trials begin in early August and Laquidara needs to be hired now.

City Ethics Director Carla Miller, a lawyer herself, is critical of the request and says the council should take its time to deliberate and consider less-costly options.

Both Gabriel and Laquidara are respected attorneys and there is probably a sentiment among most council members to approve the deal Tuesday night.

It’s not like this was a surprise, since Laquidara announced she was leaving the city for private practice, some time ago.

You have to wonder why this wasn’t suggested much earlier. It may not look right, but this may all be highly proper.

Either way, as a taxpayer, I would like the best lawyer to handle the case and resolve the lawsuits as efficiently and effectively as possible.

In this case, Laquidara may be the best option.

The council often is leery of emergency actions.

Members could ask for more time and the general counsel could ask the courts for a delay, but I’m not sure the council would come back next month with a different solution.

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