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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Apr. 29, 202106:27 PM EST

Some Council members want voters to decide gas tax increase

If calls for a ballot initiative are rejected, the $1 billion infrastructure and Skyway funding plan could see a final vote by May 25.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

Some Jacksonville City Council members opposed to legislation that would extend and double Duval County’s local option gas tax want to take the proposal to a voter referendum. 

Council member Aaron Bowman was the first lawmaker to propose the referendum during an April 29 Committee of the Whole meeting. The 10-year gas tax extension and 6-cent per gallon increase would raise $1 billion for infrastructure projects and to expand the Skyway.

Bowman said he agrees with Mayor Lenny Curry and Council President Tommy Hazouri, who introduced the gas tax extension, that the city has underfunded infrastructure needs. 

But Bowman argued that increasing Duval County’s gas tax to the 12 cents per gallon allowed by state law would take away a potential revenue source from future Councils seeking to fund projects.

Opponents of the bill also question the impact the tax increase would have on Duval County’s low-income residents. 

“Why are we thinking that you want to put the pressure on 19 of us (Council members) for this gas tax when we can go to the voters in a referendum and ask them, can you afford this? Is this the right thing to do?” Bowman asked.

On April 27, Hazouri and Curry introduced Ordinance 2021-0223, which would add 6 cents to Duval County’s gas tax beginning Jan. 1 for 30 years.

It also would extend Duval County’s existing gas tax from 2036 to 2046 and split the 6 cents equally with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority for the final 10 years.

The existing gas tax gives JTA 5 cents and the city 1 cent per gallon.

Two-thirds of the money generated would be spent on roads, bus stop upgrades, drainage, bridge, a second St. Johns River Ferry and other countywide infrastructure repairs.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry is seeking the gas tax increase to pay for infrastructure improvements.

JTA would spend nearly $372 million to fund its $415.96 million Downtown Skyway conversion and extension called the Ultimate Urban Circulator using automated vehicles. 

Hazouri and the Curry administration also introduced a companion bill — Ordinance 2021-0235 — that would use money freed by added gas tax revenue to spend about $100 million over two years to remove aging septic tanks and connect underserved neighborhoods to city sewers.

Jordan Elsbury, Curry’s chief of staff, said April 29 the mayor campaigned on finding the money to complete infrastructure projects.

“We got elected to make decisions like this,” Elsbury said to Bowman. 

“We’re currently going all over the community to sell this idea to them. I suspect that your votes at the completion of this process will be reflective of the way your constituents feel and that’s what we would ask you guys to do.”

Council member LeAnna Cumber, who opposed putting a 1/2-cent sales tax on the ballot in 2020 for the Duval County Public Schools infrastructure plan, said she supported asking voters to decide the fate of the gas tax increase. 

Council member Joyce Morgan said after the meeting the gas tax is “probably the best way to go” to fund needed infrastructure projects.

 She supports Curry and Hazouri’s bill but said she would consider an amendment for a voter referendum. 

“I would not have an issue with it going straight to the people,” she said. 

“I would definitely support it. Mr. Bowman brought that up. If he goes with it, I do not have a problem with that.”

Council members Al Ferraro and Danny Becton, critics of an attempt to raise Duval County’s property taxes during the 2020-21 budget hearings, told Daily Record news partner News4Jax that they would support a referendum option.

Becton and Ferraro said they would vote against the proposed gas tax bill.

Septic tanks

Council member Ron Salem and others said April 29 that they want the $100 million for septic tank remediation to pass whether or not the gas tax is approved.

Elsbury told Becton that the city could handle the $100 million in debt funding for septic tank projects without the gas tax revenue. 

Elsbury cautioned that it would increase spending without a funding mechanism. 

Becton said that Jacksonville’s population growth and steady homebuilding will add to the property tax base and bring more dollars.  

Elsbury said approving new revenue to pay for the septic tank remediation would allow the Curry administration to lobby officials in Washington, D.C., for federal money.

He referred to President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure legislation, The American Jobs Plan, or other federal sources that could have money available for Duval County’s septic tank phaseout. 

Hazouri compared septic tank remediation to the city’s efforts to address crime.

“Every septic tank that is failing impacts health, safety and welfare,” Hazouri said.

“That’s the government’s responsibility on every level … It’s not very sexy, but it’s the most important issue that’s facing us that this time.”

Vote count

The April 29 committee meeting was the first designated public forum for Council members to take a position on the tax and show who Curry administration officials and Hazouri need to sway to pass the bill.

The Council’s first vote on the gas tax and sewer bills could come at its next Committee of the Whole meeting May 12 with a final vote possible May 25.

According to the City Council Auditor’s Office, state statute requires a majority plus one — 11 votes — to approve the gas tax increase.

Whether it is linked to the gas tax extension or stands on its own, the $100 million in septic tank funding will take a 13-vote majority to pass because it amends the city’s 2020-21 capital improvement plan.

Seven of the 19 Council members have said publicly they intend to vote in favor of the gas tax: Hazouri, Morgan. Ju’Coby Pittman, Brenda Priestly Jackson, Reggie Gaffney, Garrett Dennis and Vice President Sam Newby.

Council member Matt Carlucci said at the workshop he “leans toward” passing the gas tax increase.

At least five others have opposed the bill as written: Becton, Farrow, Bowman, Cumber and Rory Diamond.

Curry officials are holding town hall meetings on the gas tax with Council members in all at-large Council districts and attending meetings at the request of city lawmakers to answer questions from residents.

As the meeting closed, Elsbury told Becton and other opponents that voters might consider their tax policy positions at the ballot box but argued the lawmakers still will see benefits if the gas tax passes.

“I suspect every person up here who is running for reelection or running for something else will talk about all of the great infrastructure projects that you get done in your district and maybe some of those will be funded by this revenue source,” Elsbury said. 

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